Ukraine and Russia’s complex relationship with Turkey

Ukraine and Russia’s complex relationship with Turkey

Ukraine has lately been the scene of an unfolding political and military thriller that could potentially upset the existing balance and have long-term consequences on the European security architecture.

One factor, which both affects and is affected by the situation, is the potential balance of Turkey’s relations with Russia and the West. This affects our country both directly and indirectly. To fully comprehend this dynamic and its possible consequences, we must holistically examine the nature of Russo-Turkish relations through the lens of their national strategies. 

Russia and Turkey are considered historical enemies, but their relationship is far more complex, at least over the last century. During the Asia Minor Campaign, Vladimir Lenin supported Mustafa Kemal Ataturk politically, economically and militarily. During the Cold War, despite being on opposing sides, Turkey received more Soviet aid than any country that was not a member of the Warsaw Pact. However, from 2016 onward the relationship evolved into something almost symbiotic, with a coordinated presence of both countries on all fronts, from Syria and Libya to the Caucasus region and Mali. Even if they often appear to be on opposing sides, their coordination is remarkable and is reminiscent of a classical ballet pas de deux.

Essentially, both countries benefited from the geopolitical vacuum left by the waning interest of the United States and a weak Europe to increase their influence and establish a presence in the wider region of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. They do not always share common interests, but their strategies are aligned, and any cracks are papered over by the mutual benefit in freezing out the West, allowing them to partition their influence over these areas based on their relative power. Both countries are negatively predisposed toward a liberal international order, governed by the rule of law, as it would constrict them.

There are wider similarities between Russia and Turkey, both in the authoritarianism of their domestic politics as well as the aggression displayed in their foreign affairs. The jailing of Alexei Navalny in Russia is not very different from that of Osman Kavala in Turkey. Both countries have militarized their foreign policy. They do not hesitate in invading neighboring countries and creating puppet regimes (Donetsk, Abkhazia, North Syria), they conduct hybrid warfare, and they seek to coerce countries that resist.

The symmetry is astounding. Russia demands the withdrawal of NATO forces and Turkey demands the demilitarization of Greek islands. Russia threatens war if Georgia and Ukraine are admitted into the alliance, Turkey threatens war if Greece expands its territorial waters.

The two of them shut out the West in Syria through the Astana Process, managing to achieve the almost total withdrawal of US forces from the country. For its part, Russia established its presence in the country by saving the Assad regime while Turkey has occupied areas of northern Syria, conducting ethnic cleansing and forcibly moving the Kurdish population from its borders. The erosion of the Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the West’s only active ally in the region, materially favored the so-called Islamic State. In Libya, the presence of one country’s mercenary forces “legitimizes” the others.

Russia and Turkey have firmly latched on and are able to undermine any solution that could disadvantage them. Perpetuating the current state of affairs benefits both countries, even if it is problematic for Europe. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia and Turkey brushed the OSCE Minsk Group aside, minimizing all Western influence. In Mali, Turkey’s political and religious inroads in combination with the deployment of the Russian Wagner Group are contributing to the withdrawal of France and Europe.

Their mutual interests are not limited to reducing Western influence. They also include their objection to the strategic unification of the European Union (preferring to deal with each member-state separately) and their common opposition to the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), desiring to see Europe energy-reliant on pipelines in their countries.

Russia landed a blow on the West when it sold Turkey its S-400 missile system and created divisions within NATO. It puts up with some Turkish maneuvers it finds troublesome as it accrues many and significant strategic benefits. Ultimately, if required, Russia also has a lot of leverage to rein in Turkey.

In Turkey, the ruling political class perceives international relations in a transactional fashion. According to this mind-set, the international system is now in a “post-Western” and multipolar state, which provides them with greater freedom of movement and an opportunity to maneuver. Through this lens, their interests are best served by Turkey emerging as a force for geopolitical equilibrium between the great powers.

The goal of Turkey is to become a “transregional” power that will ally itself on a case-by-case basis with whoever can offer it the most. Its aim is to reclaim its historic role as the regulating power in the region and as a crucial mediator. As its power grows, so does its negotiating power and its level of autonomy. It wishes to treat with the great powers as an equal, like it did in the days of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey was never really part of the West, neither politically, culturally, nor, apart from the Cold War period, geopolitically. Its many identities, whether real or imagined, coexist and are instrumentalized as necessary. With the West, Turkey presents itself as a bulwark against Russia. With Russia, it is part of Eurasia. In North Africa and the Middle East, it focuses on its Islamic role. In Central Asia, it highlights the importance of its Turkic legacy. In the Balkans, it is the Ottoman past. In Africa, it has an Islamic and anti-colonial focus. It even adopts particularly anti-Western rhetoric in promoting itself as the protector of the weak and the forgotten on the “margins.” All on a case-by-case basis and all at the same time.

Historically, as far back as the Ottoman era, Turkey played one great power off another. It wanted to deftly pick neutrality and sit on the fence, waiting to be approached by the side that has the most to offer. Whenever it has an issue with Russia, it calls on NATO. Whenever it has a problem with the West, it threatens to join Russia. And it works. Indicatively, when Turkish warships threatened the French frigate Courbet, a clear violation of NATO tenets, only eight countries sided with France. The rest were afraid of “losing Turkey” to Russia.

In conclusion, the bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey are very strong and firmly rooted in the strategy of both countries. This is why they will not be severed by the crisis in Ukraine, even if they are tested. When the crisis is over, it is most likely that both countries will have benefited.

Even if they seem to be on opposing sides, their timing is impressive.

Alexandros Diakopoulos is former national security adviser to the Greek prime minister.

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