In the recent escalation between Russia and Ukraine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was unusually outspoken in his support for Kyiv. He hosted his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, in Ankara as Russia massed an unprecedented number of troops near Ukraine’s border. Erdogan reiterated Turkey’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and even its ambition to join NATO. Turkey and Ukraine also pledged to continue their military cooperation, with Turkish drones making their way onto the battlefield in Donbas.
But what is behind Turkey’s renewed cooperation with Ukraine – and what does it mean for Turkey’s relations with Russia?
Ankara and Moscow grew close after the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. This drove a wedge between Ankara and its long-time ally, Washington, because Turkish leaders accused the US of supporting the coup attempt by hosting its alleged mastermind, Fethullah Gulen. Russian President Vladimir Putin played on this story well, by calling Erdogan on the night of the coup and offering help when most Western leaders were sitting on the fence.
But the Turkish-Russian relationship has always been a complicated one – relying on the chemistry between the two leaders instead of an institutional framework. Gradually, Turkey and Russia developed a kind of uncomfortable co-dependency – one that scholars call “competitive cooperation”. This meant continuing to coordinate their policies while carving out separate zones of influence through support for opposite sides in the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and the Caucuses.
But Ukraine has emerged as an outlier in this picture. From the beginning, Turkey supported Ukraine’s independence from Russia and opposed the Russian annexation of Crimea – but not too loudly. Ankara did not want Ukraine to become an irritant in the delicate Turkish-Russian relationship, and limited its support for Kyiv to rhetoric, shying away from sanctions on Russia or military support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russian-backed forces in Donbas.
This now seems to be changing, in part because Ukraine presents itself as a useful counterweight in Turkey’s balancing act among great powers – and as leverage against Russia.
Turkey is also drawn to the value Ukraine holds for the West – at a time when Erdogan is increasingly desperate to mend fences with both the United States and the European Union. The Biden administration has given Ankara the cold shoulder from day one. And there is a long list of problems in the Turkish-US relationship that starts with Turkey’s purchase in 2019 of Russian-made S-400 missile systems – a strategic mistake that prompted the US to target Turkey’s defence industry under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Turkey also has problems with its other NATO partners, many of which began to view the country with suspicion after its unilateral moves in the eastern Mediterranean last summer.
Erdogan recognises that both the Turkish economy and his popularity are in decline. He knows that normalising relations with Western allies and boosting Turkey’s pro-Western credentials are the only ways to create a positive economic outlook and ease Turkey’s international isolation.
Ankara hopes that its support for Ukraine will curry favour with US President Joe Biden – whose pro-Ukrainian credentials are well-known, as reflected in his unwavering support for the country in its recent stand-off with Russia. Turkey can now credibly promote the idea that it is an indispensable NATO ally pushing back against Russia across the Middle East and eastern Europe. Through Ukraine, Turkey can remind the world that it is still part of the West – that it is a NATO ally.
But there are other reasons that have to do with Turkey’s ambitious domestic defence industry, of which drones are the crown jewel. At a time when Western nations impose sanctions on the sale of sensitive technology to Turkey’s drones, Ukraine is willing to work with the country. Ukraine’s defence production capabilities in engines match what Turkey lacks.
Turkish drones played a key role in pushing back the Syrian regime in Idlib in March 2020, and in the Nagorno-Karabakh war in autumn 2020.
Turkey sold six Bayraktar drones to Ukraine in 2019. And Ukraine is interested in purchasing 48 more. The countries are also discussing joint production of corvette ships and AN-178 military transport aircraft. They signed in 2020 an agreement on the joint production of turbine engines, including those for military aviation. With the drones headed to the conflict in Donbas, and possibly other Turkish equipment to the Sea of Azov, Turkey knows there is no better publicity for its ambitious defence programme.
Admittedly, there are also historical reasons why Turkey supports Ukraine. Ankara has never recognised the Russian annexation of Crimea. And, since the 1853-1856 Crimean war, Turkey has welcomed Tatars, who feel an affinity with the region. Seeing Russia as an expansionist power to the north, Turkey has supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity from the beginning. Yet, while it stood up for the Crimean Tatars, Turkey was careful not to tread on Russia’s toes in Crimea. The annexation never dominated Turkish-Russian relations, which is why Turkey’s position remained palatable for Russia.
Now, however, Moscow is growing uneasy with Ankara’s burgeoning relationship with Kyiv. Last month, some of Erdogan’s allies suggested that Turkey could revoke 1936 Montreux Convention, which guarantees free passage for Russian ships through the Turkish Straits. Even though the Turkish president denied this, the debate irritated Moscow.
In April 2021, Russia decided to stop tourist flows into Turkey, delivering a major blow to a Turkish tourist industry already suffering from the pandemic. Russia has also called on Turkey to stop providing Ukraine with military equipment – with the Russian media peddling the wild theory that Erdogan wants Crimea for himself.
Ukraine views the relationship with Turkey as mutually beneficial and, accordingly, has invested in it for several years. As Russia develops Crimea into a military stronghold, Turkey can become a key Ukrainian security partner in the Black Sea region – particularly given Turkish membership of NATO. Kyiv values Ankara’s political support and military cooperation: Ukraine can sell Turkey its know-how on sensitive defence technology at a time Turkey has a relatively hard time dealing with Western suppliers – in return for Turkish drones, which are effective in the war in Donbas.
As for what all this means for Ankara’s relations with Russia, much will depend on a fourth factor – the temperature of Turkey’s relations with the US. While Erdogan likes to play Russia and the US off against each other, this has become more difficult since the US imposed CAATSA sanctions on Turkey. Biden and Erdogan will have their first face-to-face meeting as presidents at the NATO summit in June. Until then, Turkey will continue to support Ukraine, hoping to ease some of the tension in its relationship with the US.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.