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The War in Ukraine and how it’s Changed Turkey
June 24, 2022
Aryan Signh, Grade 11

The recent invasion of Ukraine, and the struggle between NATO and Russia that is slowly escalating, is not new in world history. The past 200 years have seen the Eurasian bear caught in an international power struggle with both Britain in the 19th century, and the United States in the 20th. And in both those instances, either as a belligerent in the Crimean war or a contentious location for American warheads, Turkey has played a pivotal role in the conflict between Russia and the West. Why is Turkey so important? How will they act in this new strategic environment? And what does Turkey’s internal politics have to do with all of this?

Many have speculated on why Russia chose to invade Ukraine, but all those theories fundamentally come down to one thing; control of the Black Sea. This body of water is the site of Sevastopol, Russia’s only warm-water port (itself annexed from Ukraine in 2014), multiple natural gas pipelines, and Russia’s only path towards integration with global trade. However, it shares this sea not only with Ukraine, but with Turkey, a NATO member. Even worse for Russia, Turkey controls both the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, the only connections between the Black Sea and the ocean, and a crucial choke point for Russia. This has 2 implications: first, Turkey is in a critical position to stymie the Russian advance, and even to take the fight to Russia itself. It controls the longest portion of the sea’s coast as well as 2 of its largest harbors, and it commands over 50 warships in the area, meaning it can easily challenge Russian naval assets and even bombard Russian forces on land, similar to what Russia’s fleet has been doing to Ukrainian population centers. 

Even if Turkey doesn’t directly take up arms, there is the second, and potentially more important implication, that any favorable outcome for Russia in this war will see Russia forced to negotiate with Turkey. Remember that Turkey controls the access points in and out of the Black Sea; so far, the straits have been kept open for Russia essentially as a courtesy. However, if Russia annexes significant territory and/or enforces a regime change, this courtesy might lose its relevance, and if Turkey fears for their security, they can easily use access as a bargaining chip. Ankara recently invoked a treaty allowing them to close the Bosphorus to warships during conflict, and they can extend the decision to merchant marines and oil tankers if they see fit. This not only makes their control of the Black Sea functionally useless, it also threatens to cut off newly annexed territory from the rest of the world. At the end of the day, even without direct military confrontation, if Russia wants to fulfill its hegemonic ambitions, it must deal with not only Ukraine, but Turkey as well. 

Of course, all of this is assuming Ankara stands against Russian aggression, and currently, that is looking unlikely. Turkey might be worried about stability in the Black Sea, but it has 2 good reasons not to pick fights with Russia. The first is very simple, and it’s the reason other nearby states have avoided condemning Russian aggression: they fear the sharp end of Russia’s power projection capabilities, which the Kremlin has shown to be very enthusiastic in using. Even if Turkey can hold its own in a Black Sea naval conflict, it will still be a costly conflict both in money and manpower, not to mention the fact that Russia is quickly swallowing up nearby Georgia, who Turkey shares a land border with, meaning a ground invasion is very much a possibility. Considering what happened to Ukraine, it’s no surprise that Turkey wants to avoid this possibility.

The second is that, despite being a professed NATO member, Ankara and Moscow are worryingly close in their strategic goals. The 2 states have cooperated in the Syrian civil war, with Russia supporting Turkey’s attacks on Kurdish guerillas, and Turkey supporting the Al-Assad government, which is swiftly becoming a Russian client state. Turkey’s military strategy relies on preventing the establishment of  Kurdish state in the Levant, and to do this, they’ve frequently had to appease Russian sensibilities. Recently, and relevantly for the Ukraine conflict, Turkey attempted to block the admission of Sweden and Finland into NATO over their cooperation with the PKK. Turkey is also very much dependent on Russia to supply its own defense capabilities: not only have they recently bought another shipment of S-400 missiles from Russia, they’ve also purchased multiple Su-35S and Su-57 Russian stealth fighters, and will continue to do so if the US F-16 deal fails.

Because of this, it is becoming very clear that Turkey is going to take a more mediatory role in the crisis. The very first major talks between Russian and Ukrainian diplomats were hosted in Turkey, and the Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has expressed a cynical stance on the conflict, stating that a hard stance on Russia would do nothing to resolve the conflict. Erdogan has stated that Turkey’s priorities are less “the West over Russia” and more “order versus regional instability”, and numerous Turkish officials have even accused NATO of prolonging the conflict to weaken Russia.

And in the midst of all these changing variables, Turkey still has its own internal problems to deal with. The lira is still devaluing at a breakneck pace, even compared to other currencies experiencing inflation, and rising costs of living are now a fact of life for most Turkish citizens, with inflation reaching upwards of 70% with the latest currency drops. Given the tightening of belts at home, popular support for a military intervention abroad is unlikely to be very high. 

Additionally, any kind of intervention would only compound Turkey’s economic disaster. Russia is by far Turkey’s largest trade partner, and the 2 countries have a trade volume of over 26 trillion USD, over 85% which is composed of Russian exports. Like many other countries in the region, Turkey is also reliant on Russia for energy, with Russian gas fulfilling a third of Turkey’s demand. This is why Turkey is opposed to sanctions on Russia: not only would ceasing trade further increase the prices of commodities like fuel and wheat, it would also make the lira even weaker.

However, even disregarding all of that, what is often overlooked about Turkey is that their president, Recep Tayip Erdogan, is one of many isolationist, populist leaders which now inhabit leadership positions across the world. Erdogan’s voter base is composed of people who have lost faith in the rules-based international system, and for better or worse, it is a system that is slowly dying. And a world without international cooperation, is a world with a lot of Putins, and a lot of countries that will suffer the fate of Ukraine.