Another round of peace negotiations, attended by Russian and Ukrainian officials, have just taken place in Istanbul with Turkey in the mediator seat as it continues to pursue a balancing act with the Russia-Ukraine war. As with its response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Turkey was quick to announce support of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and integrity and swift to condemn Russian aggression. Turkey is NATO’s second largest military power yet at the same time it has opted to maintain an open dialogue with Russia during the war, in stark contrast to its NATO allies, as it remains a key economic and political partner. Turkish economic and political pressures also continue to shape its stance on the war with its approach widely perceived as a political test for the Ankara administration ahead of the general election next year. In the short-to-medium term, Turkey’s position will mostly depend on its domestic priorities, including regional interests in the Black Sea Region and for how long its dialogue with Moscow can last without mutual interests clashing, and to what extent it can forward its balanced, mediator role with both Russia and Ukraine.
Turkey’s economic concerns are a key driver for continued cooperation with Russia
Russo-Turkish relations, particularly economic and commercial ties, have expanded considerably since the rapprochement of bilateral relations in 2016 and in the past Russia has used this economic leverage to retaliate against Turkey. In 2021, the trade volume between Russia and Turkey reached $30 billion with a mutual goal to bring commercial trade to $100 billion over the next years. Russians totalled nearly a fifth of monthly visitors to Turkey in 2021 accounting for 19% of foreign visitors with the tourism sector contributing to 10% of Turkish GDP. Turkey also relies heavily on Russia for oil and gas supplies, and it is the largest importer of agricultural products from Russia.
Only last year Ankara encountered a brief spat with Moscow due to deepening defence relations with Kyiv including sale contracts of Turkish manufactured Bayraktar TB2 drones (these have proved successful in countering the Russian military and remains a key area of political disagreement between Ankara and Moscow over Ukraine), which resulted in a blow to the tourism sector. Moscow retaliated by introducing a three-month ban on Russian flights under the guise of increasing COVID cases. The aftershocks from the diplomatic clash are still felt across Turkish markets today aggravating existing economic woes – earlier this month inflation hit a record 20-year high of 54%. Coupled with the rise of global energy prices, including increases in commodity rates, Turkey is in a particularly difficult position when compared to its NATO partners. Although some Western allies also enjoy economic relations with Russia, they are not currently experiencing the same economic pressures when compared to Turkey.
Turkey has chosen to oppose sanctions against Russia due to the potential impacts on the Turkish economy. The fact that Turkey itself is also currently under sanctions, issued by the Trump administration in 2020 in response to its decision to purchase Russian made S-400 missile systems, suggests it is unlikely to join international sanctions. Opposition to sanctions also provides Turkey with room to continue its balanced course with Russia and remain a mediator between both countries. Turkish dependency on Russian energy and business contracts also means that it is similarly unlikely to support the SWIFT embargo. Doing so would result in delayed payments to Turkish companies adding to pressures on an already strained economy. As long as Turkey remains dependent on energy and business contracts and is itself subject to sanctions, it is unlikely to be in a position to support any restrictions against Russia.
Turkey is not only looking to continue its strong economic ties with Russia, but also reportedly looking to strengthen relations with Moscow even if a risk to Turkey due to concerns of secondary sanctions. Unlike its NATO allies, Turkey decided to keep its airspace open to Russia in a bid to underscore commitment towards cooperation with Moscow. This decision has been interpreted as a move by Turkish officials to take the opportunity of an isolated Russia to deepen cooperation while sanctions are beginning to take its toll on Russian markets. Reports of Russian airline companies looking to establish new companies in Turkey, essentially to bypass Western sanctions, have surfaced suggesting that Turkey is willing to offer sanctuary for Russian corporations. However, Ankara risks being targeted with secondary sanctions from Western allies if it is identified as trying to benefit from gaps in sanctions. Coupled with the current economic situation in Turkey, this would be a huge gamble moving forward for Ankara.
Ankara’s ambitions in the Black Sea shape its position as a mediator
The handling of the Russia-Ukraine war is also a political test for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of a widely anticipated general election next year. President Erdogan is facing substantial domestic pressure to prevent any further economic shocks to the Turkish economy and avoid dragging the country into a costly war with Russia for which there is limited appetite. Ankara is attempting to strike a strategic balance between maintaining a mediator position for the conflict while ensuring that Turkey remains a reliable partner for Russia.
Turkey’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war is also dependent on its regional interests across the Black Sea Region, a priority area for the Erdogan administration in recent years and one which will help secure success in next year’s elections. Turkey has been advancing a great power status in the Black Sea Region in a bid to redraw the power balance through calculated policy decisions to challenge Russian dominance in the area. Both Russia and Turkey view the Black Sea Region as their area of influence resulting in heightened tensions over the years. Consequently, President Erdogan is aware of the pressure to continue this policy direction in the Black Sea and the electoral consequences which would follow should Turkey’s control be weakened. The decision to close the Bosphorus Strait under the 1936 Montreux Convention to block warships from passing is both symbolic and a clear sign that it is unwilling to waive its position. However, Turkey will have to tread carefully to see how far it can forward a balanced approach with Moscow before its own regional dominance comes under threat and a conflict of interest ensues. Turkey will also have to cautiously navigate increasing security threats from Russia which is likely to increase if it continues to encircle Turkey.
Ankara’s decision to maintain strategic balance between Kyiv and Moscow also allows it to remain somewhat neutral on the war given the lack of substantial public support for either side. While the Turkish population largely view Russian aggression in Ukraine as unjust and support Ukrainian sovereignty, scepticism remains towards the role of NATO and EU within this war. The discussions around Ukraine’s bid for EU membership and requests for fast-track approval touches upon a sensitive nerve in Turkey considering its own candidacy process began in 1987 and is still undergoing consideration. Similarly with NATO, the huge domestic toll of the ongoing Syria war for Turkey, particularly the ensuing refugee crisis which remains a national security concern, means that Turkish population feel a level of distrust towards its Western allies.
To what extent Turkey will be able forward its position as a balanced power will depend on how long the Russian invasion endures and if Turkey will be capable to shield itself from secondary sanctions should it agree to new business contracts with Russia. For the Turkish population, Ankara’s path in the war will be viewed as a political test ahead of the 2023 elections with all eyes focussed on the Turkish economy, including its recovery, and if a costly war can be prevented. The key question for the short-to-medium term will be for how long Russia and Turkey can continue an open dialogue without interests clashing in the Black Sea Region which remains a major concern and will guide Turkey’s future actions on Ukraine.