Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shocked the world and changed the European landscape. President Vladimir Putin was upset by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and he made several efforts to regain territory he thinks Russia has “lost”. While why it decided to attack Ukraine at this particular time may remain a mystery, Russia has emerged as a revisionist power, and its belligerent behavior has added a new element to Turkey’s relations with the West and with the European Union in particular.
Turkey’s reaction to the invasion was initially muted. For example, he refrained from supporting Russia’s suspension from the Council of Europe. But, as the carnage in Ukraine mounted, Turkey aligned itself with criticism from Russia and shifted slightly to the West. He voiced his support for Ukraine, called on Russia to “immediately put an end to this unjust and illegal act” and joined the UN General Assembly’s majority vote condemning Russia – an important sign. But how long can this balancing act continue?
Turkey’s approach to sanctions against Russia
Turkey has not joined EU or US sanctions against Russia. Firstly, he is not convinced that the sanctions are working, even though the scope and depth of these measures are unprecedented and are already having an effect – for example, the closure of European airspace to all Russian planes is causing no doubt in the Kremlin. Secondly, Turkey is only following the sanctions imposed by the United Nations and can argue that because it was not consulted by the EU or the United States, it does not feel bound by their decisions. .
It remains to be seen how Turkey would react if the war in Ukraine continued and Russia tried to increase its fleet in the Black Sea.
Turkey has called the situation in Ukraine a war, thereby triggering Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, which states that Passage through the Turkish Strait should only be granted to military vessels of the warring parties if they are asked to return to their home bases. This means that Ankara can prevent Russian warships from crossing from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. It remains to be seen how Turkey would react if the war in Ukraine continued and Russia tried to increase its fleet in the Black Sea.
Turkey and Russia are far apart on many international issues, such as the Balkans, the Caucasus, Syria, Libya and especially Cyprus. Only the power, gas and nuclear power plants and the personal camaraderie of their respective presidents have allowed Russia and Turkey to refrain from having a damaging relationship despite the many difficulties encountered, such as Turkey shooting down a Russian plane in 2015 or Turkish troops. killed in northern Syria by Russian planes two years ago. Even when Turkey supplied Ukraine with drones which were then used against Russian-backed insurgents in the Donbass, criticism of Russia was limited.
Rapprochement with the West
An important question is whether this crisis can bring Turkey and the West closer together.
The only country that benefits from the current estrangement between Turkey and the European Union is Russia. This includes the Cyprus issue. Until it is resolved, relations between Turkey and the EU can never gain ground, furthering Russia’s goal of keeping Europe weak. There is a need to find creative ways to bring Turkey and the EU closer because the current situation is untenable and detrimental to both sides.
President Recep Tayip Erdoğan spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel almost monthly during the last two years of his chancellorship. He contacted EU leaders in Brussels and other EU presidents and prime ministers. Although there was not much progress in Turkey-EU relations, the dialogue was important.
Likewise, Turkey and the United States have a long list of grievances in many areas and now is the time to build trust between them. Among these are Turkey’s purchase of S-400 defense systems from Russia and the subsequent withdrawal of the new US F-35 fighter jet program, which has sown mistrust between Ankara and Washington. Turkey’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could help. The phone call between Erdoğan and President Joe Biden on March 10 was a step in that direction.
For various reasons, Turkey has also continued several diplomatic maneuvers and softened its rhetoric beyond Europe and the United States, which should also help its relations with the West as it demonstrates a return to the traditional diplomacy of the country.
Since the end of 2020, Turkey has started to improve its relations with Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Talks with Armenia have also started. This rebalancing of external relations is mainly due to economic reasons. Turkey is going through a very difficult economic period and is in urgent need of foreign investment. That is why, for example, it pivots towards the Gulf States. Turkey’s foreign policy has been both ideological and personal since 2009, and particularly after the 2016 coup attempt. But, due to its economic difficulties, ideology has taken precedence over personal relationships. While Israel’s change of government offered a chance for re-engagement, it is doubtful that Turkey can restore relations with Egypt as long as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom Erdoğan holds responsible for the death of the former President Mohamed Morsi remains in power.
EU enlargement is making a comeback
The war in Ukraine laid the foundation for many policies and accentuated the need for increased security and defence. In this context, the enlargement of the EU becomes a key point. Western Balkan countries are tired of waiting for their accession process to move forward, and the situation in Ukraine could be a game-changer.
Ukraine has now applied for membership and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has responded by saying: “They are ours and we want them in.” Moldova and Georgia have also applied. The immediate response from the Council of the EU was that member states decide on enlargement, and eight members have already given their support, as has the European Parliament.
Turkey would support Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership, but it would also like to hear remarks such as “they are one of us”. The EU should also respond to Turkey’s priorities. With regard to improving relations, the EU calls on Turkey to respect fundamental rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law. Nobody expects Ankara to put them aside, but the question calls for pragmatism and confidence.
Foreign policy cooperation and coordination
The most immediate way forward involves foreign policy cooperation and coordination. Despite Turkey’s repeated efforts to act in tandem with the EU during the Arab popular movements a decade ago or in the Balkans, the EU has rebuffed these attempts. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine should now make cooperation a priority.
We cannot know how the war in Ukraine will end but, from what we hear of Putin’s demands, it may not end there. After a lull, it could start threatening Russia’s other neighbors. As many claim, the era of “cold peace” is over and the world is entering a new phase in international relations in which no one can be complacent.
Turkey’s support for Ukraine does not mean being Russia’s enemy. Russian planes can still fly to Istanbul. Turkish ministers continue to discuss with their Russian counterparts. Erdoğan can also reach out to Putin, and if he has leverage, now is the time to use it. These contacts are invaluable in efforts to stop the bloodshed. The March 10 meeting between the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia in Antalya was a valiant effort. However, as the Russian demand that Ukraine give up its weapons remained a condition of the ceasefire, there could be no progress.
Turkey’s support for Ukraine does not mean being Russia’s enemy.
For the past 70+ years, apart from the Yugoslav succession wars, the European continent was peaceful. But nothing can be taken for granted anymore. Authoritarian leaders who were seen primarily as a threat to freedom in their own country have now demonstrated that they are not bound by borders. We must not let history repeat itself. What happens in Europe will have global ramifications. On the one hand, China is looking forward to it.
Turkey, the EU and the US need to recalibrate their relationship with each other. They have many problems to overcome, but Turkey has taken the first step towards NATO by calling on the alliance to do more to help Ukraine. While some argue that Ukraine’s potential NATO membership triggered Russia’s invasion, the counter-argument could be that such membership protected the Baltic states and other former communist countries.
Improving relations between Turkey and the West has to start somewhere, and if Putin’s attack on Ukraine hasn’t convinced both sides that it’s urgent, then nothing will. .
Selim Yenel is the president of the Global Relations Forum. Previously, he was a diplomat, notably Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of Turkey to the European Union and Under-Secretary at the Ministry of European Affairs.