Omer Onhon

The Impact of the Ukraine War on Turkey

The world is watching in horror what Putin and his people still call a “special military operation” and what the vast majority of the world rightly calls military intervention and invasion of an independent and sovereign state.

An extraordinary virtual summit of NATO Heads of State and Government Summit on February 25, came up with a strong statement. A few hours before the summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the European Union for doing nothing other than giving advice and making statements. He said that it was not possible to achieve anything like that. He expressed his hope that the NATO summit would take a more determined position.

The European Union on the other hand, has come up with tough sanctions and has taken steps well beyond expectations.

President Zelensky delivered at the European Parliament a dramatic speech, appealing for more support and he was applauded for several minutes. His speech was as could be expected, but what struck me was what EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said next. He said the European Union was no longer the sidelined organization that everyone was accustomed to. He said the Union is sending arms to Ukraine and half of Russia’s reserves are unusable because of sanctions. He made it sound as if the European Union made an entrance into the stage as a superhero who was asleep for a long time.

Turkey is not a party to the Ukraine conflict but due to its geographic proximity and relations with both Russia and Ukraine, it is destined to be one of the most affected countries.

There is centuries old history between Turkey and Russia starting from when Russia was the Czardom and Turkey, the Ottoman Empire, which were frequently at war with each other. Later on, their relations passed through the Cold War era and then from the 1990’s onto the present day.

In present day, Turkey has extensive relations with Russia and also Ukraine. Turkey imports around 35 percent of its natural gas from Russia. Trade volume with Russia stands at 32.5 billion dollars and with Ukraine at 7.5 billion dollars. Turkey is heavily engaged in construction projects in Russia and increasingly so in Ukraine. In agriculture, Turkey’s major source for grains are Russia and then Ukraine. Turkey imported 6.7 million tons of wheat from Russia in 2021. Some of this wheat is used for flour exports (Turkey is the number one flour exporter in the world) and some for local bread production. Shortage of wheat would cause losses in exports and rise in bread prices.

In tourism, in 2021, in league of countries sending most visitors to Turkey, Russia took first place with 4.7 million and Ukraine third with 2 million.

In 2016 Turkey suffered serious losses in trade, tourism and other fields as a result of the downing of a Russian fighter plane. This was a major trauma. Now, for different reasons, Turkey is once again faced with a situation of suffering losses. This is not good news for Turkey’s president, who is facing some serious difficulties in the economic field and probably, the most challenging elections which are expected to take place in a few months.

Fully aware of the negative impact on Turkey of a crisis turning into war, Erdoğan made an attempt to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. He could not. On the other hand, French President Emmanuel Macron was able to meet with Putin and then Zelensky. But obviously, his mission was a failure, as Russian troops started pouring into Ukraine.

The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs on February 24, issued a clear statement where it expressed its opposition to the military operation launched by Russia. The statement said the incursion is unacceptable and called upon Russia to immediately stop this unjust and unlawful act.

On February 28, the Turkish cabinet met and one of the issues on its agenda was Ukraine. At the press conference following the meeting, Erdoğan summarized Turkey’s position on the crisis as follows:

- "We respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. We regard Russia’s attack as unacceptable and respect Ukraine people’s struggle.

- "We will not compromise on our national security, but we will also not overlook regional and international balances.

- "We will neither give up on Russia nor Ukraine.

- "We will use the authority that we have been given by the Montreux Convention."

Regarding this last point, passage through the Turkish straits is regulated by the 1936 Montreux Convention. As stipulated in the convention, Turkey is responsible for the supervision of all the provisions of the convention, which includes their interpretation and implementation. The convention’s purpose is basically to provide for Turkey’s security, security of Black Sea States and interests of non-Black Sea States.

Turkish Minister of Defense announced that the Montreux Convention will be implemented as stipulated in articles 19, 20 and 21 (passage of warships through the Straits at times of war).

So, the Montreux Convention is being applied, there is no ambiguity on this issue and no complaints from any side.

Presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın’s description of Turkey’s position was that Turkey was trying to navigate through the crisis without burning bridges with Russia, supporting Ukraine and keeping channels open with the West. He emphasized that Turkey has disagreements with Russia on a number of issues, including Syria and Libya, and does not recognize the annexation of Crimea. Despite that, Turkey has been able to conduct good use of diplomacy with Russia, he added.

Most recently, Kalın tweeted President Erdoğan’s call that the Russian attack has to stop and ceasefire negotiations must start. He went on to say that Turkey will continue its efforts to bring an end the suffering of the Ukranian people which is caused by this unjust and unlawful war.

As for international organizations, Turkey joined its allies in adopting the statement issued at the end of the NATO Heads of State and Government Summit on February 26. The statement condemned in the strongest possible terms Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Russia has been suspended from European Council with 42 votes. Turkey abstained. The Turkish foreign minister said that in this particular case his decision to abstain was because he believed dialogue with Russia would not be helpful.

At the recent UN General Assembly Turkey voted in favor with other 141 states and its representative delivered a tough statement on Russia’s invasion.

The Ukraine crisis comes at a time when Turkey’s relations with the West are not at their best. One of the causes for that was relations with Russia. After the coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, Erdoğan was upset with the West and moved closer to Russia.

The purchase of the S-400 air defense systems from Russia was another test for relations. At one point, Turkey’s NATO loyalties were even questioned. The US Congress slapped sanctions against Turkey, the so-called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, CAATSA.

In recent months, Turkey was making attempts to mend ties with several countries and the West. In this regard, the Ukraine crisis may present Turkey with an opportunity.

In fact, the Turkish and American foreign ministers have recently spoken with each other several times, nearly more than they ever have in past months. However, Presidents Biden and Erdoğan have not spoken to each other, not even once, on this crisis. This is odd, given Turkey’s important place in almost every sense in the ongoing developments and the role it could play.

In Syria, Turkey and Russia have supported opposing sides. They still do.

In November 2014 Turkey shot down a Russian plane, which violated its airspace along the Turkish-Syrian border. It was the beginning of a terrible year in relations. Russia imposed its own sanctions on Turkey and made life very difficult in Syria.

A year or so later, pragmatism prevailed. Since then, Turkey and Russia have become Astana Process partners and their cooperation has been instrumental in ceasefire agreements.

But the relations of these two countries in Syria are not without their problems. That is more so in the case of Idlib, where around 3.5 million people live. Russia frequently bombs this area, raising concerns of a fresh wave of Syrian refugees into Turkey.

Turkey says its policy in the Ukraine crisis is based on internationally recognized principles. It is careful not to take sides between two countries with which it enjoys good relations.

The best outcome for everyone, including Turkey, would be an immediate cessation of hostilities, resumption of talks and resolving the problem through diplomacy.

If this is not the case, Turkey would be among the countries likely to suffer the most.