Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Turkey’s Careful and Risky Fence-Sitting between Ukraine and Russia
Turkey’s Careful and Risky Fence-Sitting between Ukraine and Russia

Turkey’s Careful and Risky Fence-Sitting between Ukraine and Russia

On February 3, 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Kyiv, where he met with his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelensky, for a pre-planned meeting to co-chair the tenth High-Level Strategic Council between the two countries. The two sides signed a series of bilateral agreements, including a deal on the co-production of drones and a free trade agreement. The Turkish-Ukrainian defense relationship is mutually beneficial and serves as the core component of a rapidly expanding bilateral relationship.

The relationship took on new importance in 2019, following Turkey’s downturn in relations with the United States and the imposition of sanctions for Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air and missile defense system. Ankara is keen to explore non-American suppliers for export-controlled items or American-origin technologies that are subject to U.S. end-user agreements, while Ukraine’s Motor Sich hopes to alleviate funding shortages. This relationship is slated to be the lynchpin of current and future Turkish aerospace efforts, beginning with cooperation on drones and helicopters and, potentially, on jet-powered drones and fighter jets. However, all of this progress may be upended by a Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the outcome of a large-scale conflict could threaten the regime in Kyiv and upend the security situation in the Black Sea.

The Russian military has positioned enough forces and equipment on Ukraine’s borders to topple the regime in Kyiv. Moscow has significant military overmatch and could choose any number of military options ranging from punitive air and artillery strikes, a limited military incursion in the Donbas, to the toppling of the Zelensky government. The Turkish position has been to balance its relations with Kyiv and Moscow. This policy is grounded in Turkish affirmation of Ukrainian sovereignty, balanced against Ankara’s ongoing effort to retain cordial and functional ties with Moscow. As Erdogan explained to pro-government media on his plane ride home, Ankara’s ideal outcome in this crisis is for Russia to de-escalate and to agree to direct, bilateral talks with Kyiv with a Turkish mediator. Erdogan has been explicit and has repeatedly offered to mediate leader-to-leader talks. He has also cast blame on the United States for mishandling the crisis and the West, more broadly, for making it worse. Erdogan’s opinion on the topic fits with the Zelensky government’s handling of the crisis and Kyiv’s criticism of the West for overhyping the threat of invasion and exacerbating Ukrainian economic woes.

The Kremlin has managed to shroud its ultimate ambitions in secrecy, leaving outside observers to guess about the ultimate intent of a potential military operation. Ankara has attached considerable significance to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s potential visit to Turkey after the Winter Olympics in Beijing and views the invitation as part of the government’s broader effort to mediate the crisis by engaging with both sides. This visit—should it happen—may coincide with Russian offensive operations in Ukraine, so the trip could be delayed or cancelled outright. In any case, one potential outcome is that Ankara hosts a victorious war leader who would use the leader-to-leader visit to lend credibility to the military campaign and position Turkey to affirm a military victory, rather than find an off-ramp to current tensions.

The broader challenge that Ankara now faces is that a large-scale Russian operation in Ukraine will upset the fragile balance in the Black Sea region. Turkish elites have made a series of political decisions over the past decade that suggests Erdogan’s circle believes that great power war is unlikely in Europe and Turkey’s near abroad. In December 2017, Ankara has made the decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air and missile defense system, despite being told that such action would lead to the country’s removal from the F-35 co-production consortium. The F-35 serves as the backbone of Western tactical air power and was slated to serve as Turkey’s front-line fighter. Ankara was removed from the consortium in 2019 and has since invested heavily in comparatively low-tech (and low cost) unmanned platforms, some of which are now partly produced in Ukraine.

A Russian invasion of Ukraine would upend Ankara’s assumption about regional, large-scale conflict and could have a series of cascading consequences for Turkey, ranging from negative economic effects to increased tensions in the Black Sea. Ankara’s agreements with Kyiv could also be at risk. If Moscow opts for regime change, it is unclear what a pro-Russian government in Ukraine would do vis-à-vis the aerospace agreements with Turkey. The suspension of any agreement could have secondary effects on Turkey’s future drone development and could even extend to its design efforts for an indigenous jet fighter.

In the past, Ankara has sought to decouple from the United States on the purchase of aerospace products. This decision stems from Turkey’s removal from the F-35 consortium and broader Western discomfort about how Western-origin technological products are used in the Turkish TB2 drone in regional wars, ranging from Nagorno-Karabakh to Ethiopia. Turkish elites have adopted an autarkic vision for the future of the country’s defense products in order to insulate the country from Western pressure. The relationship with Ukraine is a pillar of this policy precisely because the country manufactures the engines that Ankara is interested in using to power its next generation of drones. In short, Ankara has a vested interest in retaining cordial ties with the current government in Ukraine. If these agreements were suspended, then Ankara would have to consider a different approach. Its leadership could continue to invest in indigenous products, or it could once again turn to the United States or suppliers in the West. The Turkish government has also flirted with Russia although the United States has promised to impose sanctions on Moscow in the event of war, which could complicate any further Turkish-Russian cooperation.

The Turkish-Russian relationship is multi-faceted, so Ankara faces an equally difficult challenge in severing ties with Moscow. Ankara, therefore, may not join the United States and Brussels in sanctioning Russia and, instead, continue to position itself as a potential arbiter between the two sides, even after a Russian invasion. The tensions between Ukraine and Russia have obvious implications for Turkish security. Ankara has ample incentives to “fence-sit” in the near term. This policy does not preclude defense cooperation with Ukraine, or even supporting broader NATO responses to reassure member states and to punish Moscow for an invasion. However, it does not mean that the United States should expect Erdogan to second U.S. actions and seek to engage with Russia continuously, even in the event of a conflict. The broader challenges that Ankara will face, though, are going to be outside of its control. The scope and size of a Russian military response depends on thinking in the Kremlin. For now, the signs point to a large-scale offensive. The Turkish relationship with Ukraine may, in fact, be at risk in such a scenario, and, beyond this, the security environment in the Black Sea could degrade and negatively impact Turkish interests. The Ukrainian-Turkish relationship is nuanced and complicated, but it also impacts Ankara’s thinking about its place in the world, as well as its defense relationship with the United States.

The security situation in Turkey’s near-abroad can change rapidly and at any moment. Ankara has few good options to manage Russian actions, but it appears committed to trying to meet with Putin and to mediate a solution. The Russian government, at this time, appears to have no interest in any Turkish role. A large-scale war would test recent Turkish elite assumptions about the future of great power conflict and could have broader implications for the defense industry. Only time will tell, but, at some point, Ankara may have to make broader decisions about its future foreign policy that either risk its relations with Moscow or strain its ties with the West.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.