On Turkey

The War in Ukraine and Turkey’s Cautious Counter-Balancing Against Russia

March 03, 2022
Şaban Kardaş
9 min read
Photo credit: asantosg / Shutterstock.com (Edited)
The resurgent Russia has posed many strategic challenges to Turkey since its war against Georgia in 2008.

Its involvement in the Syrian civil war and its annexation of Crimea in 2014 deepened these, yet Turkey has avoided being critical, forging instead a special relationship with Russia in areas ranging from the economy to tourism, energy, and the defense industry. Among other factors, a rather benign assessment of Russia and its intentions facilitated the emergence of this strategic relationship of dependence.

As Russia increased its pressure on Ukraine in recent months, many expected Turkey to sit on the fence and maintain its balancing act between the two countries. However, prior to NATO’s meeting on February 25 following the start of the invasion, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged a more determined stance by the alliance. Many analysts were far too dismissive of these remarks as a continuation of his rhetorical bashing of the West. While the duality in Erdoğan’s approach toward the West and his skepticism toward Western responsibility in the current crisis remain, his remarks reflected a deep watershed in Turkey’s assessment of its relations with Russia.

It would be naïve for Turkey to continue with a benign reading of the strategic environment and to seek a policy of neutrality between the warring parties.

As the world wakes up to a new geopolitical reality, it would be naïve for Turkey to continue with a benign reading of the strategic environment and to seek a policy of neutrality between the warring parties. If Turkey’s previous encounters with Russia in Syria or developments since 2014 have not already done so, this war has laid bare Moscow’s encroachments in its sphere of interest. As the external security environment turns restrictive, the prospects of conducting foreign policy with domestic imperatives are weakened. Therefore, analyzing Turkey’s behavior in this crisis too much through the lenses of its domestic politics may be misleading and one should look at how systemic imperatives affect its strategic priorities. In a fundamentally altered international environment, the imperative to counter the risks posed by the new phase of Russian revisionism will be more decisive.

Drivers of Turkish Conduct

Several interrelated and at times contradictory factors have shaped Turkey’s reaction to the Ukraine crisis since 2014. They are now undergoing a substantial transformation and Turkey is finding itself driven to pursue a policy of cautious counter-balancing.

Assessment of Russia’s motivations: Russia’s resurgence has benefited largely from strategic ambiguity. Even its unequivocal revisionist moves were tolerated, if not appeased, by many actors including Turkey because they preferred to see its expansionism as limited. Likewise, the debate over whether NATO’s enlargement provoked Moscow created a very receptive audience for its claims to great-power prerogatives. In addition to the economic and political incentives of Turkey’s ruling elite in cozying up with Russia or the particularities of the country’s domestic political developments, such a benign reading has been the main driver behind Turkey’s increasingly compartmentalized relationship with Russia since 2014. This reading was to a large extent the product of how Ankara viewed Moscow’s assertive moves as a strategic challenge rather than an existential threat. Moreover, Turkey assessed Russia as being constrained in terms of power capacity and often in need of accommodation with itself to reach its objectives.

Fear of abandonment: Turkey’s reluctance to challenge Russia directly after 2014 owes partly to the timid response by the United States and EU, which was insufficient to address the root causes of the problem or to reassure their allies. A disunited transatlantic community reinforced a major characteristic of Turkey’s strategic culture, namely its risk-averse approach to volatile contingencies. Aware of the limits to its power, a major concern was to avoid being drawn into an unwarranted escalation due to half-hearted Western policies, which may leave Turkey alone in a bilateral confrontation with Russia.

Maintaining the precarious balance in the Black Sea: After 2014, Turkey also moved away from even the lukewarm Western response to Russia. The accommodation with Moscow was justified by the concern for preventing a new Cold War. This was tied to a sacrosanct pillar of Turkey’s grand strategy: maintaining the precarious balance in the Black Sea maritime domain. Although Russia’s annexation of Crimea and armament programs have paved the way for altering the strategic balance in the Black Sea, Turkey has sought to limit Western involvement there, lest the status quo centered on Montreux Convention be eroded. It therefore opted to align itself selectively with its allies’ Black Sea policies, mindful of not provoking Russia.

The United States as a threat to Turkey’s regional interests: A major driver of Turkey’s convergence with Russia has been the way the United States has come to challenge its regional interests, since Washington has hardly been the benevolent hegemon that it claims to be. To the extent that countering the perceived threats from the United States has emerged as Turkey’s chief strategic priority, it developed new coping mechanisms. While a strategic decoupling with Washington was underway, Moscow emerged as a counter-balancer and an enabler for Ankara. Despite harboring diverging views on specific regional issues, their shared concerns about the United States generated opportunities for cooperation. In the Black Sea, Turkey’s convergence with Russia, despite a deteriorating strategic balance, owed partly to the uncertainty as to whether the United States sought to undermine the delicate order in the region.

The Case for Full Neutrality

Many have assumed that Turkey’s default option in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be full neutrality, and that it would thus seek to maintain a balanced relationship with both sides.

This position is advocated by many in Turkey. Already critical of the burgeoning defense ties with Ukraine, for instance, many nationalist-secular figures advocate full neutrality. But those calling for neutrality encompass a wider array of political positions, grounding this in a particular reading of the factors mentioned above. First, they point out the importance of sustaining the special relationship with Russia—including its economic, energy, and strategic dimensions—as well as the fallouts from severing relations. Moreover, they see Western disregard of Russia’s security concerns as the major cause of the conflict. They harbor deep suspicions about the trustworthiness of the West and fear entanglement in an unwarranted conflict.

They are also worried about Turkey’s political leadership mishandling the balance between caution and daring. They find the government’s apparent willingness to capitalize on the crisis to mend ties with the United States as reckless as it may lead to a major change in the geopolitical landscape. In particular, they note the risk of imprudent actions triggering an unwanted scenario in which Turkey may find itself having to deal with calls for a revision to the Montreux Convention or with the end of the balance in the Black Sea.

Turkey’s Emerging Cautious Balancing

Regardless of the above, though, while Turkey may maintain neutrality in the conflict in Ukraine in a legal sense, its conduct since 2014 can hardly be captured by this concept. Despite its deepening ties and accommodation with Russia, it has insistently rejected the annexation of Crimea and supported the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine. In recent years, Turkey has also given up its lukewarm response to Ukrainian demands for defense-industrial cooperation and accelerated this instead. Defying repeated warnings from Russia, it provided offensive weapons systems to Ukraine. Symbolically, on the eve of the war, during their High Level Strategic Cooperation Council meeting in Kyiv, the two countries signed agreements including on closer defense cooperation, when it was obvious why Ukraine consistently craved Turkey’s military assistance.

Turkey’s response to the conflict so far has expanded the scope of its counter-balancing in the region.

Turkey’s response to the conflict so far has expanded the scope of its counter-balancing in the region. It has been careful to preserve its ties with Russia and the precarious order in the Black Sea. Initial calls by some Turkish officials for understanding Russia’s concerns and criticism of the Western reaction appeared to be endorsing Moscow’s line in the crisis. However, this cautious attitude has not prevented Turkey from calling out Russia for its aggression and taking a clear stance against it. As NATO consultation mechanisms decided to activate defense plans and greenlighted military assistance to Ukraine by individual members, Turkey has supported these steps.

Waking Up to the Future

Turkey has woken up to the future and is increasingly acting accordingly. The blatant Russian aggression and its potential ramifications internationally and regionally have effectively ended the strategic ambiguity about Moscow’s motivations. It has already self-destructively unleashed counter-balancing dynamics in Europe and raised concerns internationally. The strategic relationship with Russia continues to contain many vulnerabilities but Turkey cannot overlook its revisionism any further in the drastically altered environment.

While it was possible for Turkey to find comfort in the belief that Russia’s objectives were limited to ensuring its security concerns vis-à-vis the West, this is no longer possible. Nor is it warranted to act in an overcautious way to avoid escalation or a new Cold War, since hot war is now a reality and the precarious balance in the Black Sea—including the maintenance of Ukraine’s status as a littoral power there—is at stake. Meanwhile, since the transatlantic security community has become more unified and overcome its internal differences over Ukraine rather quickly, Turkey’s room for maneuver is also expanding. There seem to be no prevailing opinion in the country about the benignity of US intentions. Many in Turkey believe Washington may be following a “bait and bleed” strategy, capitalizing on this conflict in its great-power competition to drag Russia into a situation that drains the latter’s resources. Nonetheless, Turkey focuses on its areas of converging interests with the United States because, like all other actors, its main strategic puzzle is whether Russia will go beyond Ukraine and deeper in their shared neighborhood.

The main challenge to Turkey’s strategic autonomy will now be devising ways to live with a new Russia.

How Turkey can address the vulnerabilities and dependencies in the strategic relation forged with Russia in recent years is a question for tomorrow. Whether the political elite will reckon with the shortsighted mistake of forging a dependent relationship with Moscow, and what price Turkey will pay for the new strategic adjustment are all open for debate. But Turkey has already risen to the challenge of today and remains bent on increasing its unfolding counter-balancing act against Russia.

While Turkey has grown bolder in confronting and criticizing Russia, this new policy needs to be attentive to the other side of the coin, however; namely, how to maintain a constructive engagement with a declining great power. This will become Ankara’s major strategic puzzle since Russia may enter a very volatile period. Turkey needs to communicate with Russia clearly that its balancing moves are not hostile and that it is acting in a benign and restrained fashion out of legitimate defensive concerns. But it also needs to show that, while it means no harm to Russia, it will not tolerate encroachments into its sphere nor will it silently bear the costs of Russia’s reckless behavior, as was the case with its reaction to destabilizing US actions since the 2003 Iraq war.

The main challenge to Turkey’s strategic autonomy will now be devising ways to live with a new Russia. Irrespective of how the conflict in Ukraine evolves, Russia’s revisionism has unleashed counter-balancing dynamics for good and bad. The coming age of great-power competition is likely to usher in a new phase of intensified security competition. Considering its inherent economic and political limitations, strategic vulnerabilities and domestic fragility, a weakening Russia will produce a new set of problems for Turkey, starting in the Caucasus and Black Sea and extending to the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey is likely to suffer the most from emerging instability in its neighborhood if the coming phase of Russian revisionism is mishandled. Therefore, while practicing cautious balancing, it is in Turkey’s interest to extend a helping hand to Russia and maintain a prudent and responsible relationship with it.