Turkey hates this conflict. From the Turkish point of view, the war in Ukraine represents more threats than opportunities. In other words, it is an unwanted crisis for several reasons. First and foremost, it creates enormous problems for Russia. Turkey and Russia have complex and intricate bilateral relations despite significant improvements and economic and cultural ties. They are fierce competitors, especially in the Middle East (Libya and Syria), and Turkey is a member of NATO, one of the biggest threats to Russia. However, Turkey needs to assure Russia to be its ally.
Second, the conflict creates problems also for Ukraine. With Kyv, Ankara detains necessary contracts, especially regarding the defence industry. Politically speaking, Turkey has condemned Russia’s invasion of Crimea and refused to accept Russian presence in Ukraine.
The crisis allows Turkey to improve its relations with the UAE and other countries which have found themselves on opposing sides in several regional conflicts.
How to maintain stable and prosperous relations with each country and at the same time act as a mediator in the war?
Core principles of Turkey’s foreign policy
Ankara adopted a policy restructuring campaign to reorient itself globally based on its geographical and historical assets. This restructuring is based on five principles: First, a favourable balance between democracy and security condition sine qua non to establish an area of influence in its environment. Second, ensure a policy of zero problem with its neighbours – with which Turkey has been successful by cooperating with its neighbours on issues of common interests and responding to common threats. The third principle focuses on developing cordial relations with neighbouring regions and beyond. Fourth, the compliance with a multi-dimensional foreign policy established in 2003-2004. According to this perspective, Turkey’s relations with other global actors need to be complementary and not competitive. Fifth, pursuance of rhythmic diplomacy to increase Turkey’s influence in IOs and the international arena. Turkey wants to emerge as a responsible country and a net-security provider for the entire region.
The Zero Problem with Neighbors policy and relations with Russia
Even though Turkey maintained a dialogue with NATO and the European Union from 2010-to 2020, the country has also intensified relations with other non-European states. Since the end of the Cold War, Turkey has pursued a “Zero Problem with Neighbors” policy helping it to establish cordial relations with all its neighbours.
Between 2010 and 2020, Turkey’s most frequent diplomatic partners were a mix of East and West, especially Russia. The increasing relations with Russia reflected changes in the structures of the Turkish foreign policy and, more in general, in the structure of the western international system. A massive wave of scepticism about the value of the West and the western allies made Turkey search for greater autonomy in its regions. It is feasible that throughout the post-2013 crisis with the US-led order, Erdogan has used the opportunities to advance Turkey’s autonomy within the US-led hierarchical order. Indeed the country started to develop its own national and technologically advanced defence industry and flexible alliances with several states on different issues to achieve specific foreign goals. In this new paradigm, relations with Russia constitute the primary building block of the Turkish government’s autonomy-seeking policies. Commercial and trading ties were established, but neither Russia nor Turkey entered the sphere of domestic political issues until 2011. Then Turkey-Russia relations took a qualitatively different turn and were no longer confined to the logic of economy but tackled the issue of political identity and collective security.
Turkey and Ukraine’s relations
Turkey’s most critical relations at the moment are those with Kyiv and Moscow. However, in my opinion, much more crucial with Kyiv because, over the years, it has become Ukraine’s largest foreign investor, with the person of Burak Pehlivan, the chairman of the Turkish-Ukrainian Business Association (TUID). Generally, Turkey supported the Ukrainian independence and the country’s territorial integrity, although Turkey’s traditional policy towards Ukraine was and still is a mix of deterrence and dialogue with Russia. Before the invasion, deterrence meant Ukraine was receiving military equipment from Turkey. Indeed both countries have overlapping interests that make cooperation in the defence industry valuable to each country. Ukraine produces items that Turkey cannot, and Turkey produces systems that Ukraine does not. Both countries have huge defence industry contracts; Turkey sold amerced drones to Ukraine, the TB2 drones, lethal in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Some week before the start of the war, the Turkish government designated the Russian invasion as a “war”, giving it the right under the 1936 Montreux Convention to close the Bosporus Strain to warships significant symbolic move in support of Ukraine. Moreover, it has not sanctioned Russia or closed its airspace to Russian aircraft.
Turkey’s role as a perfect mediator in the war
Again Istanbul was chosen as the perfect place for diplomacy. The sight of Russian and Ukraine negotiators meeting in the city highlights the position in which Turkey finds itself as a perceived natural side in the war in Ukraine. On the one hand, Turkey is a NATO member and continues to supply weapons to Ukraine. On the other hand, it has to reassure Russia that its commitment to NATO would not lead to a direct fight with Putin. This balanced position has resulted in a rapprochement with various countries such as Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which is the most interesting improvement. Even though the countries have held divergent policies and opinions on various issues, now the UAE is eager to increase its economic ties with Ankara as it seeks to benefit financially in light of the latter’s severe economic downturn. Indeed Ankara’s primary aim now appears to be regional stability knowing that any other outcome might mean other financial hardships. That is why Turkey has not taken part in sanctions, because it knows that those sanctions will probably hurt Turkey just as much as they will hurt Russia.
The NATO issue
Finally, in the West, the narrative about the apparent death of NATO is approaching. Also, in some western left-wing political scientists, politicians and researchers, the idea that NATO is not contributing to peace but war is more and more present in articles and debates. Regarding Turkey, the country has benefitted immensely from NATO membership because NATO’s culture and technology shaped its military. Nevertheless, I believe that Turkey’s current situation is not about leaving or not leaving NATO. It is about shifting perspective. Former president Abdullah Gul said in 2010 that it was not crucial whether Turkey joined the European Union — the accession process was about reaching E.U. standards. Once Turkey had reached that level, it might well decide to “be like Norway” and refrain from membership. Erdogan with NATO might be the opposite. He is already a club member but sees Turkey’s future as being elsewhere. He wants to move the country to an area where it will not necessarily leave, but it will not have to worry about what other countries think of it either.
Making predictions right now is virtually impossible. We know that Turkey is moving in uncertain territory, but more than representing a threat to be the uncertainty of Turkey represents strength for the country. Ankara can benefit from relations with Ukraine, both with Moscow and from those of the Arabian Peninsula. We still do not know how much Turkey will manage to monetize in terms of profit, given that its economy is faltering nonetheless. However, accept the hypothesis that the United States is heading for rapid political, economic and military decline. Turkey could be the turning point to rewrite the world’s geopolitical balances. One possible scenario would be a split and the disappearance of NATO. How and when this could be possible is an open question.