Russian-Ukrainian conflict: difficult choices for Turkey

The escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine (supported by its Western allies) presents Turkey with numerous difficulties. Despite often competitive engagements with Russia, in recent years Turkey has managed to maintain balanced relations with its northern neighbor. The Russian moves, interpreted as preparations for an invasion of Ukraine, or parts of it, has prompted a powerful Western response, warning Russia that if its army invades Ukraine, highly unfavorable consequences will ensue. The conflict, pitting the Western allies against the Russians, presents a multi-dimensional enigma for Turkey, a country which values both its western security connection and its growing economic and security relations with Russia.

Why is Turkey faced with a difficult choice? To begin with, despite a reasonably well-managed relationship with Russia, Turkey is aware that the absence of resources on which it can rely to balance this relationship might invite Russian assertiveness. It is clear that Russia will not make territorial claims against Turkey. It is likely, however, to emerge a challenge to Turkish interests in the Caucasus, the Middle East, Southern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Russian annexation of Crimea where, from the beginning, Turkey refused to recognize the area’s incorporation into Russia, offers a revealing example of how interests may radically diverge. Now, as the greater threat of armed conflict in Ukraine looms, Turkey is gravely concerned that borders might be changed by force, thereby not only challenging its various interests in Ukraine including some critical cooperation between defense industries, but also open the way to Russian incursions into other neighboring states in Central Asia, a development to which the Western Alliance would not devote as much attention.

Turkey’s siding with its Western allies on Ukraine may also invite other problems for Turkish foreign policy. Turkey is barely managing a highly the competitive relationship with Russia in Syria. Part of Russia’s restraint in Syria derives from its desire not to undermine its reasonably friendly relationship with Turkey. If Turkey displays a firm commitment to the American and NATO positions in Ukraine, Russia might well return the favor with unfriendly acts in Syria. Similarly, the symbolic and precarious role Turkey has achieved in helping monitor the peace in Nagorno-Karabagh may be brought to an uneasy end. Other Russian responses may also be initiated in Libya or the Eastern Mediterranean. Finally, we should remember that Turkey is dependent on Russian gas for everything from heating homes to power generation, providing opportunities to Russia to punish Turkey. To conclude, there are sufficient reasons to understand why Turkey would wish an end to the conflict without escalation. Otherwise, further difficulties might arise in its relations with Russia.

Given the importance of Turkey’s western connection, in case the conflict escalates, it would appear to be natural and appropriate for the country to stand together with its allies. It is known that despite an array of disagreements of varying intensity between Turkey and its allies, particularly the US, it has been meticulous about fulfilling its responsibilities to NATO, including contributing to the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), a rapid deployment force whose mission includes extending support to Ukraine. There are, however, significant differences between Turkey and its allies. Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian-built S-400 missile defense systems in response to hesitation of the US to sell Patriot missiles, marking a major departure from NATO’s weapons procurement policies, has undermined allied confidence in Turkey’s commitment to an integrated weapons system.

The Americans have also excluded Turkey from its F-35 program. They are also showing significant hesitation in selling the older model F-16s. Americans and Turks are engaged in a highly conflictual relationship in Syria, where Turkey alleges that America supports the evolution of a Kurdish state, which it considers to be anathema to its security. Greece, backed by France, both presumable NATO allies, treat Turkey as enough of a security risk that they have formed a mini-alliance outside NATO to fend off the “Turkish danger.” Beyond these specific issues, there is also a broader concern with regards to whether the alliance would come to Turkey’s defense and the US to Europe’s defense in a time of need.

What Russians will do if Turkey joins the Western alliance in resisting a Russian encroachment in Ukraine is a matter of conjecture. Similarly, the extent to which its allies will come to Turkey’s help against Russia is also matter of speculation. Turkey’s best hope is for all parties to reach a modus vivendi so that the does not have to make a difficult choice between equally unappealing alternatives. Turkey’s offer to mediate between Russia and Ukraine is but a reflection of Turkey’s intense desire to prevent further escalation and to restore stability.

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