On Turkey

Can Russia’s War on Ukraine Drive Turkey and the West to Reconcile?

March 15, 2022
Selim Yenel
7 min read
Photo credit: Kemal Aslan / Shutterstock.com
Turkey and the West have been at odds for some time, but now is not the time for them to play the blame game.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shocked the world and is changing Europe’s landscape. President Vladimir Putin was distraught with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and he has made several efforts to regain territory he thinks Russia has “lost.” While why he decided to attack Ukraine at this particular time may remain a mystery, Russia has revealed itself as a revisionist power, and its belligerent behavior has added a new element to Turkey’s relationship with the West and with the European Union in particular.

Turkey’s reaction to the invasion was restrained at first. For example, it abstained at from supporting the suspension of Russia from the Council of Europe. But, as the carnage in Ukraine increased, Turkey aligned itself with critics of Russia and it has been moving ever so slightly toward the West. It has voiced support for Ukraine, called on Russia to “immediately stop this unjust and unlawful act,” and joined the majority vote in the United Nations General Assembly condemning Russia—an important sign. But how long can this balancing act continue?

Turkey’s Approach to Sanctions on Russia

Turkey has not joined the EU or US sanctions on Russia. First, it is not convinced that sanctions work, although the scope and depth of these measures are unprecedented and are already having an effect—for example, closing the European airspace to all Russian aircraft is no doubt hurting the Kremlin. Second, Turkey only follows sanctions imposed by the United Nations and can argue that, because it was not consulted by the EU or the United States, it does not feel bound by their decisions. 

It remains to be seen how Turkey would respond if the war in Ukraine continues and Russia tries to increase its fleet in the Black Sea.

Turkey has labeled the situation in Ukraine a war, thus making it possible to trigger Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, which stipulates that passage through the Turkish Straits should be granted to military vessels of belligerent parties only if the request is for these to return to their home bases. This means that Ankara can prevent Russian warships passing from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. It remains to be seen how Turkey would respond if the war in Ukraine continues and Russia tries to increase its fleet in the Black Sea.

Turkey and Russia are far apart regarding many international issues, such as the Balkans, the Caucasus, Syria, Libya, and especially Cyprus. Only energy, gas, and nuclear power plants as well as the personal camaraderie their respective presidents have allowed Russia and Turkey to refrain from having a detrimental relationship despite the many difficulties encountered, such as Turkey shooting down a Russian plane in 2015 or the Turkish troops killed in northern Syria by Russian planes two years ago. Even when Turkey provided Ukraine with drones that were then used against Russian-backed insurgents in Donbas, there was limited criticism from Russia.  

Rapprochement with the West

One important question is whether this crisis can bring Turkey and the West closer.

The only country that benefits from the current estrangement between Turkey and the European Union is Russia. This includes the Cyprus question. As long as it remains unresolved, Turkey-EU relations can never gain traction, which advances Russia’s goal of keeping Europe weak. It is necessary to find creative ways to bring Turkey and the EU back together as the current situation is untenable and detrimental to both sides.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke to Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel almost every month during the last two years of her chancellorship. He reached out to EU leaders in Brussels and other EU presidents and prime ministers. Although there has not been much progress in Turkey-EU relations, the dialogue was important.

Similarly, Turkey and the United States have a long list of grievances in many areas and now is the time to build confidence between them. Among these are Turkey’s purchase of S-400 defense systems from Russia and consequent removal from the new US F-35 fighter jet program, which has caused mistrust between Ankara and Washington. Turkey’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may help. The phone call between Erdoğan and President Joe Biden on March 10 was a step in that direction.  

For a variety of reasons, Turkey has also pursued several diplomatic maneuvers and softened its rhetoric beyond Europe and the United States, all of which should also help its relations with the West as it demonstrates a return to the country’s traditional diplomacy.  

Since the end of 2020, Turkey began improving its relations with Israel, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Talks with Armenia have also begun. This rebalancing of foreign relations is mostly due to economic reasons. Turkey is going through a very difficult economic period and is in dire need of foreign investment. This is why, for example, it is pivoting toward the Gulf States. Turkey’s foreign policy has been simultaneously ideological and personal since 2009, and particularly after the 2016 coup attempt. But, due to its economic woes, ideology has taken a back seat to personal relations. While Israel’s change of government offered a chance for reengagement, it is doubtful that Turkey can restore relations with Egypt as long as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom Erdoğan holds responsible for the former president Mohamed Morsi’s death, remains in power.  

EU Enlargement Is Making a Comeback

The war in Ukraine has thrown out the playbook for many policies and accentuated the need for increased security and defense. Within this framework, EU enlargement is becoming a key point. The Western Balkans countries are tired of waiting for their accession process to move ahead, and the situation in Ukraine could be a game changer.

Ukraine has now applied for membership and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen responded by saying “They are one of us and we want them in.” Moldova and Georgia have also now applied. The immediate response from the EU Council was that the member states decide on enlargement, and eight members have already given their support, as has the European Parliament.

Turkey would support EU and NATO membership for Ukraine, but it would also like to hear remarks like “they are one of us” directed its way. The EU should meet Turkey’s priorities as well. With regard to improving relations, the EU makes demands of Turkey regarding respect for fundamental rights, freedom of speech, and the rule of law. No one expects Ankara to put these aside, but the matter calls for pragmatism and trust.

Foreign Policy Cooperation and Coordination

The most immediate path forward entails cooperation and coordination in foreign policy. Despite Turkey’s repeated efforts to act in tandem with the EU during the Arab popular movements a decade ago or in the Balkans, the EU rebuffed these attempts. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine should now make cooperation a priority.

We cannot know how the war in Ukraine will end but, from what we hear of Putin’s demands, it may not end there. After a lull, he may start threatening other neighbors of Russia. As many argue, the “cold peace” era is over and the world is entering a new phase in international relations in which nobody can be complacent.

Turkey’s support for Ukraine does not mean being Russia’s enemy. Russian planes can still fly to Istanbul. Turkey’s ministers are continuing to talk to their Russian counterparts. Erdoğan can also reach out to Putin and, if he has any leverage, this is the time to use it. These contacts are invaluable in the efforts to stop the bloodshed. The March 10 meeting between the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia in Antalya was a valiant effort. However, as the Russian demand that Ukraine give up its arms remained a condition for ceasefire, there could be no progress.  

Turkey’s support for Ukraine does not mean being Russia’s enemy.

For the last 70-plus years, leaving aside the Yugoslav succession wars, the European continent was peaceful. But nothing can be taken for granted anymore. Authoritarian leaders who were considered mostly a threat to freedom in their own countries have now demonstrated that they are not restricted by borders. We should not allow history to repeat itself. What happens in Europe will have global ramifications. For one thing, China is looking on with anticipation.

Turkey, the EU, and the United States must recalibrate their relations with one another. They have many issues to overcome, but Turkey has made the first move toward NATO as it called for the alliance to do more to help Ukraine. While some claim that Ukraine’s potential NATO membership triggered Russia’s invasion, the counterargument could be made that this membership has protected the Baltic states and other former communist countries.

Improving the relationship between Turkey and the West has to start somewhere, and if Putin’s attack on Ukraine did not convince both sides that there is an urgent need to do so, then nothing will.

Selim Yenel is the president of Global Relations Forum. He previously served as a diplomat, including as ambassador and permanent delegate of Turkey to the European Union and as undersecretary at the Ministry of EU Affairs