What Role for Turkey in the Crisis between Russia and Ukraine?
The post-Cold War era was full of euphoria. Many countries in the Euro-Atlantic area rejoiced in the “peace dividend” and made dramatic cuts in their defense expenditures. The ultimate aim was to create a zone of peace from Vancouver to Vladivostok, including a Europe whole, free, and at peace. That goal is no more today: not only Europe but also other parts of the globe now suffer from strategic competition.
Turkey never fully enjoyed the benefits accruing from the end of the Cold War. It has almost always been surrounded by conflicts in its immediate neighborhood, starting in the early 1990s with the Gulf War, followed by the conflicts in the Balkans and the Caucasus. Turkey still suffers from conflicts yet to be resolved in its immediate vicinity, not least the one between Russia and Ukraine.
Six years since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the start of its destabilization activities in eastern Ukraine, the recent flare-up along the contact line and beyond between the two countries once again dominates the regional security landscape. If left unchecked, this could ignite further conflicts in the wider Black Sea region, with direct consequences for the Euro-Atlantic community. Hence the need for Turkey to deploy all diplomatic means at its disposal to facilitate a de-escalation between Russia and Ukraine.
Another Powder Keg in the North?
Turkey faces a ring of protracted conflicts extending from Transnistria to Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Syria, and Libya. And since 2014 the conflict in Donbas has been added to the list. In each of these Russia is one of the main protagonists. Like the rest of the Euro-Atlantic community, Turkey sees Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and incursion into Donbas as having brought an end to the rules-based international order. This necessitates the utmost attention and care on the part of Turkey, which must use its diplomacy to urge restraint from Russia and Ukraine. But it does not necessarily mean that Ankara will accept the current status quo in the crisis.
For historical and cultural reasons, Crimea has long played an important role for Turkey and its security. The Crimean War of 1853–1856 left an indelible print in the minds of the Turkish people, for whom it represents a not-so-distant a past. Turkey is also the country with the largest community of citizens of Crimean Tatar descent. Although estimates of its size vary, it is no less than five million strong.
Since the end of the Cold War there has been an increase in civil society activities of organized by this community, supported by the successive Turkish governments. Their activism has particularly gained traction since the occupation and annexation of Crimea by Russia. The leaders of Crimean Tatars in Ukraine, Mustafa Jemilev and Refat Chubarov, have strong links with the Turkish and Ukrainian leaderships. During visits by high-level Ukrainian representatives to Turkey, it has become common practice for them to meet the community’s leaders. The same is applies when Turkish officials visit Ukraine. The prominence and influence of the Crimean Tatar leaders figures in Turkish political life cannot be underestimated.
Turkey was among the first advocates of the integration of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, and this will continue despite its rapprochement with Russia over the last decade. It is among the most ardent supporters of the 2008 Bucharest Summit decision to leave open the perspective that both countries can become members.
Turkey has never wavered in trying to bring Ukraine closer to the alliance, initially through political support and practical cooperation. It now also plays a prominent role in bolstering Ukraine’s defense. In February 2020, the two countries signed an agreement in which Ankara allocated $36 million for the Ukrainian armed forces. This was followed by a series of defense-military cooperation agreements in December 2020 on the production naval corvettes and unmanned combat aerial vehicles and related technology transfer.
This defense and military cooperation has been an important catalyst for bringing the Ukrainian military closer to NATO standards. It has also enhanced the interoperability of Ukrainian forces and military equipment with NATO. Mykhailo Samus, the deputy director of foreign affairs of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies in Ukraine, told Anadolu Agency in January that “cooperation with Turkey has utmost importance for Ukraine to bring its army up to a NATO-standard modern system from a post-Soviet one.”
During President Volodymir Zelensky’s visit to Turkey on April 10, he and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a joint 20-points declaration, identifying defense cooperation as one of the key elements of their relations. The Ukrainian president stressed that the “defence industry is the driving force behind our strategic partnership.”
The Way Ahead for Turkey
Turkey will never recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia or condone Russia’s destabilizing acts in Donbas. Ukraine is and will remain a strategic partner in the region, and support for that policy at the highest levels will continue. As a corollary, Turkey will continue to support the aspiration of Ukraine to become a full-fledged member of NATO as and when the opportunity arises.
For its part Ukraine recognizes Turkey’s important role as its regional strategic ally and in support of its integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures. Zelensky’s recent visit—when the tension with Russia has again flared up and Ukraine has reiterated its wish to join NATO—will add new dimensions to the already strong bonds between Ankara and Kyiv.
During the visit, the two presidents held a High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council (SCC) meeting to address the unfolding events and its ramifications for the wider region. The SCC was launched in January 2011 to elevate the relations between Turkey and Ukraine to a strategic level. It entails annual summit meetings not only engaging the leaders, but also ministers and community representatives. At the SCC meeting on April 10, the two countries agreed to further strengthen their relations not only through trade and commerce, but particularly in the field of defense cooperation.
In 2008 Turkey played a constructive role in reaching a modus vivendi between Georgia and Russia following their brief war. It is in its interest to take a similar approach in mitigating the crisis between Russia and Ukraine before it escalates in a manner directly affecting Turkey’s interests in the region. Taking a cue from its past practice and the current level of its relations with the two countries, Turkey could initiate a trilateral dialogue platform designed to mitigate of the evolving crisis, similar to the Caucasian Stability and Cooperation Platform it launched in the wake of the Georgia-Russia conflict in 2008. Such a mechanism should have channels to other current regional and international initiatives geared toward finding a solution to the ongoing impasse. That requires Turkey deploying without delay shuttle diplomacy on all tracks and at all levels.
Turkey’s strategic relations with Ukraine could also provide an avenue of cooperation with the United States, alongside keeping open channels of dialogue between Russia and NATO members to reduce the heightened level of tension in Turkey’s immediate vicinity. Turkish efforts to de-escalate the crisis would not put a dent to the Normandy Format that brings together France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. Nor would it affect the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. It would complement and reinforce those multilateral efforts at a regional level.
Turkey is facing another clear and present challenge on its doorstep and it is in its direct interest to redouble its efforts to find a diplomatic and peaceful solution to the crisis along the border between Russia and Ukraine. However, that does not mean a deviation from its avowed position to seek further and deeper integration of Ukraine to the Euro-Atlantic structures with a view to supporting its ultimate strategic objective of becoming a NATO member.
Photo credit: Roden Wilmar / Shutterstock.com