As tensions rise between Ukraine and Russia, both countries are building up their military forces near the border. If the conflict escalates in the energy-rich Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, Kiev is counting on direct and open support from Nato. But how would Turkey, with the second-largest army in the alliance, react if a confrontation spills into the Black Sea region?
Turkey remained relatively passive when the political crisis in Ukraine first erupted in late 2013. There was, however, formal condemnation of Russia’s action in the Crimea in 2014. But today, despite Russian activity in the Donbas (although Russia has no troops stationed there, it is arming local militias), Ankara’s relations with Moscow remain good. Even when Russia and Turkey supported different proxies in the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, the two countries managed to create a “situational alliance” on the ground.
Russia and Turkey also have kept on developing trade relations. Turkey purchased the Russian S-400 missile system in 2019 and in 2020 Russia completed construction of the TurkStream pipeline, which allows Moscow to bypass Ukraine and send natural gas to southern Europe via Turkey. Russia also is heavily involved in building the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in southern Turkey.
But at the same time, Ankara has been busy developing deeper economic, political and military ties with Ukraine. In October last year, the Ukrainian and Turkish defense ministers signed a memorandum of understanding outlining cooperation on joint projects to build warships, unmanned aerial vehicles and turbines. This year, on March 24, Ankara hosted meetings between officials from Turkey’s foreign and defense ministries with their Ukrainian counterparts.
Turkey recently announced that its heavy-class attack helicopter, the ATAK 2, will be operational from 2023 with a Ukrainian-produced engine. Meanwhile, Kiev has bought 12 Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 Tactical Block 2 drones, which proved very effective during the hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh last autumn and could well turn out to be a game-changer in the six-year Donbas conflict. Ukraine is set to purchase five more Bayraktar drones this year and there are plans for longer-term business cooperation with its neighbor on the other side of the Black Sea, including joint aircraft production.
The indications are that Ukraine is preparing for an escalation of hostilities in the Donbas, where Russia-backed forces effectively control coal production, and that Turkey is actively involved in this process, which is why Ukrainian officials often refer to Turkey as “a very reliable strategic partner.”
The way Russia refers to Turkey has changed, however. In 2018, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke of enhancing the “strategic partnership” between the two countries. Last year, he changed his tune, saying, “Russia has never considered Turkey as its strategic ally.”
It is not hard to fathom why. Turkey wants to be the dominant power in the Black Sea region and Russia is the only real challenger. Turkey shares historic ties with Crimea, as well as religious and ethnic ties with the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group that makes up an estimated 13 percent of the population on the peninsula. Crimea was a vassal state of the Ottoman empire from the 15th to the 18th centuries and there is a substantial Tartar diaspora living in Turkey that still sees the peninsula as part of the “Turkic world,” and would love nothing more than to have Ankara as a buffer against Russia. For a start, they argue that stronger Turkish influence would mean more recognition of Tartar culture in Crimea, with funding for mosques and Tartar schools, for example.
In the short-term, however, it is more likely that any Turkish involvement in Ukraine will be very much under the radar, in the interest of sustaining partnerships with both Kiev and Moscow. After all, Russia is one of Turkey’s top 10 trading partners and the transporting of gas through Turkey via the TurkStream pipeline certainly helps Ankara’s ambitions to become a regional energy hub.
But how to maintain that delicate balancing act? The most likely scenario is that Turkey continues to support Kiev and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine – at least verbally – but stops short of doing anything to cause tensions with Moscow.
Russia has not yet complained officially about Turkey’s sale of arms to Ukraine, even though Turkish drones could help Ukraine retake the Donbas. Even if the conflict there heats up, it is unlikely to spill over into Crimea – at least in the short term.
The longer-term picture looks more troubling, potentially. If the power balance in the Donbas shifts in Ukraine’s favor, Moscow will start viewing Ukrainian-Turkish military ties as a serious problem, especially in Crimea, where Ankara would be certain to back Kiev and support the Crimean Tartars.
Given the more pugnacious nature of Turkey’s foreign policy in recent years, Turkey’s greater involvement is a virtual certainty and, beyond Donbas, a new theater of conflict is likely to emerge on the Crimean peninsula.
Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”