Turkey’s Turn Back

By Dylan Gunn


And so Pax Europa is dead and buried. Just a few months ago the world felt bigger—now, it seems the whole world is focused on the war in Ukraine. At the end of last year, I was engrossed in researching American relations with Turkey for a paper with the Yale Policy Institute. But as December came along and news of Russian troop build-ups were complemented with reports of coup plots, it was clear that all of Europe was about to change. Tracking the impact of this terrifying sequence of events on Turkey suggests we are at a crucial turning point: Turkey has the potential to turn away from increasing Russian cooperation and reorient back toward its NATO Partners.


For Turkey, the 20th century was marked by its interface with the West: from WW1 enemies to NATO allies. Turkey—and especially its predecessor, the Ottoman empire—has always played a vital role in the geopolitics of the Middle East and Eastern Europe alike. With the empire’s dissolution, Turkey lost the power to command international events individually; however, their centering on trade lines connecting Europe and Asia still granted them regional influence in the near east. In the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union were quick to observe the importance of this influence. While the USSR made claims to Turkish-controlled land, the US provided them with funding from the Marshall plan (despite not participating in WW2), and they quickly joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Despite remaining reasonably consistent, Turkey’s presence in NATO did cause occasional headaches. Most important was in 1974, when they invaded Cyprus and resulted in Greece leaving the NATO’s military command for half a decade. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey and the West lost their shared enemy, the motivation animus for the alliance. In light of this, an alliance with the West—particularly Britain and France, who carved up their land after WW1—became less appealing. 


Some Turkish opinions similarly soured on the United States after their Middle Eastern interventions in the early 21st century. Not only did the war touch Turkey’s borders, but America’s support of Kurdish populations against the Saddam Regime was interpreted as an affront to Turkish sovereignty. In the meantime, Turkey normalized relations with the Russian federation. Energy quickly became a topic for close relations: Russia correctly identified Turkey as a significant potential consumer of its energy. But this was far from straightforward: the promise of a post-cold war multipolar world inspired these aspiring great, yet firmly regional, powers to seek influence in dynamic conflict areas—most notably, the Middle East. In the Syrian civil war, Russia, drawing on Soviet connections to the Assad regime and access to air and naval bases here, supported the regime. In contrast, the Turkish government supported an amorphous collection of anti-government forces. In 2015, after Russia intervened, the Turkish air force shot down a Russian plane that violated its airspace. Despite an immediate flurry of sanctions and adjacent responses, the economics won out, and relations gradually normalized. Such has generally been the formula for Russo-Turkish relations in other conflict regions such as Nagorno-Karabakh, Cyprus, and Libya: tense head butting that never rises enough to seriously impede economic relations. The culmination of this general cozying up came in 2017 when Turkey moved to purchase the Russian S-400 missile systems from Russia, in what was seen as a rebuttal to NATO—and resultantly met with American sanctions.


But despite the Western narrative, Turkey is far from a simple Russian pawn, with the Council on Foreign relations succinctly describing its goal as foreign policy independence. And throughout this complex jostling, one topic has consistently positioned Turkey directly against Russian interests: Ukraine. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey was one of the first nations to recognize Ukrainian sovereignty, and the two have enjoyed fruitful economic relations ever since, including a very recent free trade agreement. Beyond these economic ties, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have long been home to thousands of Turkish Tatars—the cultural sovereignty and security of which is a major priority for Turkey. Since 2014, Putin’s war on Ukraine has rested of the cultural inseparability of Ukraine from Russia—first Crimea and then the whole nation. The argument that Ukraine is an ethnically homogenous region indistinguishable from Russia has posed issues for these Turks. These fears were warranted, as, since the invasion, Crimean Tatars have been subject to land ejection, widespread discrimination, and reports of torture at the hand of state authorities. For all these reasons, Turkey vehemently condemned the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, although preferring to abstain from sanctions. They have since played an indispensable role in the subsequent modernizing of Ukraine’s military, supplying them with Bayraktar drones crucial in attacks on Russian Generals and military convoys.


More than a particular aspect of bilateral relations, Turkey has a broad and existential interest in the stability of the black sea region. There has been an explosion in trade in the black sea region since the 1990s, and Turkey very explicitly recognizes the sea—and particularly their own situation on its entrance—as central to their economic future. While region-wide figures are still uncertain, this conflict is already wreaking habit on activity in the Black Sea. A recent World Bank report listed a litany of wartime circumstances as detrimental to the region’s economic future. In the short term, the decimation of Ukrainian coastal cities, the impact of sanctions on Russia, and the understandable aversion of investors and shipping companies to an active war zone are blunting once optimistic economic predictions. And the long-term shrinkage of both the Ukrainian and Russian economies, particularly their role in regional supply chains, complicates any discussion of the long term. In addition to these financial interests, Turkey has long feared what a war in the Black Sea would require of its role as steward of the bosporus. To that end, they quickly acted to shut the Black Sea to entering naval warships that were not already based there. With the recent sinking of Russia’s Black Sea capital ship, Moskva, the federation is likely to but heads with Turkey on this and pressure them to allow in a replacement. While Turkey certainly opposes a Russian victory, they still abstain from sanctions and have attempted to position themselves as mediators in the conflict. But Turkey is very aware of the precarity of this position, and the United States can do much to push them to the NATO line.


The United States must emphasize to Turkey that there is no better time for decoupling than now. Decoupling from Russia is understandably scary for any nation, Turkey especially. Yes, the two have enjoyed productive economic relations in recent years, but they have always been strained by conflict. Many believe that Russia launched this invasion partly because of its increased isolation from the world economy following the annexation of Crimea. Now that they are even more thoroughly an economic pariah—some say the most sanctioned country in the world—military force may increasingly become their only language for power projection. While many hope the failures of this invasion will serve as an expensive lesson, Russia can no longer be considered anything approaching a stable force in international relations. Decoupling now would take advantage of this significant dip in bilateral economic activity before the situation gets too dire, especially as pressure increases from Europe. While Turkey’s financial situation is far less than ideal, the particular effects of decoupling from Russia now will hurt less than during a year of regular economic activity. Further, Erdogan’s emphasis on Turkish nationalism could supplement the national security justifications necessary to help this pill go down smoother: with the right appeals to history, this war can easily be understood as an existential threat to Turkey. Energy, of course, remains the most uniquely crucial bilateral issue mandating amicable relations. But this partnership is increasingly growing a lot more nuanced than previous assumptions of energy dependency suggest. An excellent recent article from RAND explored the possibility that Russia invaded Ukraine to stop their desire to harvest natural gas. They came down quite decisively against the premise but, more importantly, observed that the oft-cited pre-war reliance of European countries on Russian energy has not translated advantageously into Russian wartime influence. It’s quite telling that Putin was quicker to threaten nuclear war than decrease gas exports. Yes, they have now shut off exports to Bulgaria and Poland over their failure to make deadlines for paying in rubbles, but these nations make up only a tiny part of Russian energy exports. Meanwhile, the importing giants like the UK and Germany are going full steam ahead with plans entirely stop Russian oil imports by the end of the year. Even if Russia were to shut the tap, at this point suddenly, that would only solidify there is no going back. The Rand article observes that in the face of sanctions on every other part of Russia’s economy, European dependency on Russian energy has transformed into Russian dependence on Europeans buying their oil. Yes, Turkey is in a slightly different position, on the outside of the EU, but as the money stops flowing into Moscow, energy as a bargaining tool will similarly be reversed in Ankara’s favor: if EU nations consume less Russian energy, Turkey resultantly make up a higher proportion of their exports. This is especially true as, although Russia hopes to send increasing amounts of energy to China and India, there is not yet the infrastructure for this. Russia has been forced to sell its energy for large discounts, so existing relationships will be increasingly crucial to Moscow. However, Turkey should be wary of seeing this as a win for their independent foreign policy and over Russia. If Europe succesfully goes forward in its energy decoupling, the condemnation of Turkey’s unwillingness to do the same will become increasingly forceful. Acting now, preempting an escalation of European upsetness and Russia’s reorientation, would grant them enough goodwill from the former while catching the latter by surprise to proceed at their own pace for energy alternatives. 


And with an eye to the long term, Turkey should recognize the long-term economic benefits of siding with Ukraine and the West. There is now significant reason to hope for a positive Ukrainian outcome. As Russian forces seemingly pivot from regime change towards the east/south, many have begun to wonder about the toll such an unsuccessful war is having. Most poignantly was the sinking of the Moskva, Russia’s Black Sea capital ship, which came the same day as Putin publicly acknowledged the negative effect of sanctions. As mentioned above, Russia will likely explore options for replacing Moskva, given the ship’s importance in planning coastal operations. Turkey will hopefully identify their stranglehold here, presenting them with an opportunity to cut back the war without actually acting, merely performing their duty under international law. I surmise little American pressure will be needed on this point (nor would it mean much given we do not recognize the Monteux convention), but we can certainly supplement opposition to Russia. In the short term, America should press forward with attempts to relocate Turkish S-700s to Ukraine and replace them with Patriot missile systems. While America should not be overly desperate, it could do well to remember that Turkey purchased these weapons precisely because America would not sell them its own. More importantly, in the long term, America and the EU must herald the economic recovery of countries in the Black Sea region. If the supplying of weapons and aid to Ukraine is any indication, goodwill is strong. A new marshall plan of sorts, more narrow but just as deep, to rebuild the Ukrainian economy certainly must be under consideration. As the other major western aligned power along the black sea, these efforts must invoke the Turkish government. Ironically, this combination of regional funding and increasing existential threat from Russia actually looks to replicate the circumstances that brought Turkey into NATO in the first place.

Dylan Gunn is a first-year in Pauli Murray College and can be reached at dylan.gunn@yale.edu.