Threading the Needle: Turkey’s East-West Balancing Act

Over the course of the last decade, Turkey has distanced itself from the West, both through its domestic politics and foreign policy. At the same time, however, Turkey has managed to avoid coming into Russia’s orbit, maintaining its essential ties to the West. Under Erdogan, we see an interesting phenomenon where Turkey has managed to strike a balance between East and West, distancing itself enough from both to avoid falling entirely into their orbit.

The implementation of this is interesting: a NATO member state that is host to U.S. nuclear weapons while it purchases weapon systems from Russia at the same time. This is merely one example where Turkey has managed to establish itself as more than a geographical bridge between East and West, but a political one as well, which has allowed it to pursue a largely independent foreign policy.

There are four major areas in which Turkey has managed to set itself apart from Russia and/or the West: Syria, arms sales, the South Caucasus, and Ukraine. This balance is of the utmost importance for Turkey, both to establish itself as a major independent regional player and to maintain its essential trade ties with Russia, the EU, and the U.S. The ongoing confrontation in Ukraine is perhaps the biggest test of this balance yet, but Turkey seems to have the capacity to maintain it so far.

First, it must be understood that Turkey’s balance has a certain uniqueness in that despite aggravating both East and West, it manages to avoid any real consequences from either. Of course, Turkish foreign policy that is independent of East and West cannot be discussed without mention of Syria. The Syrian Civil War was a watershed moment for Turkish foreign policy: simultaneously aggravating the United States and Russia while increasing Turkey’s influence and perception as a regional power. This began with military assistance for Syrian rebel groups, evolved into direct military action against both Russian-backed and US-backed forces, and eventually led to the Turkish occupation of Northern Syria. While the rise of ISIL provided at least one area of mutual interest there, Turkey’s objectives were ultimately against those of both the United States and Russia.

On the point of Russia, the issues began with Turkish assistance to Syrian rebels fighting Assad’s government from the beginning of the war. As Russia’s support for Syria increased, so too did the potential for confrontation with Turkey. The most direct form of this confrontation was the 2015 shootdown of a Russian jet near the Turkish-Syrian border, the first and only post-Cold War case of a NATO member state shooting down a Russian jet which led to a crisis in bilateral relations. Despite the personal relationship between President Putin and President Erdogan which did much to normalize relations and the accommodation that Russia and Turkey eventually reached in Syria, it remains a problematic area for their bilateral relations. The ‘condominium’ deal that Turkey and Russia have reached in Syria has managed the interests of both parties to some degree but it has served more to prevent escalation and open confrontation than to reach a consensus between them. While highlighting joint patrols since the ceasefire agreement, Russia openly accused Turkey of violating the agreements made in Syria when Turkey launched another offensive against Syrian government forces in 2020. At the same time, Turkey makes these same accusations about Russian-backed forces. Thus, the significance of the accommodation reached can be overstated if one does not consider that there are inherent limits to cooperation in this situation, where the states support opposite sides of a conflict. To support this point, Turkey has previously stated that its objective is to change the regime in Syria, something that is incompatible with Russia’s objectives in the country. Barring a significant policy change on either side, Syria will continue to be an area in which there is more opportunity for tension rather than collaboration between Turkey and Russia.

Confrontation with Russia in Syria does not necessarily mean that Turkey is on the same page with the United States there. As mentioned above, Turkey has established itself as an independent actor in Syria rather than a pro-Western one. The previously stated objective of Turkey in Syria is not opposed to the wishes of the West. Moreover, the US and Turkey support some of the same armed groups in Syria. When it came to Turkey’s 2015 shootdown of a Russian jet near the Turkey-Syria border, the U.S. voiced its support for Turkey’s right to defend its airspace and generally accepted Turkey’s account of the events preceding the shootdown. In more recent years, however, Turkey has found itself at odds with the West as well when it comes to the war in Syria. While the U.S. and Turkey have supported some of the same armed groups, such as the Free Syrian Army, the U.S. and its partners most strongly ally themselves with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the Turkish government has labeled a terrorist organization. As such, while there are proxy conflicts between Turkish-backed and Russian-backed forces, there are also conflicts between these two groups and Western-backed forces. The tensions emerging from this came to a head when the Turkish armed forces announced an offensive in Northeastern Syria where U.S. forces were operating alongside their Kurdish allies. In what was seen as a major blow to American credibility, President Trump ordered the withdrawal of US forces, leaving the Kurds to defend themselves against the Turkish offensive. In response to losing this diplomatic game of chicken, the United States imposed some sectoral sanctions on the Turkish government. A Russian negotiated ceasefire eventually allowed for the sanctions to be lifted and the SDF was required to withdraw from their positions. Though the sanctions were lifted, the damage to U.S.-Turkey bilateral relations had already been done. Additionally, this offensive not only caused issues with the United States but other Western countries as well. Leaders in the EU, for instance, have accused Turkey of attempting to weaponize some 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to obtain leverage over Europe. As such, we can identify that Turkey’s policies regarding Syria have provided some of the biggest points of contention between the West and Turkey while at the same time they continue to be a contentious area between Russia and Turkey as well.

When discussing American tensions with Turkey, the S-400 missile system purchase must be discussed. Turkey opted to purchase the S-400 missile system from Russia rather than the Patriot missile system from the United States. This purchase made Turkey subject to American sanctions under CAATSA. On top of this, the United States suspended Turkey from the F-35 program, claiming that operating the S-400 alongside the F-35 would expose its classified technology to Russia. Though the United States later softened its position on arms sales, offering to sell Turkey the Patriot missile system if it would not make the S-400 system operational, Turkey continued to go ahead with the S-400 system. As reimbursement for excluding them from the F-35 program, the US is in talks to provide Turkey with new F-16 fighters along with upgrade kits for Turkey’s existing fleet of F-16s. If this deal goes through, it may alleviate some of the tension between the US and Turkey, even as Turkey announced that they will go ahead with purchasing a second batch of S-400s. If this deal stalls, however, it would be reasonable to assume Turkey will seek other options like the Su-35 or Su-57 from Russia which subject Turkey to further sanctions and exacerbate the decline of US-Turkey relations. While this diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and Turkey in the arms sector allows for the strengthening of Turkey’s ties with Russia, arms sales provide an area in which Turkey has shown the propensity to cause tensions in its relations with Russia as well.

Turkish-made arms have increasingly found themselves on the opposite side of a conflict as Russian equipment, and this trend goes beyond Syria. The growing Turkish arms industry has made a name for itself in the post-Soviet space, and this is not due to a close relationship with Russia. In this area, Turkey frustrates its relationship with Russia in two ways: by its interference in Russia’s “near-abroad” and through the usage of the arms that it provides. In the South Caucasus, like Syria, Turkey’s East-West balance is struck again by pursuing goals that are contrary to the objectives of both the U.S. and Russia. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the United States and Russia both attempt to be generally neutral mediators, supporting people’s right to self-determination, the principle of territorial integrity, and the non-use of force. Turkey sets itself apart from this area of rare agreement between the U.S. and Russia through its complete and overt support of Azerbaijan. Through political support as well as through the provision of material, Turkey has encouraged Azerbaijan to be more assertive in resolving this conflict. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Turkey supported Azerbaijan materially with drones and other military equipment as well as politically through their rhetoric in regard to the conflict and Azerbaijan’s choice to realize their territorial claims through the use of force.

In terms of Turkish support for Azerbaijan, there are multiple points of tension with Russia. Arms provisions are one significant factor in Turkish equipment’s usage against Russia’s CSTO ally Armenia. The weapons provided by Turkey were showcased in the 2020 conflict by their effectiveness against Armenian equipment which was supplied by Russia. Turkish supplied drones in particular were seen to have played a major role in Azerbaijan’s combat operations as well as in the information space. Turkey’s relationship with Azerbaijan has been a boon to its influence thus far and has given Turkey inroads into Russia’s near abroad. Despite the fact that Russia has managed to accommodate some Turkish interests here, the impact is still a more multipolar, less stable, post-Soviet space which creates a more challenging scenario for Russia. Though this Turkish involvement could certainly be viewed as preferable to American involvement, it remains that the increase of Turkish influence in the Caucasus exerts some pressure on Russia.

In this case, what is negative for Russia is not necessarily viewed as a win by the United States. The US has clearly stated that it wants Turkey to stay out of the conflict. Moreover, the U.S. has generally accepted Russia as a “lead mediator” in this conflict and has shown a willingness to tacitly support Russia’s peacemaking efforts. Thus, Turkey’s disruption of the Russia-led status quo is not only a problem for Russia, but for the United States as well. As is the case in Syria, Turkish involvement in this conflict causes tension with both the U.S. and Russia, which allows Turkey to position itself as an independent actor. In other areas of the post-Soviet space, however, the tensions from Turkey’s independent foreign policy are more one-sided.

Though Turkish inroads in the Caucasus are certainly significant for Russo-Turkish relations, perhaps the most significant issue for the two at present is Turkey’s relationship with Ukraine. As previously mentioned, Turkish arms in the post-Soviet space frustrate Russia on two counts: interference in the “near-abroad” and the usage of those arms. It is in Ukraine that Turkey’s balancing act faces its greatest challenge. Turkey has pursued partnerships with Ukraine in a variety of areas including military cooperation. Though Turkey has attempted to reassure Russia by stating that cooperation with Ukraine is not meant to target Russia, this partnership continues to antagonize Russia now more than ever. In 2021, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that Turkish arms exports to Ukraine were considered to be a “serious issue”, and these deliveries have continued over Russia’s objections. Today, the issue has become even more significant for Russia as these arms are not being used just against Russian-supported forces, but against the Russian armed forces themselves. As the armed confrontation between Russia and Ukraine proceeds, Turkey has continued to sell weapons to Ukraine. It is imperative to recognize the significance of these shipments as inherently different from other areas in which Turkish equipment finds itself being used against Russian equipment. While in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh Turkish equipment is being used against Russian-backed forces, in Ukraine they are being used against Russian forces themselves. From Russia’s perspective, Turkey is knowingly providing Ukraine with weapons that will be used to kill Russians. Though Turkey has attempted to assuage Russian anger by clarifying that military hardware sent to Ukraine is sales rather than aid, it is unlikely to make their provision any less of an issue. Indicative of this, the Russian ambassador to Turkey voiced Russian anger at these deliveries, dismissing the “business is business” explanation on the grounds that the drones were being purchased for the express purpose of killing Russian soldiers.

Taking such statements into account, we can identify a disconnect between Turkish and Russian perceptions of these arms shipments. Turkish arms provisions are no longer just frustrating but have an added personal dimension for Russia with which Turkey does not identify. As the military confrontation in Ukraine progresses, the arms issue will continue to be a sticking point for Russo-Turkish relations while at the same time it provides an area for Turkey to collaboratively engage with the West. In addition to the issue of arms supplies, Turkey has voted to condemn Russia at the United Nations and decided to close the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to military vessels. With all of these factors in mind, it is clear that Turkey can be categorized as pro-Ukraine, but this is not to say that Turkey is completely in the Western camp when it comes to the issue of Ukraine.

Despite the arms shipments to Ukraine, Turkey still positions itself as an independent foreign policy actor in this situation. Turkey has separated itself from other NATO members as the only member state that has not placed economic sanctions on Russia. Turkey also is not providing military aid to Ukraine, hence their clarification that the drone shipments are sales, not aid. Moreover, Turkey has an ongoing high-level dialogue with Russia on issues such as the evacuation of cities and has expressed its willingness to mediate. Turkey has also hosted talks between the representatives of Russia and Ukraine, while they also attempt to organize a high-level meeting. Turkey manages to do all of this while also offering to trade with Russia in rubles and discussing alternatives to SWIFT. Although Turkey should certainly be considered pro-Ukraine, we can see it does not mean that Turkey is entirely anti-Russia. Even in this precarious situation, Turkey is able to strike at least some kind of balance between East and West.

Turkey’s East-West balance has improved its global standing and with it, Turkey has positioned itself as a major player in the region. A balance such as this is hard to strike and, since February 24th, will be more difficult to maintain. As of right now though, Turkey seems to have the capacity to navigate the added difficulties. While the West seeks to pressure states that continue to have good relations with Russia, Turkey manages to largely avoid such pressure and condemnation. At the same time, Turkey has managed to stay off of Russia’s “unfriendly countries and territories” list and is notably the only state to provide weapons to Ukraine that is not on this list. Taking these factors into account, it appears likely that Turkey will be able to procure a second batch of S-400s, continue to provide support to Ukraine, and maintain its strong trade relations with Russia by using the ruble all while facing few consequences from the West or Russia. Given such trends, it appears that not even the situation in Ukraine can tip the balance that Turkey has struck. Maintaining this balance will be essential for the sake of Turkey’s regional interests and the sake of its economy. Moving forward, the developing geopolitical situation will give Turkey less room to navigate but, thus far, Turkey has shown it can manage an East-West balance.

From our partner RIAC