Turkey’s Balancing Act on Ukraine Is Becoming More Precarious

Ankara faces growing pressure to pick sides between Kyiv and Moscow.

By , a distinguished research fellow at the U.S. National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.
Erdogan stands in front of microphones on a podium in front of Turkish flags.
Erdogan stands in front of microphones on a podium in front of Turkish flags.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a statement after a cabinet meeting on Russia and Ukraine in Ankara, Turkey, on Feb. 28. Turkish Presidential Press Office via dia images via Getty Images

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended the geopolitical calculations of countries around the world. For Turkey, a NATO member that has performed a delicate balancing act between Kyiv and Moscow, the war is forcing some hard choices.

Like his World War II-era predecessor Ismet Inonu, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to keep Turkey out of today’s conflict as much as possible, while maximizing his own room to maneuver. Amid the escalating conflict and humanitarian disaster, however, Ankara faces growing pressure to pick sides.

Turkey faces a range of vulnerabilities from either an emboldened or a desperate Russia. Erdogan’s strategy therefore centers on supporting Ukraine without jeopardizing ties with Moscow. Over the longer term, the course of the war itself will do much to determine how Ankara maintains this balancing act. Strong, unified NATO support for Ukraine, along with Russian military setbacks, would provide the best opportunity to reinforce Ankara’s commitment to Ukraine—and to the alliance.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended the geopolitical calculations of countries around the world. For Turkey, a NATO member that has performed a delicate balancing act between Kyiv and Moscow, the war is forcing some hard choices.

Like his World War II-era predecessor Ismet Inonu, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to keep Turkey out of today’s conflict as much as possible, while maximizing his own room to maneuver. Amid the escalating conflict and humanitarian disaster, however, Ankara faces growing pressure to pick sides.

Turkey faces a range of vulnerabilities from either an emboldened or a desperate Russia. Erdogan’s strategy therefore centers on supporting Ukraine without jeopardizing ties with Moscow. Over the longer term, the course of the war itself will do much to determine how Ankara maintains this balancing act. Strong, unified NATO support for Ukraine, along with Russian military setbacks, would provide the best opportunity to reinforce Ankara’s commitment to Ukraine—and to the alliance.


Russia and Turkey have for centuries been rivals across a wide geographic space encompassing the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Black Sea, and Central Asia. Vulnerability to Russian military power throughout these regions has encouraged Turkish leaders to seek allies: Britain and France in the Crimean War, Germany in World War I, and NATO in the Cold War. When the international environment has been less threatening, though, Turkey has looked to Russia (and the Soviet Union) for economic opportunities and as a partner for boosting its own strategic autonomy.

The Soviet Union’s collapse created a series of buffer states (including Ukraine) that shielded Turkey from Russian military power, allowing Ankara to pursue a more forward-leaning policy in Eurasia. It also opened up new opportunities for Turkish companies in Russia, which became a major source of tourists to Turkey’s Mediterranean resorts as well as a lucrative market for exporters and construction companies (many with close ties to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party). Turkey also turned to Russia for energy, at one point getting the majority of its natural gas from Russia, and signing a deal with Russia’s state-owned Rosatom to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant at Akkuyu.

Ties with Russia also allowed Ankara to hedge against what it perceived to be excessive dependence on the West amid tensions over Washington’s role in the Syrian conflict. Erdogan’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system after he was unable to strike a deal with the United States for the Patriot system sent a message to Turkey’s NATO allies that Ankara had other options. Some voices in Turkish political and military circles would like to go further, seeing Russia’s pursuit of a non-Western security order in Eurasia as preferable to continued dependence on NATO.

Improved relations with Moscow also reflected a growing closeness between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was the first foreign leader to call Erdogan after the failed 2016 coup attempt, and whose strongman rule contrasted with mounting U.S. and European criticism over Turkey’s democratic backsliding.

Russia and Turkey nevertheless remain geopolitical rivals. Their forces and proxies have clashed repeatedly—in Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus. In February 2020, Russian forces (or Russian-backed Syrian forces) bombed Turkish positions near Idlib, Syria, killing over 30 Turkish soldiers.

Nor was Russia the only target of Turkey’s Eurasian outreach. Ukraine is also important to Turkey as both an economic and a geopolitical partner. Trade between the two countries has increased rapidly since Ukraine’s 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity, reaching $7.4 billion in 2021. Ankara and Kyiv also signed a free trade agreement on the eve of the most recent Russian invasion.

Since 2019, Turkey has also supplied Ukraine with military assistance, notably the Bayraktar TB2 armed drones that were instrumental in Azerbaijan’s victory over Russian ally Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh and that have inflicted significant casualties on Russian-backed forces in both Libya and the Donbass. During Erdogan’s visit to Kyiv at the start of February, the two countries agreed to set up a factory to produce drones inside Ukraine.

Turkey’s security is much better served by an independent Ukraine than a Ukraine under Russian military-political domination. Further territorial changes at Ukraine’s expense would allow Moscow to bolster its naval presence along the northern Black Sea coast. (Russia’s post-2014 militarization of Crimea has already tipped the balance of power in the Black Sea against Turkey.) While the bulk of refugees fleeing Ukraine have so far gone westward, a longer conflict could also send refugee flows to Turkey, a country still struggling with the effects of large-scale migration from Middle Eastern conflicts.

Turkey also remains susceptible to Russian retaliation. Despite some diversification in recent years and new offshore discoveries, Turkey is dependent on Russia for the bulk of its gas and a significant percentage of its oil. With Turkey’s inflation likely to be above 40 percent for the year, turbulence in energy markets could have damaging effects not just on Turkey’s economy but on Erdogan’s political fortunes ahead of elections next year.

Even with its military tied down in Ukraine, Russia retains the capacity to hit back at Turkish interests. Idlib remains a particular liability, packed as it is with refugees and a motley collection of rebels who would likely flee for the Turkish border in the event of an offensive on the city.


Because of all this, and because its relationship with Moscow is important to Erdogan’s larger geopolitical ambitions, Turkish support for Ukraine has been real—but cautious.

On the first day of the conflict, Erdogan characterized the Russian attack as “unacceptable” and “contrary to international law.” Turkey has since reiterated long-standing commitments to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (including Crimea, the annexation of which Ankara has insisted it will never recognize). Yet many Turkish statements during the first week or so of the conflict lacked the moral clarity of those from its Western counterparts, instead calling on both Russia and Ukraine to find a diplomatic solution.

With the conflict worsening and Western unity holding, Ankara grew slightly bolder. In a March 6 telephone call with Putin, Erdogan called for a cease-fire, the opening of a humanitarian corridor, and a peace agreement. Turkey has also continued to supply both humanitarian assistance and military equipment to Ukraine. Perhaps its most visible contribution has been continuing to supply drones to Ukraine—deflecting Russian criticism with the disingenuous claim that such sales are purely private transactions.

At Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s request, Turkey also agreed to invoke the 1936 Montreux Convention, which allows Ankara to regulate the passage of warships through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits—the first time since World War II it has done so. The decision required a formal determination that the Russia-Ukraine conflict qualified as a war—thereby rejecting Putin’s description of a “special military operation.”

Effectively, the decision to invoke Montreux means that Turkey can prevent Russia from reinforcing its naval forces already present in the Black Sea with ships based outside the Black Sea. (The bulk of Russia’s navy remains engaged in the Eastern Mediterranean off Syria.) Particularly if the conflict drags on, closure of the straits could degrade Moscow’s naval and amphibious capabilities.

Still, Turkey’s rhetoric remains cautious, and it continues its policy of engagement with Moscow. Erdogan has spoken with Putin on multiple occasions since the start of the war, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is set to attend the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in Turkey later this week, where he plans to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba.

Since Turkey is not a member of the European Union, it is not bound to observe the EU sanctions on Russia, and it has avoided imposing unilateral sanctions that could both rupture ties and damage its own economy. Nor has Turkey given any indication it plans to abandon the S-400 or close its airspace to Russian planes. Erdogan is meanwhile seeking to leverage his ties with both Zelensky and Putin to position Turkey as a mediator, although so far the Kremlin has downplayed the offer, suggesting that its terms for ending the conflict are already known. Turkish press reports claim that Erdogan suggested settling bilateral trade in rubles, gold, or Chinese yuan in order to bypass U.S. and EU financial sanctions.

The guiding light of Turkish foreign policy under Erdogan has been to position Ankara as a regional power with substantial strategic autonomy. With the de facto failure of Turkey’s effort to join the EU and with growing tensions with both Washington and Brussels in recent years, Erdogan has pursued other vectors—not just rapprochement with Putin’s Russia but also stepped-up intervention in the Middle East and commercial and soft power outreach to new partners in Africa and elsewhere.

This increasingly global footprint has been profitable and reinforces Erdogan’s ambitious vision of Turkey as a global power at a time when the United States has stated its intent to pursue a more restrained approach.

It has not, however, helped Turkey overcome vulnerabilities closer to home. Indeed, Russia’s dramatic transformation from revisionist to rogue state creates significant uncertainty for Turkey, which now has more incentive than before to patch up quarrels with its NATO allies—especially the United States. In the year-plus since U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Ankara has suggested a desire to improve relations with Washington. Turkey has taken on a visible role in NATO exercises in and around the Black Sea, walked back aggressive statements about U.S. interference in Turkey’s domestic politics, and begun patching up ties with key U.S. ally Israel.

In that sense, Turkish support for Ukraine is not just about checking the expansion of Russian power but also about showing Washington and its other NATO allies that Turkey remains a reliable partner with a role to play in collective defense.

The question is whether such gestures can heal the deep suspicion between Ankara and Washington (especially on Capitol Hill), while Turkey continues its engagement with Russia when the United States and other allies are seeking to make it a pariah.

Facts on the ground will do much to shape Turkey’s future course. The worse the conflict grows, the less room for maneuver Erdogan will have. NATO’s ability to maintain a strong, united response that makes the invasion of Ukraine a strategic setback for Moscow would provide the best possible argument for Ankara to again prioritize relations with its Western allies.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.

 

Jeffrey Mankoff is a distinguished research fellow at the U.S. National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies specializing in Russian and Eurasian affairs and a nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Empires of Eurasia: How Imperial Legacies Shape International Security.

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