Turkey’s Balancing Act Faces Tough Challenges in Ongoing Russo–Ukrainian Crisis

Authors: T-Fai Yeung and K. H. Wong*

Over the years, Turkey’s relationship with the rest of the world has certainly been complicated to say the least, in the sense that their relations with other states have often fluctuated between friendly and hostile. In the last few years, the relationship between Turkey and the West has rapidly deteriorated, but some feel that there is room for reconciliation between the two after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, not least because the West requires Turkey’s cooperation, themselves a member of NATO, to confront Russia. Indeed, Turkey recently hosted ceasefire talks between Russia and Ukraine, claiming that both sides narrowed their differences on several issues during the negotiations. Optimistic analyses suggest that Turkey’s strategic value to the West can be re-highlighted by its initiatives of mediating the Russo–Ukrainian conflict. However, the hope of clinching a ceasefire in Istanbul on March 29 has been crushed by the reality, though both sides have not closed the door of negotiation completely. Moreover, if tensions between the West and Russia intensify, Turkey will be likely to face more risks in terms of maintaining its favorable balance of power.

Supporting Ukraine but Reluctant to Punish Russia

To briefly recap, Turkey has provoked the West on a number of occasions, such as arbitrarily arresting and prosecuting dissents; purchasing a Russian-made S-400 missile defense system despite opposition from U.S.-led NATO; accusing Israel of being contemporary “Nazi Germany” and declaring its support for Hamas, a Palestinian Sunni–Islamic militant organization; and attempting to expel the ambassadors of 10 pro-democracy states in response to their outcry over the release of Osman Kavala, a Turkish activist and founder and chair of the board of Anadolu Kültür, who has been imprisoned since 2017.

Nevertheless, Turkey’s stance towards Ukraine is relatively close to that of the West. First of all, Turkey opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and supported Ukraine’s sovereignty. Turkey also recently sold weapons in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles to Ukraine, despite Russia’s opposition. It has been reported that these drones are some of the main armaments of the Ukrainian air force being used to resist Russian aggression. In early February, roughly two weeks before the invasion, a High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council meeting between Turkey and Ukraine was held in Kyiv, at which they signed a number of cooperation agreements, including Turkey’s continued support for Ukrainian defense. Furthermore, after the outbreak of the war, Turkey criticized Russia’s invasion as unacceptable and banned Russian warships from passing through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits (two crucial areas of the Black Sea) under the terms of the Montreux Convention.

However, some critics suggest that Turkey’s support for Ukraine is more of a political gesture than a solution to defy Russia’s military threat. They point to Turkey’s opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea as being limited to verbal condemnation. In addition, Turkey blocked the Black Sea against Russia only a few days after its declaration of war over Ukraine, the blockade has been ineffective at deterring Russian aggression. Moreover, Turkey not only abstained in the vote regarding suspending Russia’s membership to the Council of Europe, it also refuses to follow the West in sanctioning Russia. Turkey claims that sanctioning Russia will not help in mediating the conflict.

Turkey Prefers Neither U.S. nor Russian Unipolarity

It is clear that Turkey has been cautious to avoid crossing Russia’s red lines, except in its criticism of the invasion, which have been for geopolitical and economic reasons. Geopolitically, neither the U.S. nor Russia’s unipolarity would serve Turkey’s interests. On one hand, Turkey does not consider Russia to be a trustworthy state, since they faced their own tensions over conflicting interests in Libya and Syria.

On the other hand, Turkey has a history of discontent with the U.S., not least because the U.S. canceled the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey soon after it purchased the Russian-made S-400 missile system in 2018, and because the U.S. imposed further punitive measures on Turkey by sanctioning the Presidency of Defense Industries (Savunma Sanayii Başkanlığı) in2020. Turkey’s support for sanctions against Russia, if any, would be “shooting itself in the foot.” In addition, Turkey has increasingly relied on Russia to counterbalance the influence of the West, given its deteriorating relationship with NATO. Ultimately, Russia’s decline will certainly harm Turkey’s regional interests. Furthermore, NATO’s understandable hesitation over a direct military confrontation with Russia does nothing to encourage a tough, anti-Russia stance from Turkey.

Economically, both Russia and Ukraine are essential to Turkey’s survival, which makes it difficult for Turkey to choose a side. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, not only is Russia one of Turkey’s largest trading partners, Turkey is also particularly dependent on Russia for natural gas imports and tourism. If Turkey cuts off economic ties with Russia, the side-effects to Turkey would be significant. It is worth mentioning that a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber on the Syria–Turkey border in November 2015, causing Russia to boycott Turkey’s tourism industry and agricultural exports. It is believed that Turkey does everything it can to avoid similar boycotts this time. At the same time, however, Ukraine is one of Turkey’s main importers of military equipment, and Ukrainian tourists and agricultural products are key to Turkey’s socio-economic development.

Turkey’s Losses Increase as the Russo–Ukrainian War Drags On

With all of this in mind, Turkey cannot afford to displease either Russia or Ukraine. As such, it has little choice but to continue to act cautiously so as not to incur significant geopolitical and economic losses. Despite this, while the two countries recognize Turkey as a “peacemaker,” it is likely that Turkey will still feel the impact of the conflict. For instance, both Russia and Ukraine have taken huge economic losses, and while the Turkish lira continues to depreciate, making domestic tourism attractive to foreign visitors, it is questionable whether Russians or Ukrainians will have the desire or financial capacity to visit Turkey in the future.

Furthermore, it is likely that Western sanctions against Russia will not be withdrawn any time soon, even if Russia and Ukraine reach a ceasefire agreement. While it is true that Turkey refuses to sanction Russia, making it a safe haven for a number of Russian oligarchs, if both the West and Russia maintain their stance, Turkey will unlikely be free from pressure. Even being a safe haven for Russian oligarchs will not do much for the repayment of Turkey’s enormous foreign debt. Worse still, trade between Turkey and Ukraine has been greatly affected by the Russo–Ukrainian war; for example, there is a serious shortage of Ukrainian agricultural products in Turkey and most exports from Turkey to Ukraine have been blocked. It is also quite possible that the situation will only get worse.

In short, the economic and currency crisis in Turkey last year, and now the ongoing Russo–Ukrainian war, has placed the Turkish economy in a precarious position. Instead of Turkey looking to be the mediator between Russia and Ukraine out of any moral sense of duty, it is more likely that Turkey is eager for the two parties to reach a ceasefire in order to prevent further losses to its own economy. Unfortunately, the negotiations in Istanbul have not reached any ceasefire agreement yet. There is no way to know how this war will be ended at this moment.

*K. H. Wong was a research assistant and has become a researcher at the Global Studies Institute Hong Kong since March 30, 2022. 

The earlier Chinese version of this article appeared in print on March 28, 2022 in Section B, Page 6 of Ming Pao Daily News. This version included updated contents.

T-Fai Yeung
T-Fai Yeung
T-Fai Yeung is a researcher at the Global Studies Institute Hong Kong, a frequent contributor to inmediahk.net, a guest contributor to the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Linhe Zaobao (Singapore), Ming Pao Daily News, The News Lens and UDN Global (Taiwan), and a former blogger for Stand News (2015–2021).