March 8, 2022

IntelBrief: Turkey Treads Carefully in Ukraine Crisis

AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Bottom Line up Front

  • Concerned about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, NATO member Turkey has sought to avoid alienating Russia while also helping Ukraine militarily.
  • Turkey has closed the entrance to the Black Sea for Russian warships, but has not yet closed its airspace to Russian commercial flights.
  • Putin is in a position to retaliate against Turkey by increasing support to Ankara’s adversaries in Armenia, Syria, and Libya.
  • An importer of oil and natural gas, Turkey’s already strained economy will be damaged further by the crisis-induced spike in oil and gas prices.

Turkey’s membership in NATO, its role as a regional power, and its geographic proximity to the Russia-Ukraine theater of war render Ankara a pivotal actor whose support is sought by both sides. Washington and other NATO capitals have sought to prevail on Turkey to decisively side with the policies of its NATO partners in this conflict. Yet, Turkey has itself done battle with Moscow in several major conflicts in the past and its calculations about the Russian invasion are complicated. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is, like other NATO leaders, shocked by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine to replace its pro-Western government. It had earlier publicly opposed Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. But Turkey remains wary of Russian military power and dependent on Russian natural gas, which constitutes more than 50% of Turkey’s supplies. Moreover, Turkey gets 64% of its grain imports from Russia; though it imports natural gas from Iran and Azerbaijan, neither country could fully replace Russian shipments if Moscow were to shut off the gas flow entirely. The Russian invasion occurs at a time when Turkey’s economy has been severely weakened by high inflation (nearly 40%), which Erdogan has worsened by lowering - rather than raising - interest rates, against the advice of the country’s leading economists. Turkey’s economy is suffering further damage from the spike in oil and gas prices since the invasion began, and a total cutoff of Russian commodities would almost certainly collapse the Turkish economy.

Aside from economic and diplomatic considerations, Turkey is on the opposite side of Russia in current regional conflicts affecting its vital interests. In formulating its Russia policy now, Ankara will bear in mind that Russia is in a position to increase its support for actors and factions opposed to Turkey and its allies in Syria, Libya, and Armenia. Erdogan’s relations with Putin have long been strained by Russia’s intervention on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, which Turkey was hoping would fall to the armed rebellion that developed in 2011. Turkey shot down a Russian combat jet in 2015; Russia compelled Erdogan to apologize personally for the downing. Russia and Turkey support rival factions in Libya, which reportedly might be on the brink of renewed conflict as its U.N.-backed political reconciliation has stalled. Less than two years ago, Turkey’s military support for Azerbaijan helped Baku recapture the territories in Nagorno-Karabakh lost to Armenia, a Russian ally, in a brutal conflict in the early 1990s.

Turkey’s leaders have sought to balance their public responses by openly questioning Putin’s use of force to remake Ukraine’s political orientation, while at the same time calling for a ceasefire and offering to host diplomacy to end the fighting. Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated on March 1 that Turkey would not join its Western allies in imposing economic sanctions on Russia. And, on March 4, following a NATO meeting in Brussels, Cavusoglu said that Turkey would keep its airspace open “...from a strategic and humanitarian point of view,” rather than close its airspace to Russian commercial air traffic.

Yet, Turkey’s actions, undertaken with little publicity, suggest that Ankara wants the Russian invasion to fail - an outcome that would yield significant strategic benefits for Turkey. On February 28, Ankara responded favorably to a Ukrainian request to close its Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to Russian warships. Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey has control over the straits that connect the Aegean (part of the Mediterranean), Marmara (Turkey’s inland sea), and the Black Sea - the latter of which was the staging area from which Russia has advanced along Ukraine’s southern coast. The Convention enables Turkey to limit the passage of warships during wartime or if threatened. Turkey has officially termed the current conflict as a “war,” enabling it to legally trigger the Convention’s restrictions. The pact exempts vessels returning to their bases, and the practical effect of the closure applies to any Russian attempt to reinforce its Black Sea fleet with ships that are outside that waterway. Cavusoglu tried to downplay the move for Russian leaders by saying: “Nobody should be offended by this, because the Montreux Convention is valid today, yesterday and tomorrow, so we will implement it,” the foreign minister said.

Perhaps more likely to risk eventual Russian retaliation has been Turkey’s provision of the Bayraktar TB2 armed drones to Ukraine. The Bayraktar proved itself highly effective as the cornerstone of Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. Within the past few years, as Putin’s threats against Ukraine escalated, Turkey reportedly sold Ukraine about 20 TB2s. Turkey has also signed a deal with Kyiv to co-produce more of them, and Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on March 2 that Ukraine was set to receive another shipment of TB2s. Ukrainian forces have used the weapon to destroy numerous Russian tanks, fuel supply trucks, and rocket positions, according to press reports, and increasing shipments of the weapon to Ukraine risks provoking Moscow.  Whereas President Erdogan might be trying to balance his relations with Russia, Ukraine and his NATO partners, it is likely that President Putin will see Ankara’s actions in support of Ukraine as aggressive, with potentially significant adverse consequences for Turkish interests if Putin prevails. It was announced yesterday that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba would meet for talks in southern Turkey this upcoming Thursday. Like Israel, Turkey is attempting to use its good relationship with both Russia and Ukraine to play the role of mediator, though all signs so far demonstrate Moscow’s intransigence and commitment to pursuing a devastating scorched earth campaign in Ukraine.