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As Russia Escalates, Where Do Turkey-Ukraine Relations Stand?

Iliya Kusa

BY ILIYA KUSA

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Turkey on April 10, which coincided with an unprecedented military standoff around Ukraine’s Donbas, was perceived by many as an attempt to draw support from foreign powers and create at least the appearance of a solid, united anti-Russian alliance—with Turkey in it—ready to support Ukraine at any moment. Though it might have been the intention of Ukraine’s presidential office to deliver such a picture, the reality is more modest and complex.

Turkey and Ukraine enjoy a stable, dynamic, and quite profitable relationship, one that has flourished during the last six years under two Ukrainian presidential administrations. Bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to almost $5 billion in 2020, with both governments aiming at increasing the volume to $10 billion in the next five years. Turkey has now become one of Ukraine’s top foreign investors, having injected more than $500 million into Ukraine’s economy (a 30 percent increase from 2014). Turkish companies retain a high interest in the Ukrainian housing market and the country’s road and port infrastructure. During his visit to Ankara, Zelensky invited Turkish companies to participate in his “Big Construction” initiative, launched in a bid to attract foreign investment and modernize national infrastructure. Since 2019 Turkey has been a top tourist destination for Ukrainians, with 1.6 million visiting every year.

The two countries often praise their security and defense cooperation, which increased significantly over the past five years. Ukraine has started producing engines for Turkish unmanned military aircraft and combat helicopters with an eye to buying a second batch of military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, drones), including the latest Akinci model, and even to moving its joint production one day to Ukrainian factories.

Since the establishment of the High Level Strategic Council in 2011, Turkey and Ukraine have edged closer on political issues, especially after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. Ankara is eager to support Ukraine politically and diplomatically as it sees Crimea as part of its own expanded geopolitical periphery. Kyiv constantly refers to Turkey as its strategic partner and even acknowledged it as such in Ukraine’s latest National Security Strategy, approved by the president in September 2020.

After all these successes, when the escalation with Russia started, it was no surprise that many in Ukraine began to wonder whether Turkey would stand by Ukraine and support it against Russia’s possible incursions. Although President Zelensky’s team attempted to create such an image of solidarity during his April 10 visit, this time the situation is far more complex. Relations between Turkey and Ukraine may seem fine in general, but they are pretty limited and are confined mostly to three spheres: trade volume, military aircraft manufacture, and agriculture.

Despite good performance on macroeconomic measures, the quality of the bilateral trade is totally different. Ukraine loses out to Turkey on key measures of product quality, while Ankara manages to flood Ukrainian markets with high-value-added products. Partly because of this, Turkey and Ukraine have been deadlocked in negotiations over a Free Trade Agreement for many years. Several rounds of discussions were held in the last six months, with no result so far. An FTA is quite controversial in Ukraine, with some analysts pointing out that the unequal balance in bilateral trade would allow Turkey to use the agreement to strengthen its positions even more.

Military-industrial cooperation has a similar problem. Turkey and Ukraine still lack joint projects, and some in Kyiv believe that Turkish aircraft manufacturers will suppress national initiatives by persuading Ukraine to buy more of their UAVs. For Turkish companies, Ukraine represents another potential venue where national products could be tested in real combat situations, which would raise their pricing and reputation on world markets, just as happened in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Finally, Turkey still pursues a pragmatic foreign policy. It is neither pro-Ukraine nor pro-Russia. It is entirely pro-Turkey. With a military escalation brewing in Ukraine’s East, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statements during Zelensky’s visit vividly demonstrated the twofold approach Ankara clings to with respect to the unfolding situation. Although he reconfirmed Turkey’s political support for Ukraine (especially with regard to the Crimean issue), Erdoğan emphasized that Russian-Ukrainian tensions must be resolved peacefully and a political solution be found based on the Minsk agreements of 2015, which are perceived as not beneficial by over 28 percent of Ukrainians. In addition, Turkey is embroiled in a number of regional processes, from Syria and Libya to the southern Caucasus, in which Russia is Turkey’s main counterpart. This forces Ankara to sustain close ties with Moscow and avoid direct confrontation. Erdoğan sees the Ukraine-Russia conflict as an opportunity to expand its geopolitical clout over the Black Sea basin, Eastern Europe, and Crimea by using the war in Ukraine as an excuse to push for Crimean Tatar autonomy in Ukraine.

Turkey is not interested in the Donbas or in the military escalation itself. Turkey is not a military or political ally for Ukraine in the full sense of the word. Ankara cares about Crimea and the Crimean Tatars, whom it sees as Turkey’s main ideological and political allies both in the peninsula and in continental Ukraine, and it cares about the safety of the Black Sea trade routes. In subregional politics Turkey has a keen interest in cooperating with Ukraine to counterbalance Russia in certain areas (the Church’s influence, naval deterrence, energy), but in the international arena Russia has much more geostrategic value for Turkey than Ukraine does. That is why Erdoğan will not react to the latest escalation beyond largely political public rhetoric. So long as the situation does not threaten Turkey’s immediate interests in the Black Sea and Crimea, Erdoğan is unlikely to unravel his difficult but balanced approach.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Iliya Kusa

Iliya Kusa

Analyst, Ukrainian Institute for the Future
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange.  Read more