Tensions between NATO and Russia continue to mount as the Russians build up their military presence on the Ukrainian border. The possibility of another conflict in Turkey’s backyard does not bode well for a country already suffering from the effects of wars in its neighborhood and a global pandemic. And the underlying geopolitics of this latest conflagration are particularly vexing for Ankara. Once again, Turkey’s geography puts it in the center of Great Power struggles. Can it find the right balance?
Adnan R. Khan: The Russian foreign minister blamed NATO for the rising tensions over Ukraine, citing the alliance’s expansion into the Baltics and the Black Sea region. How justified is Russia with these concerns?
Ilter Turan: We must remember that the Baltic states were taken over by Russia after WWII. This annexation was never internationally recognized. So, for Baltic states to seek protection in an alliance like NATO against what they see as an existential threat is These countries do not by themselves present direct a threat to Russia, but they are home to Russian ethnic minorities and they do stand in the way of Russia’s access to the Baltic Sea. Ukraine is more complicated. Historically, it does have a very strong Russian connection which is probably one of the reasons why NATO could not immediately incorporate Ukraine into the alliance. I think NATO is quite aware of the feelings of encirclement the inclusion of Ukraine into NATO might generate in Russia.
Despite its strong support for Ukraine, we can not conclude that NATO is alone the main culprit for its tense relations with Russia. What we have here is an interactive and highly competitive relationship. It is understandable that each is trying to achieve a strategically more advantageous position through utilizing the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, but the competition escalates to higher an possibly more dangerous levels in the process.
Adnan R. Khan: Turkey, of course, is a NATO ally, but it is also a regional country which must contend with the very real consequences of these escalations. What are some of the complications Turkey faces as it tries to carve out a relatively independent foreign policy while also trying to maintain its position in the NATO alliance?
Ilter Turan: Turkey has good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and it has important stakes in both of those relationships. In the case of Russia, there is a strong economic component. On top of that, Turkey has to work with Russia in in Nagorno-Karabagh and in Syria while conducting a more competitive relationship in Libya and possibly in the eastern Mediterranean.
As regards Ukraine, Turkey, for a variety of reasons, has a stake in the maintenance of its territorial integrity. Then there is also technological cooperation in the production of arms with Ukraine that includes engines for unmanned aerial vehicles which Turkey is building and some of which it is selling back to the Ukrainians. There are also apparently plans to build an airplane jointly.
In more general terms, Turkey is deeply concerned with the security of the Black Sea, that it does not develop into an area where warships are roaming around and threatening each other. On the other hand, Turkey is a member of NATO and its major allies are siding with Ukraine against Russia. Turkey is also interested in helping Ukraine but it is more concerned than others about making sure that these rivalries do not develop into higher forms of conflict.
Adnan R. Khan: Does Russia have an interest in escalating these issues? Should Turkey be worried?
Ilter Turan: I would say that Russia has been using what we used to call “salami tactics” during the Cold War, i.e. achieving its goals through limited actions that in and of themselves do not justify an all out military response. This was clearly the case in the annexation of Crimea. People are now afraid that a similar action might take place with regard to the Donbas region of Ukraine. I think that, ultimately, Russia will be reluctant to incorporate Donbas into Russia. But it is trying to render it into an area that can act more autonomously within Ukraine and serve as a Sword of Damocles to keep the Ukrainian government remain observant of Russian interests. Then there is the additional fact that Mr. Putin is increasingly losing support at home. Authoritarian governments that find themselves in such a predicament are notorious for inventing external tensions to mobilize domestic support behind themselves. I wonder if Mr. Putin is not trying to benefit from the nationalist responses that a conflict with outside powers produces. But, I also believe that he is not in a position to push things too far. Turkey, on the other hand, needs to be careful – as always. It needs to keep communicating with both Russia and Ukraine and try to help them come to negotiated settlements while also extending some support to Ukraine to enhance its feeling of security against the Russians. It’s a tricky balance, but nothing comes easy in this part of the world.