Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Turkey Balances and Benefits from Ukraine

Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan has many critics in the United States, but his careful balance on Ukraine gives lessons on how diplomacy can change discomfort into political advantage.

Erdogan has recaptured influence in the North Atlantic alliance despite its continued close economic relations with Russia. Erdogan is a difficult character but he has avoided threatening either side in the Ukraine conflict.

US President Joe Biden is a likeable person, but he stressed that Russian President Vladimir Putin should not remain in power, surprising the world. Washington later said that Biden was expressing only his personal opinion, but American politicians and foreign policy analysts are openly hoping for a big defeat for Russia.

By contrast, Erdogan avoided criticizing Putin personally, and Ankara stresses finding for Putin an honorable exit from the war. At the same time, Ankara never recognized the Russian annexation of Crimea and it has been very clear in public that it supports Ukrainian independence and territorial sovereignty.

A second important element of Turkey’s balanced policy towards the Ukraine war is that it helps both sides and also causes each of them pain while it pursues its own interest. Turkish drones in the hands of the Ukrainian army have destroyed many Russian convoys and tanks. (It is remarkable that Russian officers watched Turkish drones smash the Syrian Arab Army attack against Idlib in 2020 but they didn’t adjust Russian military tactics in Ukraine.)

In addition, the Turkish government blocked transit of Russian warships through the Bosporus. After the sinking of the cruiser Moskva, Russia needs naval reinforcements to threaten an invasion of the vital Ukrainian port of Odesa. The Turkish action closes the door.

These concrete Turkish steps have improved Turkey’s position with NATO. France and Italy at the alliance summit last month agreed to reenter a deal with Turkey to manufacture an air defense system. The US State Department sent a letter to the American Congress last month justifying an American sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. The letter stressed the American interest in good US-Turkey defense relations. The US Defense Department praises Turkey for closing the Bosporus.

Statements from Paris and Washington defending Turkey had been absent for many months, but Turkish concrete actions that truly support the western position on Ukraine gives them a tool against critics of Turkey.

At the same time, Ankara has avoided imposing sanctions on Russia, and its imports of Russian gas and oil are helping Putin finance the Russian military campaign. Germany is doing the same, but is receiving more criticism than Turkey. At the same time, Turkish ports welcome yachts of Putin’s billionaire friends and Turkish cities, like Antalya and Istanbul, welcome Russian investments. Turkey is even working on a new payments system to use Russian rubles to settle business deals.

Of course, Turkey has a big economic interest and Ankara justifies its position with the absence of a United Nations requirement to impose sanctions. It knows the Russian veto in the Security Council makes a United Nations action impossible. On the other hand, international law and respecting the obligations of the Montreux Convention from 1936 enable it to block Russian warships in the Bosporus. Erdogan helps and harms both sides.

The final element of Turkey’s balancing strategy is keeping communications channels open with all sides.

Western leaders visit Kyiv and speak with President Volodymyr Zelensky every day, but western leaders will not meet Putin in the weeks ahead, especially after the Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians.

Erdogan and his foreign minister will exploit that western absence to maintain dialog with Moscow. Erdogan had another telephone conversation with Putin on April 21, while at the same time Ankara is in constant communication with Kyiv. And despite Erdogan’s anger at Washington and Paris in recent years, he never closed the door to western leaders. He attended the NATO summit and met his adversary French President Emmanuel Macron, and Erdogan still hopes for a political reconciliation with Biden even if the Turkish president knows they will never been friends.

In the coming weeks, the Turkish balancing policy will become more difficult.

The US Treasury Secretary on April 13 warned countries that ignore western sanctions on Russia that there would be consequences. Analysts thought she was referring to China, but her warning is also to Turkey. If the fighting in eastern Ukraine becomes more severe, western pressure will increase on Turkey to impose sanctions.

Russia, at the same time, can exploit the upcoming United Nations renewal in early July of humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians in Idlib as a tool against Turkey. The Turkish announcement on April 23 that it would block Russian military flights over Turkey to Syria suggests that Erdogan is preparing for more wrestling with Putin in Syria, but the two presidents can talk directly about it.