Of all the countries in the region, the war in Ukraine has put Turkey in the most difficult geopolitical position.

‘War is the realm of the unexpected”, said the noted British military theorist, Basel Liddell Hart, years ago. Russia’s war on Ukraine is certainly proving him right. Who would have thought only a few months or so ago that the US would be cosying up to Venezuela, a top Putin ally in Latin America? Or that UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson would be rehabilitating Mohammed bin Salman, previously accused of ordering the murder of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with his servile visit to Saudi Arabia? The reason in both cases, of course, is oil. After all, if you want to reduce your dependency on Russia, you need to get your oil from somewhere else. And for this to happen, you have to set aside little things like crimes against humanity. It’s called ‘realpolitik’.
But what do you do if two of your partner-countries go to war with each other? Which do you support? This is the problem currently occupying many minds in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. For a long time, Turkey has profited from strong ties with both Moscow and Kyiv. Although Turkish President Recep Erdogan and Russia’s President Putin often compete, they have also partnered in operations in Syria, Libya, and the Southern Caucuses. In 2019, Turkey procured the S-400 ground-to-air missile system from Russia, a decision that poisoned its relations with the US.
Turkey also trades heavily with Ukraine and before the current war had ambitious plans to foster defence-industrial cooperation between the two countries. It has not gone unnoticed that the Turkish-made drones have been used with a devastating effect by Ukraine against its Russian invaders. But there’s an even deeper relationship between Turkey and Ukraine. Not only has Ankara repeatedly and vehemently denounced Russia’s ‘illegal annexation of Crimea’, insisting that Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected, but Turkey has unique historical relations and ties with the Tartar people of Crimea. Ever since the 2014 annexation, Turkey has complained that the leaders of the Tatar community have not been allowed to enter their ‘historical homeland’, and that ‘unjustified legal procedures and illegal detentions targeting Tartars of Crimea are intensifying’.
Add to all this the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO and a regional heavyweight, Ankara is under great pressure to pick a side. But which?
Early signs indicated that Turkey was siding with Ukraine, when President Erdogan agreed to Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy’s request to close the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to naval shipping. This, however, was largely symbolic as, although it prevented Russia from sending extra ships to attack Ukraine, its Black Sea Fleet was already deployed.
But Turkey has not given up on Russia. Since it is not a member of the European Union, it’s not bound to observe the EU sanctions on Russia, arguing that it was essential to protect its own economy and it would also keep the door open to a dialogue with Russia. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has become a major source of tourists to Turkey’s Mediterranean resorts as well as a lucrative market for exporters and construction companies. Turkey also turned to Russia for energy, not only getting the majority of its natural gas, but also signing a deal with Russia’s state-owned Rosatom to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant at Akkuyu, due to come online next year.
Of all the countries in the region, the war in Ukraine has put Turkey in the most difficult geopolitical position. Turkey has so much at risk because it isn’t just balancing its strategic partnership with Ukraine and its complex relations with Russia, it is also walking a tightrope to balance its NATO commitments and its security concerns in the region.
This balancing act risks becoming unravelled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since the 2014 Maidan revolution, Turkey and Ukraine’s developing strategic partnership, based around defence cooperation, hasn’t set well with Russia. Last October, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented on the deployment by Ukrainian forces of the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone to strike a position in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists. “We have really good ties with Turkey, but in this situation, our fears are unfortunately being realised that the deliveries of these types of weapons to the Ukrainian military can potentially destabilise the situation,” Peskov told reporters. Neutral observers have noted that nothing has ‘destabilised the situation’ in the region more than Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine. As if to send Moscow a clear message that he would not be pressurised into curtailing Turkey’s relationship with Ukraine, President Erdogan visited Kyiv on 3rd February this year to sign a series of new agreements, including a long-awaited free trade agreement aimed at boosting annual bilateral trade from $7.5 billion to $10 billion and, crucially, an agreement to jointly manufacture the TB2s in Ukraine using Ukrainian engines.
It was, of course, just three weeks after Erdogan’s visit that Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine, an act which will do no favours to Turkey’s economy, which only recently bounced back from the COVID-19 pandemic. Inflation hit nearly fifty percent in January, following Erdogan’s series of unorthodox interest rate cuts. The current conflict has only added to the economic headwinds as it will contribute to keeping inflation in Turkey high for longer and threaten to weigh on the tourism recovery. Travel and tourism accounted for more than twelve percent of Turkey’s GDP in 2019, and about a quarter of Turkey’s tourists are Russian or Ukrainian. Just one reason why this war is a disaster for Turkey.
But using the principle that in every crisis lies an opportunity, Turkey’s unique position in having good ties with Russia and Ukraine, countries that it can speak to and have respect from both sides, allows it to use the current crisis to achieve some leverage on issues it cares about. Ankara alienated many countries in the Middle East because of its role in Syria, and also NATO because it purchased the S-400 system. If President Erdogan can argue that he is doing something pragmatic and playing a positive role, he could seek to use this to turn over a new leaf – possibly even with the US.
This is why Turkey is a key interlocutor between the Russian and Ukrainian sides. It was in the Turkish resort town of Antalya that the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavussoglu brokered a meeting between Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov of Russia and Dmytro Kuleba of Ukraine early last month, a meeting which ‘did not yield any concrete result’. The following week, Cavussoglu travelled to Russia and Ukraine for talks with Lavrov and Kuleba, afterwards telling reporters that there had been “rapprochement in the position of both sides on important subjects,” diplomatic speak for “there’s still a huge gap between the two sides.”
Undeterred, Cavussoglu remains optimistic that Turkey can bring the two sides together, recently publishing statements such as “Russia and Ukraine are nearing agreement on critical issues.” President Erdogan, a past master at playing his friends off against each other, has repeatedly said Turkey will not abandon its relations with Russia or Ukraine, saying that Ankara’s ability to speak to both sides was an asset. His dilemma is that if he supports a solution to save Putin’s face, this could rock the boat with his NATO allies, and vice versa. At last week’s NATO summit, it was mooted that if Turkey gave the Russian-made S-400 air defence system to Ukraine, it would obtain equivalent US Patriot missiles in return. The added sweetener was that Turkey would also return to America’s F-35 fighter programme, from which it was excluded as a punishment for the S-400 purchase. Tempting though this might be, it is likely to be a step too far for Ankara as it would destroy Erdogan’s relationship with Putin.
Four weeks into a war that has seen a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people driven from their homes and Russia failing to capture a single major Ukrainian city, there is no obvious end to the conflict. Courted by both Washington and Moscow, Turkey finds itself between a rock and a hard place, desperately trying to find a solution that will retain its political and economic investment in Russia while keeping its NATO membership intact. Only by forcing the clear red lines between the two warring sides to converge, can Erdogan find a solution, which currently looks impossible. But as the old saying goes, ‘the difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a man’s determination’, and Erdogan, with crucial presidential elections due in June next year, has plenty of that.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.