The affairs between Russia and Ukraine have been tense since the beginning of the new millennium. Despite many political maneuvers and changes in political actors, the tense relations between Kiev and Moscow finally hit rock bottom in 2014. Moscow’s actions in Crimea, and then recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states ended up with a rupture in Russia’s relations with the West. A vicious cycle of reciprocal sanctions had negative impacts on national economies and global markets. The oil markets tumbled down, there are no healthy estimations about the future of natural gas prices, and food inflation stands as a risk to be tackled next.
As the spirit of the Cold War haunts current global politics with the spiraling down crisis, Turkey’s position represents a unique case. From the beginning, Turkey pursued a balanced strategy and kept its dialogue channels open both with Moscow and Kiev. As a NATO member state, Turkey principally avoided from pursuing the West's sanction regime. Moreover, Ankara kept its economic and political channels open with its Black Sea neighbors. Turkey’s balanced policy bored its fruits recently. After long negotiations, Ukraine and Russia agreed to open a corridor to export Ukrainian grain to global markets in Istanbul.
Turkey’s initial reaction to the restart of the conflict
Since 2014, Turkey has been a vigilant actor in the Black Sea. As a neighboring country to Russia and Ukraine, Turkey called for de-escalation and did not recognize Russia’s declaration of sovereignty on the Crimean Peninsula. When the conflict restarted in February 2022, this was a crisis that needed to be governed carefully by Ankara. As the guardian of the straits, the Montreux Convention was open to debate as in the case of the Georgian War in 2008. While everybody closely followed Turkey’s reaction, Turkey declared the Russian special operation a war and referring to the Montreux Convention closed the straits to warships of any third party on February 28.
This decision was applauded both by Kiev and Moscow. For Kiev, this meant keeping new coming Russian vessels outside of the Black Sea and limiting the Russian Navy’s capabilities in the conflict. Despite this handicap, Moscow also praised Turkey’s decision. The Black Sea has a special character, due to the Montreux Convention. The passage of non-littoral states’ warships is limited by tonnage and time, but not banned during peacetime. However, the convention gives Turkey the authority to close the straits to any party’s warship during a war. Turkey’s decision to close straits prevents access of not only warring parties, but also any other actor that may try to engage in the crisis with its navy. From this perspective, Turkey’s decision potentially prevented further escalation in the crisis and speculation about the Montreux Convention regime.
Keeping dialogue channels open with the actors
The start of the operation was a shock for many European actors. As expected by many analysts, European countries like Germany, Italy, and Hungary staggered before agreeing to impose sanctions on Russia. Shortly after, unanimously they decided to close their airports to Russian airlines, limit financial transactions with Russian banks, and review their energy affairs with Moscow. These were unprecedented reactions since the end of the Cold War. Turkey decided not to follow these decisions. Subsequently, Turkey has become one of the main hubs for Russians. Indeed, Turkey has been one of the main destinations for Russian tourists, but particularly Istanbul airport has become one of the main connection points for Russians traveling to the west after February 2022. Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky harshly criticized Turkey for keeping routes open for Russians.
Unlike the West, Ankara also maintained its energy cooperation with Moscow and works to deepen its financial affairs through Russia’s financial instruments like the MIR payment system. Beyond Ankara’s well-established relations with Moscow, Turkish officials said that Turkey principally does not follow any sanctions other than those decided by the UN Security Council.
While maintaining its economic affairs with Russia, Turkey also continued its cooperation with Ukraine in a wide sphere. The bilateral trade has relatively lost momentum compared to 2021 data due to the impacts of the conflict on the Ukrainian economy. But in the first half of 2022, the bilateral trade exceeded the volume of the pre-2021 period. The trade volume was $2.05 billion in the first half of 2020, whereas it reached $2.6 billion in 2022 for the same period. Considering the fact that the parties signed a free trade agreement on February 3, the current level of trade is below the potential of the two countries. However, Turkey continues to be one of Ukraine’s main economic partners during wartime.
Additionally, Turkey maintained its cooperation with Ukraine in the defense sector. Turkish Baykar is one of the main suppliers of armed drones to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. As in the cases of Libya, Syria, and Karabakh, Turkish drones played a critical role on the Ukrainian battlefield. While the Ukrainian Armed Force’s aircraft are threatened by Russian air defense systems, Bayraktar TB2s give the capability of reconnaissance and agility in the air. Before the break out of the confluct, Turkey and Ukraine agreed to expand their cooperation in a wider area. In the 10th High-Level Cooperation Council meeting, the parties agreed to cooperate in the coproduction of drones as well as using Ukrainian motors in Turkey’s Altay Tank and ATAK helicopter project. The ongoing conflict negatively affected the momentum in this sphere but looking at the recent statements the parties are decisive to continue their cooperation.
Turkey as a facilitator
Turkey’s balanced policy paved the way for keeping dialogue channels open both with Ukraine and Russia. As a country directly affected by the consequences of the ongoing conflict, Turkey aspired to play a facilitator role for a ceasefire between the parties. Following the negotiations on the Belarussian border, Ukrainian and Russian officials came together respectively in Antalya and Istanbul. The choice to continue the dialogue in Turkey shows the trust in Turkey by Ukraine and Russia. Though it is hard to claim that these meetings brought concrete results, Turkey preserves its position to continue playing this role to find a breakthrough for a solution. Turkish FM Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu repeated Turkey’s position during his counterpart’s visit to Ankara in June 2022.
Looking at the dynamics on the ground, a ceasefire is a complex process. Nevertheless, the Turkish administration seeks to use its potential as a facilitator beyond this mission. In this context, the grain corridor agreement, which was signed in Istanbul, is a good example.
Russia and Ukraine supply 30 percent of grain exports in the world, but the exports were disrupted due to deteriorated security environment in the Black Sea. The disruption caused not only a jump in global prices but also started to threaten the food security of some African and Middle Eastern states. After peaking at $500 per ton, the wheat prices slightly came down to $400-410, but still, remain 30 percent above the last year’s average. The first shipment left the Ukrainian ports and reached Istanbul on August 3. Headed by a Turkish Admiral, officials from Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and the UN will be following the traffic from the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul.
Opening a corridor for the Ukrainian grain is a positive development, but it is hard to expect a dramatic relief in global prices solely by opening the route for the Ukrainian shipments. Russia stands as another main grain exporter for global markets. In this regard, a bundled approach was developed to include an agreement for promoting Russian grains and fertilizers on July 22, in Istanbul. Earlier, Russian officials had complains about the difficulties that Russian exporters had to tackle. These can be listed as problems in getting permission to dock at foreign ports and facing higher freight costs and insurance premiums. These undermined the traffic from the Russian ports and created pressure on the markets. The Istanbul agreement represents a solution to the current impasse as an official document.
Still, it is hard to ignore the delicate dynamics in this process. Just after the signing ceremony, a Russian attack targeted a Ukrainian warship in the Odessa port on the basis of carrying anti-ship missiles delivered by the US led to concerns about the applicability of the deal. Safe and secure traffic from the Ukrainian routes will positively reflect on the insurance premiums and promote the traffic from the Black Sea. Thus, the departure of the first shipment from Ukraine to Egypt is a positive development and should be followed by others. Otherwise, next to energy, food security remains a fragile topic for the winter of 2022.
Turkey – West Relations
Since 2016, Turkey has deepened its dialogue with Moscow in a wide range of areas. The advance in the bilateral dialogue is perceived as an axis shift in Turkish foreign policy at the expense of western interests. However, Turkey’s decision to close the straits to any country, including Russia, is taken as a positive signal. The western media highly praised the performance of Turkish drones and Ankara's partners in the west appreciated its efforts to play a facilitator role since the beginning of the crisis. In this regard, Turkey’s balanced strategy has positive connotations in the West.
Still, it is hard to claim that the Ukrainian crisis played a dramatic role to reset the relations between Turkey and the West. There are still other issues that cast a shadow on bilateral relations, including S400s, and conflicting interests in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. One of the indicators of the sore relations is the US Congress' resistance to Turkey's F16 demand to modernize its fleet.
Turkey suffers from the consequences of the Ukrainian crisis. The decreasing number of incoming tourists from Ukraine and Russia, and increasing prices of agricultural products and energy commodities had negative impacts on the Turkish economy. Striving to recover its losses in the post-pandemic era, these factors increased the burden on the AK Party government before the upcoming elections.
Turkey’s balanced dialogue paid off in the last decade with deepening cooperation between Turkey and its neighbors to the north. Though Turkey’s improving dialogue with Moscow concerns its partners in the West. Its constructive diplomacy and balanced stance alleviated some of these concerns lately, but hardly served as a game changer in Turkey’s relations with the West.
The government seeks to compensate for its economic losses through political gains by playing a constructive role in the conflict. Its balanced policy toward Kiev and Moscow served this end. Ankara played a mediator role in the grain corridor agreement with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Despite its fragilities, the agreement stands as one of the few positive developments since February 24.
Until now Turkey’s efforts hardly resulted in a dramatic advance in the political negotiations, but Turkey preserves its aspirations to facilitate a ceasefire agreement in the crisis. The high-level dialogue between Turkey and the parties of the conflict reflects that it has a reliable image both in Kiev and Moscow. But there is a need for further constructive approach from other parties as in the case of the grain corridor agreement. Otherwise, it is obvious that the winter of 2022 will be harsher for any actor linked with the conflict.