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Ukraine’s Uncertain Foreign Strategy amid Turkey’s Growing Regional Power

Iliya Kusa


Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Ukraine on February 3 was one of the latest signs of growing activity between the two countries. It was the second time the Ukrainian and Turkish leaders had met in half a year.

The visit came at a time when Ukraine is struggling to put together a coherent strategy for resolving the military conflict with pro-Russian forces in the eastern region of the Donbas, which has already killed more than 13,000 people. The meeting of the two presidents as part of the regular Ukraine-Turkey High-Level Strategic Council was meant to deepen the partnership and cooperation between the countries in such areas as defense, infrastructure, and trade, even as Turkey is firming up its geopolitical regional clout by engaging in a number of endeavors in Libya, Cyprus, Syria, Palestine, and the Black Sea region.

The agenda of the visit was forward-looking and broad. For the first time in many years, Ukraine and Turkey publicly discussed prospects for strengthening transregional cooperation, specifically over the development of transportation corridors linking Central Asia and the Caucasus with Eastern Europe and the Balkans through the Black Sea. Presidents Erdoğan and Zelenskyy both mentioned the $4 billion in bilateral trade and referenced an ambitious bilateral trade goal of $10 billion within the next five years. In addition, the Ukrainian president hinted at the possibility of importing Caspian Sea gas through Turkey and Bulgaria, as Ankara has recently become a major regional gas hub for Europe after launching the $40 billion Southern Gas Corridor in the fall of 2019 and the TurkStream pipeline on January 8, 2020. Finally, for the first time in several years, Turkey signed off on $36 million in military aid to the Ukrainian army fighting the pro-Russian insurgency in the East.

There were drawbacks and unrealized intentions as well. The signing of the highly contentious free trade agreement between the two countries, which was supposed to occur during the visit, was postponed again to March as the parties clashed over certain of its provisions, namely, quotas on agricultural products and how much access Turkey should have to the Ukrainian vegetable and consumer goods markets. There were no breakthroughs on Black Sea security cooperation, road and port infrastructure projects, or investment policies. Endemic corruption, a gloomy business climate, weak investment potential, and political instability remain overwhelming issues for Ukraine, making it incredibly difficult to attract Turkish companies to invest in the country.

Though negotiations between President Zelenskyy and President Erdoğan generally went well, the visit exposed the difficulties Ukraine faces when trying to engage with Turkey and strengthen its southern diplomatic flank. Ukraine appears to find its path strangely rocky, likely owing to the complexities of Turkey’s twofold regional political agenda.

Turkey perceives Ukraine as one of multiple platforms through which Ankara is able to project power and counter regional rivals. For example, Erdoğan’s explicit support for Ukraine’s quest for a unified Orthodox Church independent of Russian influence at the end of 2018 stemmed from his plans to dissolve Russian control, which Moscow tried to impose through religious means. For Turkey, Ukraine is interesting as a potential transit country and as a buffer zone against Russia, which would allow Turkey to lock up regional dominance along its “crescent” in the Black Sea basin, stretching from Bulgaria and Romania in the west to Georgia and Azerbaijan in the east. The Crimean Tatars are seen by Turkish elites as their main allies in Ukraine because of their deep-rooted historical, cultural, and ethnic ties to Turkey. Therefore, it is no surprise that Erdoğan is personally invested in talking with Ukraine and Russia over the rights of Crimean Tatars on the occupied peninsula and the fate of the numerous political prisoners among them. In 2017 he managed to secure the release of two senior Crimean Tatar politicians from Russian prisons.

After Russia annexed Crimea and occupied parts of the Donbas region in 2014, relations between Turkey and Ukraine significantly improved. Both countries perceived Russia’s undeterred and aggressive military build-up in the Black Sea basin after the Crimean intervention as a threat to their vital economic and security interests. Both saw the Russian crackdown on the Crimean Tatar community, which resisted the occupation, as a grave violation of human rights and an attempt to destroy Ukraine’s and Turkey’s potential political allies on the peninsula. Both are deeply interested in enhancing trade, infrastructure, and energy projects in the Black Sea.

However, after the 2015–2016 Turkish-Russian rapprochement and Ankara’s fallout with the West, Ukraine found itself in a very delicate and complex situation, forced to adjust quickly to different parties’ contradictory agendas. Meanwhile, Turkey, caught in a self-inflicted military quagmire in northern Syria, tied up in a gas dispute with eastern Mediterranean states, and on a collision course with the United States over Turkey’s regional ambitions, had to hammer out flexible situational alliances with various parties in order to counterbalance foreign threats. This made Turkey’s position with respect to Ukraine and Russia a purely pragmatic one, prompting Ankara to actively engage with Russia on energy and economic projects, thereby defying Western sanctions, even while formally condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

In this context, Ukraine appears uncertain as to how to address Turkey’s sophisticated geostrategy for becoming a regional superpower. As Erdoğan’s visit to Kyiv showed, while maintaining a good record of steady, permanent high-level political dialogue, the Ukrainian government still hesitates to fully embrace the pragmatism of Turkey’s regional approach. Not only are Ukrainian politicians more suspicious of Turkey’s intentions because of Turkey’s close ties with Moscow, the Russian-Turkish arrangements have hindered prospects of full-fledged mutual cooperation between Ukraine and Turkey on defense and security matters as Ukrainians frequently look over their shoulder for possible Russian interference through Turkey. That is why Ukraine-Turkey relations remain publicly strong and vital but in practice are limited and vague.

Another cause of uncertainty in Kyiv is Ukraine’s lack of a robust and integrated foreign policy toward Turkey. Along with its unclear position on the role of Turkey in its regional calculations, Ukraine is still trying to grasp how to respond adequately to international challenges.

The political and social institutions in Kyiv are insufficiently capable of generating proper messages and adapting policies to a volatile foreign environment. Being flexible while protecting Ukraine’s interests is especially difficult in relation to Turkey, where Ukraine must find a way to carefully balance Russian threats, Erdoğan’s ambitions, and Western interests. This tangle of challenges requires a multilayered, intelligent, and pragmatic foreign policy from Ukraine, which currently is not in place. This should be the ultimate “home task” for Ukraine; otherwise it will surrender the entire Black Seaboard to Russia and its allies, further marginalizing its international standing.

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 of the Future
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on 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, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more