Turkey’s stance on Ukraine and Russia isn’t always unequivocal. To Ukraine, it’s a partner now but not an ally. While helping us fend off Russia on the frontline, the Turks also neatly make money with Russia. And by doing that, Turkey also fills up the aggressor country’s budget.
What are Turkey’s concealed interests with respect to Ukraine and Russia? delved into the significance of these two countries for our neighbor over the Black Sea.
The equivocal stance: gas, tourists, and evasion of sanctions
Since Russia started a full-fledged war against our country, Turkey has been pledging its commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. At the latest Crimean Platform summit, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated that Crimea was part of Ukraine.
The Republic of Türkiye has closed the Black Sea region to Russian ships, and it also provides Ukraine’s Armed Forces with the renowned Bayraktar drones and Kirpi armored vehicles. Turks also brokered the deal to unblock the exportation of Ukrainian grain.
The Turkish president has been pointedly making Putin wait for him at meetings for nearly a minute. Moreover, he has a long history of conflicts with Russia over many issues from Syria and Karabakh to Libya.
Now, apparently, Turkey seems to have it straight. However, Russia and Turkey have close economic ties, which survived the shooting of a Russian warplane by a Turkish fighter jet in 2015 as well as the closing of the Black Sea straits in 2022.
Thus, the trade turnover between the two countries last year amounted to $33–35 billion. Turkey relies on Russia for:
- 40% of its gas;
- 25% of its crude oil;
- 70% of its grain;
- income from 4.7 million of foreign tourists out of 30 million who visited Turkey in 2022.
The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network of the United States Department of the Treasury has put Turkey on the list of 18 countries helping evade sanctions on exports of goods to Russia and Belarus.
Why imposing sanctions on Russia isn’t beneficial for Turkey
As Russia weakens, Turks double their profits from working with it. For example, Turkey provides a route for Russia to import foreign products that are subject to restrictions, including dual-use goods. On the other hand, Russia exports oil and petroleum products through Turkey.
Dmytro Franchuk, a political analyst, named four reasons why Turkey has not joined the anti-Russian sanctions:
- Economic interests: Turkey has deep economic ties with Russia, especially in the areas of energy, trade, and tourism. Russia is one of the biggest suppliers of oil and natural gas to Turkey. Plenty of Russian tourists visit resorts in eastern Turkey. That’s why sanctions against Russia could affect Turkey’s economy heavily.
- Geopolitical interests. Turkey is a major regional power in the Middle East and Black Sea region, and it strives to expand its influence. Sanctions against Russia could provoke a response, which would affect Turkey’s interests in the region.
- Diplomatic efforts. Turkey aspires to be not just an observer but an active player in regional and global conflicts. Sometimes it uses its diplomatic efforts to act as an intermediary between conflicting parties, and anti-Russian sanctions could impede it from assuming this role.
- Cultural ties. Turkey and Russia share a rich history and multiple cultural ties, which can be an important factor in their relations. Turkey seeks to preserve neighborly relations with Russia despite their conflicts.
It’s worth a special note that the Turkish airspace remains open for the Russian fleet. Hundreds of Russian businesses relocated to Turkey. And, beginning in August, Ankara agreed to pay for a portion of Russian natural gas in roubles.
Oleksandr Khmelevskyi, an independent expert, emphasizes:
"Despite being a NATO member, Turkey is buying Russian military products, which causes discontent in the U.S. It’s also worth noting that Turkey has become a hub for the supply of Russian natural gas to Europe. Ukraine needs to be rather careful and pragmatic in its relations with Turkey."
Khmelevskyi believes that while Turkey aspires to the restoration of the Ottoman Empire, it represents a serious threat for Ukraine. Ukraine would benefit if the Turkish opposition gained power and turned the country toward the West, the way it was before Erdoğan.
Struggle for influence: the rivalry between Russia and Turkey
Turkey and Russia are long-time geopolitical rivals. This is evidenced by the centuries-long history of the Russian and Ottoman Empires fighting for control over the Black Sea, the Balkans, and the South Caucasus. The struggle is still ongoing. Russia and Turkey, for example, supported opposite sides in the Syria and Libya wars. In 2020, the army of Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey, regained control over a part of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Experts believe that Turkey is trying to make the most of the war in Ukraine to weaken Russia and expand its military, political, economic, and religious influence over the countries previously dominated by Russia:
Yevhen Savisko, cultural studies researcher, explains:
"It’s about Recep Erdoğan striving to lead his country from regional leadership to being one of the global leaders and eventually becoming equal to the U.S., Britain, or China. The peculiarities of the Republic of Türkiye’s foreign policy serve this purpose well. It has a pragmatic nature and often keeps up the traditions of the Ottoman Empire."
The Ukrainian issue: why we are getting help with the Bayraktars
Eastern diplomacy is guided by pragmatism. Ukraine cannot provide Turkey with the same profits as Russia does. The aforementioned help with the exports of Ukrainian grain also has an economic basis. According to Turkish mass media, their officials asked for a 25% discount when buying our grain.
By the way, when Recep Erdoğan visited Lviv on August 18, he tried to persuade Ukraine to end the war at the negotiation table with Russia.
"In this window [of opportunities for negotiations], we see only Russian weapons killing Ukrainians. They cannot really want peace while bombing our cities and killing our people at the same time. First, they have to free our territories, and then it will be then," Zelenskyy responded.
In addition, regardless of who rules Turkey, it always strives to be a hegemon in the Black Sea region. That’s why it’s extremely important for its leaders to have influence over neighboring countries, especially Ukraine and Russia. Therefore, the stability and security of the Black Sea region have become important for the Republic of Türkiye today. Unlike Ukraine, it opposes the military presence of non-coastal countries there.
Experts also consider today’s supply of Turkish drones and armored vehicles to Ukraine to be purely pragmatic. According to Savisko, Turkey’s benefits in this case are:
- 1) the opportunity to test the equipment under the conditions of modern high-intensity warfare;
- 2) effective advertising, which has already yielded income;
- 3) profits for the president’s family.
"Selçuk Bayraktar, one of the owners of the manufacturer of the Bayraktar drones, is Recep Erdoğan’s son-in-law," the researcher reminds us.
Despite all the peculiarities mentioned above, our countries have been increasingly cooperating in recent years. In August 2019, the Ukrainian state-owned company Ukrspecexport and the Turkish Baykar Defence created a joint enterprise to produce precision weapons.
Preserving relations with Russia while supporting Ukraine
Turkey is still trying to perpetuate its relations with Russia, while at the same time demonstrating a moderately pro-Ukrainian stance.
In the future, Russia’s limited decay due to the war in Ukraine is in line with Turkey’s interests. It expects the de-occupation of the Black Sea and the weakening of Russia’s positions in Syria, the North Caucasus, Central Asia, and other regions where the Russians and the Turks support opposing sides.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba explained that, while helping Ukraine fend off the enemy on the frontline, Turkey also makes money from Russia.
In addition, Erdoğan owes his life to Putin personally: in 2016, the Russian president warned his Turkish colleague of an assassination attempt.
"In November 2015, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian military jet that entered Turkish airspace from Syria. This aggravated the conflict between Turkey and Russia. In response, Russia introduced restrictions against Turkish products, businesses, and citizens.
Tourist charter flights to Turkey were canceled, leading to a significant decrease in the inflow of Russian tourists in summer 2016, which resulted in a loss of income for both Turkish businesses and the government.
On July 15–16, 2016, an attempted coup happened in Turkey. The mutineers planned to kill Erdoğan in a hotel in Marmaris. At this very moment, Putin called Erdoğan, despite their conflict, and warned him of the assassination attempt. Thanks to him, Erdoğan saved himself, and the mutineers were defeated. This means that Erdoğan owes his life to Putin.
This explains the warm relations between the two leaders. After this incident, the relations between Russia and Turkey drastically improved. Trade resumed, and Russian tourists returned.
Economic relations between the countries are now flourishing despite the western sanctions, which Turkey hasn’t joined. On the contrary, it became a kind of hub for evading the sanctions."