As the spectre of war in Ukraine looms over Europe, what individual NATO members do – or choose not to do – will have a geopolitical impact on how any conflict unfolds.
When it comes to Ukraine, Turkey is no ordinary NATO member. It has recently been selling armed drones to Kyiv – some of which the Ukrainian military has already used in Donbas, to great effect, against pro-Russian targets. Turkey is also a close ally of Russia, and a key trading partner – and Ankara has been careful not to step on Moscow’s toes across different conflict zones.
Under Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, Turkey and Russia share much more than meets the eye. The two resurgent powers want to shake up the post-Soviet world order, they each have a disdain for liberal norms, and they both want a greater role on the world stage for their respective countries. Turkey and Russia have also developed a unique form of relationship, often dubbed “competitive cooperation,” whereby they back opposing sides in conflicts in Libya, Syria, and the South Caucasus but do so in a way that recognises each other’s expanding sphere of influence.
This unique relationship between Erdogan and Putin can be hard for Western countries to fully comprehend. In 2014, Turkey criticised the Russian invasion of Crimea but did not join the US-led sanctions against Russia. In 2017, Turkey signed a deal to buy the Russian-made S-400 missile system and, against American objections, received it in 2019, despite the threat of US sanctions.
No doubt Ankara will want to stay out of any military conflict with Russia over Ukraine. Despite its growing defence sales to Ukraine, its instinct will be to try to sit on the fence. In all likelihood, Ankara would join with its NATO partners in condemning a Russian invasion; but it would not go with them in imposing sanctions. Erdogan will aim to continue cooperation with Russia in Syria and in the economic sphere; but he would also step up engagement with NATO, with the aim of improving his global standing and reducing international criticism of him for his domestic conduct. This last point is becoming more important for the Turkish leader as a united opposition emerges against him and opinion polls show an anti-Erdogan majority.
This is a tough course to follow, though. If an invasion happens and NATO starts supplying weapons to the Ukrainian forces, would Ankara continue to deliver armed drones to Kyiv? Would it facilitate NATO access to the Black Sea? Would it slow its burgeoning relations with Russia?
It is too early to know the answers to these questions. But, given the significant leverage Russia has over Turkey in Syria, and over its tottering economy, Ankara would likely seek to do just enough to elevate its standing with NATO (and use this as an opportunity to improve ties with Washington) but less than what it would take to trigger a Russian reprisal.
Here is why. In Syria, Ankara depends on Moscow’s consent to continue to control the safe zone Turkish troops established after mounting successive incursions into the country. Russia controls the air space and everything else around. And it is largely Russia’s presence that holds together the fragile ceasefire in northern Syria between the Syrian opposition, the Syrian regime, Turkey, and the Syrian Kurds.
Turkey would therefore pay a huge price in Syria if Russia turned against it over its stance on Ukraine. For example, in Idlib, several million Syrians live in a safe haven run by the Syrian opposition, with Turkish support. But this part of the country is vulnerable to a regime offensive, should Russia sign off on this. It would only take a few sorties by the Syrian or the Russian air force to create panic among the Sunni population in Idlib and force millions of Syrians towards the Turkish border – something that Ankara cannot afford to have, given the presence of already four million Syrian refugees in Turkey and growing anti-Syrian sentiments among the public.
Russia also has great economic leverage over Turkey. In addition to the S-400s, Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear reactor, it has recently constructed a pipeline underneath the Black Sea to Turkey, and it is supplying the bulk of Turkey’s natural gas. Despite Ankara’s desire for energy diversification, Turkish cities still need Russian natural gas to stay warm.
This does not mean Ankara is a Russian vassal or happy about this dependence on Moscow. But it does mean Turks will tread gingerly when it comes to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ankara also has a close relationship with Kyiv and has consistently supported the independence of Ukraine, Moldova, and other post-Soviet countries – in the much same way that the Ottomans sought to prevent Russian expansion for centuries, for example, aligning with Western powers against Russia in the Crimean war. Kemalist Turkey initially aligned itself with the Soviet Union but later sought to limit its influence by joining NATO in 1952.
Erdogan met Volodymyr Zelensky several times in 2021, and Ukraine has also purchased at least a dozen Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey – which eventually irritated Moscow enough to prompt a telephone conversation between Erdogan and Putin. Ukrainian firms have what Turkey’s defence industry lacks – know-how about how to produce diesel engines for Turkey’s ambitious defence projects, including tanks and fighter jets.
If an invasion happens, Turkey would be under pressure from NATO to keep supplying Ukraine with drones and other equipment. There might be demands for entry into and out of the Black Sea, controlled at the Bosporus by Turkey. And if Turkey wants an exemption from Western sanctions on Russia, it would be asked to do more to help an anti-Russian insurgency in Ukraine – which American officials have said they are prepared to support if diplomacy fails.
But, while Ukraine may be a useful partner for Turkey, and a good vehicle to improve Ankara’s troubled relations with NATO, from a Turkish perspective the country is not a strategic prize worth going to war over.
In the crucible of conflict, neither NATO nor Russia will appreciate Turkish ambiguity, and each will seek subtle ways to pressure Turkey to take a stand. Turkey has been here before – it attempted a similar approach in both the first and second world war, succeeding in the latter case but failing miserably and catastrophically in the first. Erdogan has in the past proven himself a master of such geopolitical balancing. But, with a weakened position at home and alienated partners abroad, a war in Ukraine would be his greatest challenge to date.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.