Foreign Affairs

Türkiye’s Role in the Russia-Ukraine War

Note: Türkiye is now the official diplomatic name for the country commonly referred to as Turkey.

Türkiye is currently playing a critical role in world affairs as it and its predecessor states have for millennia. Türkiye is a nation with many labels: wavering secular republic, member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), military heavyweight, frequent interventionist, potential economic dynamo, and rising great power, to name a few. Now, however, the Russo-Ukrainian War is the geopolitical flashpoint which is drawing the most eyes to Türkiye. In this conflict, Türkiye has played and will continue to play a unique role, simultaneously serving as mediator, military ally of the West, and potential fifth column in NATO.

A crucial reason for Türkiye’s importance is its geographical position. Türkiye serves as the nexus point between Europe and Asia; its Anatolian Peninsula, which comprises the vast majority of Türkiye’s landmass, has long been a cultural, economic, and military bridge between the continents. While Anatolia is commonly viewed as the most strategic part of Türkiye’s geography, current geopolitical turmoil brings focus to Türkiye’s legally recognized dominion over the Turkish Straits. The Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits are the two narrow choke points comprising the Turkish Straits, which sit on either side of the Sea of Marmara and dictate access to and from the Black Sea. Thus, it is Türkiye and Türkiye alone who decides which ships may enter and exit the Black Sea.

The 1936 Montreux Convention has led Türkiye to close the Turkish Straits to the Russian navy outside of the Black Sea, meaning that Russia’s non-Black Sea based fleets may not reinforce Moscow’s increasingly dwindling forces in the Black Sea. Undoubtedly, this is a win for Ukraine and its supporters in NATO. However, this game changing amount of leverage in the Russo-Ukrainian War makes Türkiye a key player in the fight for Ukraine’s independence.

While Turkish dominion over the Black Sea is significant, perhaps more pressing for the rest of the world is Türkiye’s control over grain exports from Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine is the leading global sunflower oil exporter and among the top five most prolific exporters of wheat, corn, barley, and rapeseed. Meanwhile, Russia is by far the most crucial exporter of wheat, accounting for nearly one-fifth of the world’s wheat exports. 

Previously, a Russian blockade of Ukraine’s harbors prevented Ukraine from shipping out their regular quantities of grain to the world markets—(although Russia allegedly stole Ukrainian grain and shipped it out under Moscow’s flag). However, on July 22, Russia and Ukraine reached a deal to allow Ukraine to resume grain exports through the Black Sea. Importantly, this agreement was brokered by none other than Türkiye. While the deal got off to a shaky start after Russian missiles bombarded the key port city of Odesa only a day after the agreement was signed, Türkiye launched a new control center where officials from Russia, Ukraine, Türkiye, and the United Nations can monitor the export of grain from Ukraine. Now, grain shipments from Ukraine are once again coming back online.

The decision to serve as a mediator for a grain export deal is logical given that securing the flow of grain leaving the Black Sea staves off a potentially massive food crisis for the developing world, granting Türkiye an international political win. Furthermore, Ankara is not simply an uninterested third party; Türkiye is a major importer of Russian wheat, making a steady flow of grain exports in the Black Sea from both Russia and Ukraine a national priority. However, Ankara has some reason to be more selective about which grain carriers it allows to go where. 

For example, Egypt is a country that depends on Russia for over 60 percent of its wheat imports, with Ukraine constituting another 20 percent of imports. Egypt also happens to be a geopolitical opponent to Türkiye’s increased assertiveness in the Middle East. If it so desired, Türkiye could restrict wheat exports exiting the Black Sea bound for Egypt, thereby causing massive turmoil in a rival state. After all, Türkiye has exercised its ability to halt ships leaving the Black Sea by temporarily detaining a Russian ship allegedly carrying stolen Ukrainian grain. While such a scenario is highly unlikely due to the amount of chaos this would cause and the new grain deal that Türkiye is genuinely seeking to maintain, the fact that it remains a possibility is another reason to pay close attention to Türkiye in the context of this war.

The temporary arrest of a Russian ship constituted only one small part of the intricate tapestry of Türkiye’s relationship with Russia. Türkiye has a long and complicated history with Russia which extends hundreds of years into the past through the predecessor states of both nations, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire. While the Ottoman and Russian empires were, for the most part, rivals, the situation is much grayer today. Although Türkiye is one of the oldest members of NATO, an organization whose raison d’être is to counter Russian expansionism in Europe, Russo-Turkish relations are far warmer than Russian relations with other NATO countries such as the Baltic states or the United States. 

Key to this relationship is the autocratic understanding shared between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Vladimir Putin is a dictator, a fact proven by his centralized grip on power, brutal suppression of protests and political dissidents, and constitutionally enshrined ability to effectively rule for life. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while not as blatantly autocratic as his Russian counterpart, is also an authoritarian leader. He has suppressed protests, forced a constitutional amendment that abolished the office of the prime minister and gave the president significantly more power, and successfully packed the Turkish Constitutional Court, the highest legal body in Türkiye.

In addition to a similar modus operandi, Putin was the first world leader to call Erdoğan and express support for him in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt—even phoning in before any leader from a NATO country. Erdoğan also somewhat recently discussed his plans with Putin to deploy Türkiye’s military into the border regions of Syria. Notably, this occurred on May 30, 2022, over three months after Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.

Personal warmth and autocratic similarities aside, however, Erdoğan—and, by extension, Türkiye—is slowly being forced to pick a side. Strategic and political concerns must ultimately outweigh all else for the leaders of governments, and in these contexts, Erdoğan must not appear to be too friendly to Putin.

First, at a geostrategic level, Moscow and Ankara frequently butt heads. In two conflicts right on Türkiye’s borders, Russia and Türkiye back different parties. In the Syrian Civil War, Ankara aids certain rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime, a close ally of Moscow. This conflict has come into greater focus as of late given the recent summit between Türkiye, Russia, and Iran in Tehran, during which the conflict in Syria, among other things, was discussed. In spite of pressure from Russia and Iran to back down from the brink of an invasion of northern Syria, Erdoğan currently seems to remain committed to his foreign policy goals in the region. Additionally, in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which is once again heating up after a period of armistice, Türkiye supports the latter while Russia backs the former, a situation which constitutes a mild proxy war. 

Furthermore, Türkiye’s decision to lift its veto on Sweden and Finland joining NATO is another point of strategic tension between Moscow and Ankara, alongside Türkiye’s more general commitment to NATO.

Second, close ties with Russia are becoming politically untenable for Erdoğan. Although the Turkish public is profoundly distrustful of NATO and, to some extent, the West in general, the most significant factor indicating a future electoral defeat for Erdoğan is his mishandling of economic affairs and the subsequent massive inflation in Türkiye. Were he to make this situation worse by, for example, provoking further Western sanctions through more purchases of sanctioned Russian weaponry or similar goods, Erdoğan’s already slim electoral chances might simply vanish. This tension is also why Erdoğan agreed to drop his veto of Finland and Sweden joining NATO, a decision only made in exchange for the politically salient promises of fighter jets from the U.S. and nominal extradition of Kurdish enemies of state residing in Finland and Sweden.

Furthermore, Turkish state banks have recently stopped accepting Russia’s Mir payment system, falling in line with the West on this matter. Meanwhile, Erdoğan himself commented in a recent PBS interview that Russia should return all occupied Ukrainian territory—including Crimea—to Ukraine. These actions signal that Türkiye—and, by extension, Erdoğan—are beginning to recognize that the West is overall a better long-term partner for Türkiye than Russia.

With this being said, Türkiye has attempted to walk a narrow tightrope regarding the Russo-Ukrainian War. This alignment and Türkiye’s geographical position give Ankara the unique ability to act as a mediator between the belligerents. In addition to brokering the grain deal, Türkiye also hosted peace talks between Russia and Ukraine during the first few months of the conflict to work out a potential ceasefire, although Ukraine eventually suspended further talks. While chances of these negotiations resuming any time soon seem slim given the recent Ukrainian successes which Ukraine is attempting to capitalize upon, certain events in the West—such as NATO losing one of its most hawkish leaders in Boris Johnson, continually rising energy and food prices, and the threat of an economic recession—might eventually push Kyiv and Moscow back to the negotiating table as Western publics become less supportive of continued expensive military aid to Ukraine.

A final piece of the puzzle to consider when examining the Turkish role in the Russo-Ukrainian War is the steadily increasing prominence of the Bayraktar combat drone. Previously, this drone, produced by a company with close ties to President Erdoğan, has been a crucial armament in conflicts from the nearby Caucasus all the way to Africa, as well as being a key component of Türkiye’s own hyperwar capable military. While not as powerful as combat drones produced by the United States, the Bayraktar boasts strong operational capabilities at a fraction of the cost. These capabilities have been demonstrated time and again in Ukraine, such as when Ukrainian forces used Bayraktar drones to sink Moskva, Russia’s top-of-the-line Black Sea fleet flagship.

For this reason, the drone has drawn the eyes of many customers with money in their pockets to Türkiye’s shores, in addition to inspiring a degree of goodwill among Ukrainian forces and Western supporters. These benefits come in spite of the fact that the Turkish government has thus far sent minimal military aid to Ukraine, making the success of the Bayraktar a political and economic win without the added baggage that extensive military aid would have in relations with Russia. However, Vladimir Putin himself has recently proposed opening up a Bayraktar manufacturing facility in Russia, ostensibly in order to build closer economic ties with Türkiye and gain some degree of access to the manufacturing process of this key weapon. Nevertheless, this seems unlikely when considering the company’s CEO’s commitment to the Ukrainian cause.

Given all the above factors, it is clear that Türkiye is a state to which the United States and its allies must pay close attention. Not only this, but the U.S. must also attempt to pull Türkiye closer into the fold of the West. To do this, a few things must happen.

Firstly, State Department leadership and, potentially, President Biden himself should engage in talks with Turkish leadership regarding stipulations attached to the sale of F-16 and F-35 fighter aircraft to Türkiye. In what was potentially an unofficial part of the deal to get President Erdoğan to approve Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO, the Biden administration officially supported the sale of 40 F-16 jets and 80 modernization kits to Ankara. However, such a sale requires approval from Congress, and on July 14, the House of Representatives approved legislation creating a hurdle for this specific sale. While this measure has not yet passed the Senate, part of this legislation is meant to ensure that the potential F-16s are not used in unauthorized flyovers of Greece. To head off a potentially embarrassing lack of coordination between the executive and legislative branches, U.S. leadership should further negotiate with their Turkish counterparts to reach an acceptable agreement regarding this concern.

Additionally, Türkiye has also previously requested more than 100 F-35 fighter aircraft from the U.S. but were removed from the F-35 program and slapped with sanctions in response to their purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems. Parallel to negotiations over the F-16s, U.S. leadership should also outline a path for Türkiye to regain entrance into the F-35 program and be freed from the accompanying sanctions. Key points of this agreement could include Türkiye signing a binding resolution not to purchase further Russian military equipment and to use the F-35s exclusively for territorial defense operations within Turkish airspace. Potentially, U.S. leadership might even be able to convince Ankara to send the S-400 missile systems purchased from Russia to Ukraine to aid in their defensive operations, a suggestion already informally floated by U.S. officials. These conditions, particularly the request for Türkiye to forego future Russian military equipment purchases, are all now more viable than they were less than a year ago, given the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Secondly, the U.S. should reaffirm its commitment to Türkiye in combatting the PKK terrorist organization. The fight against the PKK is a salient political issue in Türkiye, and legitimate offers of aid in this endeavor from the United States would bring the two countries closer together. However, this should not be undertaken without conditions. In exchange for further aid in fighting the PKK, U.S. leadership should ramp up its efforts to persuade Türkiye not to launch their military operation to establish a 30km “safe-zone” in Northern Syria. This operation represents a legitimate threat to the fight against terrorism in Syria, as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an organization that Ankara considers too closely aligned with the PKK, would be targeted in this operation. These are the same forces that help maintain detention facilities holding ISIS fighters, and their loss could mean a massive prison break of jihadists and a surge in ISIS operations in the region.

Finally, U.S. leadership should work to bolster cooperation between Türkiye and European partners. Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made policymakers in Washington divert significant attention back to Europe, the ultimate strategic focus of the U.S. is still rightfully shifting to the Indo-Pacific given the region’s economic and strategic importance. This means that, over time, less U.S. investment in the security of European allies is likely to be expected. Given this fact, it behooves the U.S. to ensure that states in Europe have other security partnerships, and this is a role which Türkiye might over time help to fill. The EU is already enhancing energy cooperation with Azerbaijan, a Turkish ally, and has expressed interest in building deeper bilateral ties with Türkiye, which itself plays a vital role in the diversification of European energy supplies. Additionally, Erdoğan has recently stated his desire for Türkiye to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a political, economic, and security organization with China and Russia as its two most significant players. Offsetting a shift towards cooperation with these two states is also a benefit to Washington. Thus, the U.S. should facilitate Europe-Türkiye discussions wherever possible.

Just as Türkiye is walking a fine line between NATO and Russia, so too must the U.S. be careful to not give up too much to a state that is not fully committed to the rule of law and democracy. However, Türkiye’s geographic, military, and economic capabilities, as well as their role as a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine War, are too important to be ignored. The U.S. and its Western allies must first fully understand Türkiye’s importance in the current geopolitical environment and then work towards further cooperation with the state.

As the war in Ukraine rages on, Türkiye’s influence, both in the conflict and on the world stage, grows.

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