Eight months after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, Turkey, a NATO member, has emerged as the biggest swing player in this war, because of its close ties with both Russia and Ukraine and its pursuit of balanced relationships with both sides. In particular, its participation in the war comes from multiple sectors, including security cooperation with Ukraine, diplomatic mediation between Moscow and Kyiv, and energy cooperation with Russia. This approach has given Ankara a major opportunity to achieve the greatest gains possible from the war, while giving the West an important lesson on how to deal with Russia more effectively.
Turkey is trying to maintain the greatest possible balance in its relationships with the two opponents, Russia and Ukraine, without undermining the confidence of either party in Turkey or eroding their normal relations with Turkey. It is doing so thanks to the smart moves Ankara has pursued since the beginning of the crisis, which can be described as follows:
1. Reliance on positive neutrality: Since the first days of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, Ankara has been eager to operate independently from the political polarization instigated by the war. Indeed, Turkey has been able to maintain its relationship with both Moscow and Kyiv without endangering its geostrategic calculations in the region, thanks to its strategic relationships with both countries. Although Ankara criticized the military operation in eastern Ukraine, it simultaneously rejected the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow, while also working to provide Kyiv with large quantities of weapons, especially drones, which have helped Ukrainian forces attack Russian positions.
Although Ankara is a crucial member of the NATO security bloc, it acts independently from, and sometimes at odds with, its American and European partners, especially with regards to its relationship with Western adversaries, such as Russia and Iran.
2. Betting on the role of mediation: With the escalating level of conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Turkey has made several attempts at mediation between the two sides to push them to negotiate a peace agreement to end the war. Although those efforts have so far failed, Turkey succeeded in brokering a prisoner exchange deal between the warring parties this past September, with both Russia and Ukraine freeing 270 captives. This was a rare diplomatic accomplishment in the war, especially since the agreement was executed at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin was threatening his country’s ability to carry out hard-hitting nuclear strikes on Ukraine and had announced a partial military mobilization.
3. Security corridor agreement to export grain: Ankara’s most important move has been playing the role of mediator between Moscow and Kyiv on the issue of grain and food supplies. Along with the UN, Turkey negotiated the release of food and grain exports that had been interrupted since the start of the war in late February, resulting in an agreement on 22 July 2022 that included the launch of a grain coordination center in Istanbul. Most Ukrainian and Russian food and grain exports must cross Turkish waters in the Black Sea and the Bosporus to reach world markets in the Middle East, Africa, and beyond.
As Turkey is the only NATO member that enjoys good, balanced relationships with both Russia and Ukraine, it can help secure the safe passage of ships through this region. The Turkish strategy has managed to net significant results and continue the flow of grain shipments. In fact, Ukrainian officials have even been able to expand their country’s exports through Turkish ports to include other goods.
4. Use of NATO membership: Ankara has exploited its NATO membership in order to pressure Western countries to accept its moves in a number of controversial issues. While NATO is seeking to expand its membership by admitting Sweden and Finland—which requires Turkey’s approval—Turkey is trying to ensure the West’s acquiescence to its demands and to extract some concessions from the West—most notably that NATO will not criticize or impose sanctions on Turkey if it launches any attacks on pro-Western Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Turkey is also pressuring the Biden administration to lift congressional suspension of the deal to sell 40 F-16 fighter jets. The Turkish foreign ministry is trying to convince the US that any sale of those fighters to Turkey will be in line with US national security interests and will serve the long-term unity of NATO, especially amid Turkey’s military support of Ukraine in the war.
At a time when most of the world’s countries are feeling the damage from the war in Ukraine, the Turkish diplomatic track has managed to achieve a number of gains, which has caused many to view Turkey as one of the biggest winners in this war. The most significant gains can be summarized as follows:
1. Transformation to a potential center for gas export to Europe: Following Turkey’s refusal to join the Western sanctions imposed on Russia, on the sidelines of the regional summit convened between the leaders of Turkey and Russia in Kazakhstan on October 13, 2022, Putin—in an attempt to preserve Russian energy influence in Europe—offered to Erdogan to build a new gas pipeline in Turkey that could supply Europe with Russian energy after Nord Stream’s pipelines in the Baltic Sea were disrupted last month, thus turning Turkey into a new supply center.
This project makes Turkey a hub for transporting Russian gas to Europe, which will also benefit from the TurkStream gas pipeline that passes under the Black Sea to Turkey, thanks to which natural gas supplies from Russian to Turkey are moving in full and regularly. It has already become clear to Moscow that Turkey is its most reliable partner for delivering gas to the EU, which has encouraged Erdogan to move forward with the building of an international gas hub in Turkey in order to take advantage of the Russian offer, which he considers a long-term strategic goal for his country.
2. Understanding with Moscow on regional issues: The goal behind Turkey’s non-confrontational policies toward Russia is to gain more freedom of movement vis-à-vis regional issues of mutual interest, as is the case in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. On October 3, 2022, Ankara was able to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Government of National Unity in Libya headed by Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh, regarding oil and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.
Ankara also needs the green light from Moscow for its operations in Syria and Iraq against Kurdish forces it considers terrorist groups. Since those forces are the US’s most important ally in the fight against ISIS, Erdogan is also trying to play that card at a time when the US and other Western nations need Turkey and may be less inclined to oppose such an incursion.
3. Increased trade cooperation with Russia: Turkey enjoys close trade relations with Russia. Trade between the two countries doubled to nearly USD 30.7 billion during the first half of 2022, compared to USD 15.3 billion during the same period of 2021. This trade boom between the two nations came despite the repercussions of the war in Ukraine and its effects on navigation in the Black Sea, which links the two countries. In fact, Russia has now become the biggest supplier of goods to the Turkish market, surpassing China, which had been Turkey’s top exporter.
In this vein, Russia represented 17% of Turkish imports during the period from April to June of 2022, compared to 10% during the same period of the previous year. Turkey also has become a base for resupplying Russia with goods it needs to import from abroad, thanks to the financial ways and means used by Ankara in its trade relationship with Moscow, in which it ignores Western concerns that Turkey is violating the sanctions imposed on Moscow and justifies the flow of Russian goods as a mere reflection of a shift in trade patterns that the private sector has undertaken legally.
4. Ankara’s increasing international influence: Turkey seeks to strengthen its political, economic, and geopolitical influence by using the dynamics of the current crisis to serve its strategic interests. It is trying to attract Western companies exiting the Russian market and increase the accumulation of tourist and financial flows from Russia—thus bypassing the sanctions. Turkey also wants to gain political ground in regional affairs by mediating conflicts of mutual concern and forcing the conflicting parties to consult with and through Ankara on issues of war, peace, and maritime trade—especially demining in the Black Sea and sustaining the flow of Ukrainian grain exports. The latter is a priority issue for developing nations whose support Turkey is seeking at the international level by virtue of being the greatest player in mediating a solution to return the flow of Ukrainian grain to their local markets.
5. Restriction of Turkey’s opponents abroad: Turkey’s moves during the Ukrainian crisis and its accompanying issues, such as the issue of Sweden and Finland joining NATO, reveal Ankara’s efforts to clamp down on their opponents abroad. Ankara conditioned the admission of Sweden and Finland as new NATO members on the two countries’ commitment to cooperate with Ankara on counterterrorism, including measures against the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, information exchange, and the implementation of the extradition agreement.
In conclusion, it can be said that Turkey has been able to take advantage of the Ukraine war to reassert its role and position on the international scene. Indeed, it is an indispensable international actor, even if it implements policies at odds with its Western allies, especially in light of the smart diplomatic moves it has pursued since the early days of the war. In fact, in the near future, Turkey is expected to remain an essential mediator between Ukraine, Russia, and the West, as no other international party has succeeded in playing this nearly hopeless role due to the ongoing escalation of the war of late, a situation that may give Turkey even more gains in the coming period.