Turkey Delicately Balances NATO, Russia, and Ukraine

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

May 10, 2023
Serhat Güvenç
Mustafa Aydın
7 min read
Photo credit: Gints Ivuskans / Shutterstock.com

Turkey was caught off guard when Russia launched in February 2022 its full-scale invasion of Ukraine under the guise of a “special military operation”. Ankara considered a minor military action, perhaps limited to the Donbas, highly likely and failed to gauge the real motives of a Kremlin military buildup that began in late 2021. Turkey and Ukraine signed agreements to deepen their strategic partnership and enhance security cooperation only days before the invasion.

A war between two of Turkey’s partners is not in its political or economic interests. Ukraine long figured prominently in Turkish strategic thinking as a counterweight to Russia in the Black Sea, and relations with Kyiv improved significantly after Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian bomber on the Turkey-Syria border in November 2015. Relations also deepened because Turkey’s Western partners responded to its military incursions into Syria with a ban on sales of jet engines and other defense industry-related components.

The foundations of Turkish-Ukrainian defense cooperation were laid in March 2016 during a visit to Ankara by then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and these foundations remained strong even after Turkish-Russian relations recovered. Ankara continued to view Ukraine as a market for its defense industry’s products and as an alternative supplier of critical components such as helicopter engines, manned and unmanned aircraft, and missiles.

Turkey’s relations with its two Black Sea neighbors were not seen as mutually exclusive. Rather, they served to enhance Turkey’s strategic autonomy from the West. The purchase of Russian S-400 air defense missile systems after the July 2016 coup attempt was part of that strategy, as was enhancing defense cooperation with Ukraine to help develop the domestic defense industry.

In the meantime, Kyiv ordered Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, and four Ada class corvettes from Turkey to strengthen its defenses against Russia. Ukraine received the first six TB2s in March 2019 and committed them immediately to the frontline in the Donbas, much to Russia’s dismay. This delivery put Turkey ahead of most NATO members in providing Ukraine with lethal military equipment. When Russia launched its invasion, two Turkish A-400M strategic airlift aircraft were at Borispol airport near Kyiv, delivering additional TB2s.

The invasion put Turkey in a tough spot. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initially framed the war as a regional problem, but the outbreak of conflict dealt a final, fatal blow to the post-Cold War regional security architecture that Ankara meticulously had weaved together. Turkey would ideally like an immediate cessation of hostilities and a return to the status quo ante, but it would also prefer the current stalemate, despite the upset to the regional political balance, to a Russian victory.

Turkey needs Ukraine to balance Russia in the Black Sea and Russia to hedge against its Western allies, especially in the Middle East. Turkey also benefits from its Kremlin ties through an economic lifeline extended during the country’s current economic and financial crisis, and through essential energy imports. Turkey must nevertheless avoid having its nuanced approach to Russia isolate it within NATO.

These are the parameters of Turkey’s self-styled “balanced” position in the current conflict. The result is that Turkish loyalty is perceived, at best, as ambiguous and, at worst, suspicious. It is a result that may leave unhappy all the country’s partners. Turkey last pursued such a strategy during World War II, when it managed to stay out of the fighting, albeit at a cost of dismaying all the warring parties.

Maintaining a Low Profile…

Turkey’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia might have indirectly enhanced Moscow’s resilience at the strategic level and its ability to sustain a war of attrition with the West. However, Turkey’s role is more consequential on the operational and tactical levels. The country’s decision to implement Article 19 of the Montreux Convention just three days after the invasion made it the first to declare the Russian move an act of war. Even more surprisingly, Turkey also asked Russia not to recall the ships of its Black Sea fleet that were elsewhere, although the Montreux Convention gives the Kremlin the right to do that. Between 20 and 30 ships of the Russian Black Sea fleet are thought to be elsewhere. Five or six are Kalibr-capable platforms, two of which are enhanced Kilo-class submarines.

Ankara’s moves signaled a firm commitment to uphold the Montreux Convention and, in the long run, significantly hinders the Russian fleet. Unable to bring in units from other theaters, Russia’s navy has become less the Black Sea’s master than its hostage. The Kremlin cannot replace the Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea fleet, which the Ukrainians sank in April 2022.

Another significant Turkish contribution to Ukrainian defense efforts is the continuing supply of Bayraktar TB2 UAVs. These drones performed several highly visible roles in the war’s early stages, including distracting air defense assets of the Moskva when it was afloat. Video footage from the drones also helped Kyiv’s information campaign by building a narrative of military success.

Turkey has shied away from officially acknowledging the nature and quantity of its military assistance to Ukraine, but open-source data suggests support for the fight against Russia. Turkey’s contributions address key capabilities even if the materiel seems modest compared to fighter aircraft and battle tanks that other NATO members are providing.

According to Oryx, an open-source intelligence portal, Turkey supplied about 35 TB2 UAVs, 24 Bayraktar Mini reconnaissance UAVs, TRLG-230 guided multiple rocket launchers, 200 BMC Kirpi MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) armored vehicles, mortars, ammunition, ground-based and airborne electronic warfare equipment, and helmets and flak vests by the end of November 2022. Reportedly, 100,000 rounds of 155 mm ammunition are now on order. According to unconfirmed reports, Turkey has already transferred US-designed, locally built cluster munitions designated as dual-purpose improved conventional munitions. And about 30 Turkish Otokar-built Cobra II 4x4 wheeled armored personnel carriers were recently spotted in Romania on a cargo train heading toward Ukraine.

…But Playing a Key Role

In 2020, NATO decided to enhance its readiness for Article 5 missions with a new warfighting corps concept that provides five divisions and 120,000 troops deployable within 20 days for the territorial defense of member states. The NATO Rapid Deployable Corps-Türkiye (NRDC-T), headquartered in Istanbul, was certified for this new role in December 2022 and became the designated NATO warfighting corps for contingencies in 2023. This technically means that Turkey will spearhead NATO’s response to any aggression toward the alliance. Russia is the most likely source of opposition for this since the country is defined in NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept as “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security”.

On the practical level, Turkey deploys a surface vessel, a submarine, and a maritime patrol aircraft around the clock in the Black Sea. These assets provide, or “feed” in NATO vernacular, 67% of NATO’s recognized maritime picture, alliance parlance for situational awareness, in the area. Turkey also provides the backbone for NATO’s mine-countering capabilities to keep the Black Sea safe. Until Romania’s efforts to modernize and expand its submarine and mine countermeasures capabilities bear fruit, NATO will continue to depend on Turkey for regional maritime situational awareness. The Turkish Navy also assumed in June 2022 command of the maritime component of the alliance’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).

NATO membership is a strategic enabler for Turkey, particularly regarding nuclear deterrence. Russian nuclear saber-rattling from the onset of its invasion of Ukraine has reinforced the alliance’s relevance to Turkish security and has accounted for Ankara’s alignment on identifying Russia as a primary threat, endorsing NATO plans to expand its high-readiness forces, and participating in the Steadfast Noon nuclear exercise in November 2022 in Germany.

Turkey’s growing links with Russia, its occasional erratic behavior, such as blocking immediate NATO membership for Sweden and Finland, and its reluctance to advertise its military support to Ukraine frequently lead to doubts about its being a credible NATO ally. Still, Turkey values its alliance membership and does not seem ready to forsake it for relations with Russia or any other country. Its substantial contribution to NATO’s effort to counter Russian aggression in the eastern flank clearly attests to this. Turkey remains an alliance asset, functionally and geographically, and is becoming a more valuable one as the war in Ukraine persists.

The views and opinions expressed in the preceding text are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Serhat Güvenç is a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University. His research interests include Turkish foreign and security policy, and Turkish naval policy and history.

Mustafa Aydın is a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University and the president of the International Relations Council of Turkey. His research interests include international politics, foreign policy analysis, and security issues related to Eurasia and the Middle East, as well as Turkish foreign and security policies.