ANBOUND’s Observation: The Balance of the Ukraine-Turkey-Russia Triangle
A cautious analysis of the Ukraine-Russia crisis believes that in the recent crisis between Russia and Ukraine, the United States, and NATO is a test of Turkey’s foreign policy. Ankara is a member of NATO, with military and defense relations with Ukraine. Yet on the other hand, Ankara is in a state of cooperation and engagement with Moscow on several regional issues, which puts Turkey in a delicate position fraught with many complex factors.
Turkey has the second-largest military force in NATO, which plays an active role in its mission, and has military bases on the country’s territory which are of great importance to it. However, for reasons of its relationship with the United States, Turkey has been eager in the past few years to get closer to Moscow, a traditional rival of both Turkey and NATO.
For example, Washington’s support for the Kurdish militia in northeastern Syria, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization, is lack of cooperation with Turkey on the Gülen movement, an Islamist political movement. On the other hand, Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia has also rattled Washington. These are all causes of tension between the U.S. and Ankara to the point of imposing sanctions and putting pressure on the other side.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s relations with Russia have deepened after the coup attempt. Trade between the two countries has grown significantly. Ankara has received support and financing from Moscow for major projects in the energy sector, such as the TurkStream project and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant project. Turkey also became the first NATO country to buy Russia’s S-400 missile system, and hinted it might also buy Sukhoi fighter jets.
In addition, Turkey has also established a special relationship with Ukraine, which aims to counterbalance Russian influence in the Black Sea Basin, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Ankara has infuriated Russia by providing Kyiv with hundreds of millions of dollars in military support and striking drone deals. It is worth mentioning that Turkish drones have recently become famous and proven to be efficient.
Positions of all parties made clear
The accuracy and complexity of Ankara’s position on the crisis are clear from above facts: Turkey is a NATO member that the U.S. is “very angry with”. It is also a traditional ally of Russia, and has never been so close to the latter as now. Yet, its tacit support for Ukraine shows that an enemy of an enemy is a friend.
On the other hand, it is not in Turkey’s interest to escalate the crisis into a military conflict. At a time when the region needs a stable environment to focus on its economy, a military conflict would strain the atmosphere in the region and expose it to difficult choices regarding the overall positions of the parties to the crisis and issues related to the strait (that is, NATO is waiting for Turkey to fully align with it, while Russia wants Turkey to remain neutral). In addition, the crisis could have implications in other regions such as Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus.
Ankara is also aware that a military conflict between Russia and NATO could spill over into Turkey, especially since the Black Sea is at the heart of, and possibly one of the causes of, the crisis. It is a struggle for influence and mutual containment between Moscow and NATO throughout the former Soviet space, Eastern Europe, and the Black Sea Basin.
Moreover, in the face of every previous crisis like this, Ankara has been plagued by its distrust of Western allies and partners who have neglected its interests and national security for years. Ankara also does not want Russia to lose a conflict with NATO and the United States, as the latter may reach an agreement with Moscow that would exclude Turkey from consideration. It is also understandable that Turkey’s position will depend in part on the extent to which the situation deteriorates and the extent of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
As a result, Turkey will likely support Kyiv and condemn any Russian military intervention (if it happens). The reason is that it is an unwarranted attack on the sovereignty of a neighboring country, and that Turkey will choose to side with NATO and the Western bloc. More importantly, Turkish policymakers usually praise them as events unfold.
The idea of sanctions against Russia is unappealing to Turkey, which does not want a direct or indirect confrontation with it. As for the military option, it is even less likely and less attractive to Turkey.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, so Turkey has no “obligation” to defend Ukraine even if NATO is involved in the crisis, contrary to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Therefore, Turkey is likely to settle for a semi-neutral stance of solidarity, unless its relations with NATO and Washington need to be considered.
As for the strait, this is a very tricky issue because Ankara, under the Montreux Convention, has the right to block and allow warships to enter the Black Sea in the event of war. So far, Turkey’s official statements seem to suggest that it wants to remain as neutral as possible, and that any openly biased NATO stance towards Russia would be forced to follow unfavorable developments.
Opportunity for mediation
In view of all the above, Ankara’s interest and efforts lie in avoiding war and initiating a peaceful settlement. Therefore, Turkey is not content to support dialogue between Russia and the United States or Russia and the Atlantic, but positions itself as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. It called for calm and rational solutions, and issuing implicit warnings to Russia against any military intervention in Ukraine and reminding Russia that this is “unrealistic” and that it needs to “reconsider changes in oneself and the world,” as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan put it.
In such a crisis, the chances of any mediation succeeding depend mainly on three conditions: the mediator has the trust of both sides and has established a good relationship with them, the tools to integrate the perspectives of both parties and to propose initiatives, and the acceptance of the mediation by both parties.
First, as noted, Ankara has good relations with both Moscow and Kyiv. Turkey is a direct supporter of the latter and has reached multiple understandings and paths of cooperation in Syria, Libya and the South Caucasus. Moreover, for Moscow, the tone of Turkey’s position is more favorable to the apparently strident positions of the U.S. and some European countries, and the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan has deepened over the past few years.
As for the second condition, Ankara appears to have no leverage on either side of the crisis or tools to overcome obstacles and resolve the problem. Turkey has no military, economic or diplomatic leverage to exert any pressure on Moscow or Kyiv, let alone NATO, which is led by Washington.
In terms of positions, Kyiv welcomed Turkey’s mediation offer from the beginning, while Moscow remained silent on it, which is logical as Putin would prefer to negotiate with NATO to reach a comprehensive agreement outlining their long-term relationship beyond the Ukraine crisis.
Therefore, Turkey might try to bring the two countries, Russia and Ukraine, to the negotiating table, guaranteeing the possibility of direct dialogue between the two sides in order to eliminate misunderstandings and reach a solution that suits both sides as best as possible. However, this does not prevent Ankara from presenting some preliminary ideas on how to resolve the crisis in this dialogue, which would tend to incorporate contents that will satisfy NATO.
In this context, the Turkish president’s visit to Ukraine this month will be important to gauge Kyiv’s reaction and, if possible, to convey this signal to Putin during his visit to Turkey. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and President Putin’s work, the Russian presidential executive office has confirmed this.
This leads us to believe that Putin is not enthusiastic about the idea of Turkish mediation. Thus, at the time of writing this article, Putin has not announced a definitive official approval. This could put pressure on the U.S. if negotiations with the U.S. get bogged down, without losing relations with Turkey, which is important in a crisis like this. Given this, Putin may turn to communication with Ankara as a way to resolve the issue.
In any case, Turkey’s position is to oppose Russian intervention in Ukraine, but not to share NATO’s aggressive tone against Moscow. Given Turkey’s intent to be a mediator between the two sides, Turkey’s position will become more moderate. Thus, from Moscow’s perspective, it would be more acceptable and less aggressive, which could have a positive impact on Turkey in the long run. For now, such an outcome seems likely, regardless of whether Ankara is able to initiate mediation, or if it remains just a proposal.
Looking at Ukraine’s position, I think it is clear that Ukraine ignores the importance of Turkey and favors only the EU and NATO. In fact, NATO and the EU are separated by a large geographical middle belt, namely Romania, Poland, Moldova, and so on. It is important to note that Germany is not in direct contact with Ukraine, although there is the issue of energy pipelines, which is an important reason why Germany is in two minds about the crisis in Ukraine, not only refusing Ukraine to join NATO, thus assuming responsibility for defense, but also sending over only 5,000 military helmets to humiliate Ukraine when it is in dire need of assistance.
Ukraine should take note that the EU and NATO are not in a position to help, whereas Turkey is. Therefore, what Ukraine should build in the future is a kind of triangle between Ukraine, Turkey, and Russia, trying to get its own geopolitical interests between Russia and Turkey.
The same is true from the point of view of economic interests. Ukraine is far more likely to get investment and projects from Turkey than from the EU. Even if the EU hopes to provide economic assistance to Ukraine, it is only an infiltration process of industrial layout, and countries in the transitional zone in the middle will intercept part of it, so it is unlikely to reach Ukraine. In contrast, Turkey and Ukraine are only separated by the Black Sea. As long as Ukraine focuses on the development of Odessa, it can establish a bridgehead for docking with Turkey and create conditions for future geopolitical interaction.
Therefore, it’s about time for Ukraine to adjust its geopolitical layout.
Writer by Chan Kung
Founder of ANBOUND Think Tank (established in 1993), Mr. Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.
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