The competition between Turkey and Ukraine in the energy and tourism sectors has in no way negatively impacted attempts to strengthen cooperation between the two countries, which enjoy strong historical ties. Kyiv has deepened cooperation with Ankara since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Ukraine uses Turkish drones effectively in its fight against Russian separatists. Ankara aims to partner with Ukraine to counter Russian expansionism and even plans on limiting the United States’ influence in the Black Sea as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pursues an expansionist foreign policy in the region despite Turkey’s membership in NATO. While joining NATO and support from the European Union are important for Kyiv to end Moscow’s Crimea occupation, Ankara is keen to collaborate with Ukraine to change the power dynamic in the region.
Crimean Tatars, who have ethnic links to Turks, are Turkey’s priority in Ukraine, and Ankara strongly opposed Russia’s Crimea annexation and supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Perhaps most important to Turkey as a country with a coastline of more than 1,000 kilometers on the Black Sea and control of the Bosporus and Dardanelle straits is that it views Russia’s presence in the Crimean Peninsula as a threat to its national security in the region. Despite being a NATO member, Ankara doesn’t enthusiastically welcome US or any other NATO navies in the Black Sea, as the Turkish administration is well aware of the high risk involved should tensions arise with Russia. Moscow has identified Crimea as part of its national security and has increased its military presence in the region threefold since 2014. Russia had displayed aggression by firing warning shots and dropping bombs in the path of a British HMC royal navy destroyer as it sailed some 12 miles (19 kilometers) off Crimea’s coast in June. Russia confirmed the confrontation; however, the British defense minister denied that Russian jets fired at the HMS Defender, stating that the Royal Navy ship was simply conducting an innocent passage through the internationally recognized transit route from Odessa in southern Ukraine to Georgia. According to Reuters, the United States also cancelled the deployment of two warships to the Black Sea following a Russian military buildup on the Ukraine border in April.
The Ukrainian government has yet to find a solution and mediate with Russia to prevent an invasion. Kyiv is desperate to be part of NATO, but US President Joe Biden has on several occasions made clear that Ukraine would need to first address corruption and meet other specific criteria before being able to join the Alliance. According to a report by Fox News in June, President Biden has, however, assured Ukraine that it would receive the necessary support from the Alliance despite rising tensions with Russia. While still awaiting a place in NATO, Kyiv has worked on strengthening its defense relations with Turkey, which is home to NATO’s second-largest army.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has visited Turkey twice since October of last year amid rising tensions over Russia’s military activities at the Ukraine border. Government forces and Russian-backed separatists have been fighting there since 2014, and more than 14,000 people have died. Erdoğan at the time committed to helping Ukraine solve its issues with Russia through dialogue, also agreeing to improve defense relations with Ukraine. Turkey has since 2019 been selling Bayraktar TB2 armed drones to Ukraine, with both countries currently contributing to the joint production of Turkish Bayraktar drones and the production of Ukrainian Antonov aircraft. Turkey successfully used armed drones against militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and US, within its borders as well as in Libya, Syria and the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ukraine has also recently started using Turkish drones against Russian separatists.
Turkey is proceeding strategically and enthusiastically in strengthening ties with Ukraine while being just cautious enough to not provoke Moscow. Ankara has a complex relationship with Moscow as they are on opposing sides in Syria and Libya but are keen to continue pursuing their shared economic and strategic interests. Despite strong opposition from NATO and the threat of US sanctions, Ankara bought the Russian S-400 air defense missile system. Turkish President Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have over the last few years established a strong personal relationship, Turkey having shot down a Russian jet in November 2015 notwithstanding. Last year both leaders sponsored a cease-fire deal in the northwestern Syrian region of Idlib, home to jihadist groups who are fighting against Bashar al-Assad. The two leaders recently also met in Sochi to discuss the Syrian conflict.
Yet despite all these divisions, Erdoğan has managed to stay in contact with Putin, and they have had several in-person meetings on matters relating to the region. However, Turkish drones in Ukraine seem to have disturbed Russia. Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently warned that Turkey’s drones in the conflict area in Ukraine have contributed to destabilization in the region. To de-escalate the situation, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told the media that Turkey is not responsible for Ukraine’s use of Turkish drones in its conflict with pro-Moscow rebels, following a meeting with his Russian counterpart Lavrov on the sidelines at the G20 summit in Rome on October 30.
Turkey has successfully pursued many military operations, including in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and the advanced Turkish drones have to some degree contributed to making Erdoğan’s dream of expansionism a reality. However, at present Turkey finds itself in the midst of a serious economic crisis while Erdoğan’s health is deteriorating. Erdoğan solidified his power by transforming the country from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential system in 2018. He established one-man rule in Turkey and solidified strong control over the Turkish army.
Should Erdoğan’s health deteriorate to a point that prevents him from continuing to engage with Putin personally, Turkey and Russia might find themselves in the midst of a deep conflict, especially in Syria. As Turkey attempts to counter Russia by helping Ukraine, Russia might decide to do the same by supporting Assad and Syrian Kurds to threaten Ankara from across Turkey’s southeastern border.