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Turkey Is the Biggest Swing Player in the Russia-Ukraine War

Ankara has used its unique position for a strategic advantage.

By , a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute.
A Marshall Islands-flagged carrier transits the Bosphorus.
A Marshall Islands-flagged carrier transits the Bosphorus.
The Marshall Islands-flagged Star Helena, carrying grain from the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk, transits the Bosphorus in Istanbul on Aug. 9. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

As the Russia-Ukraine conflict heads for the six-month mark, Turkey has emerged as a major swing player in the protracted war. Ankara is involved in the conflict on a number of fronts, from security cooperation with Ukraine to energy cooperation with Russia to serving as a diplomatic mediator between Kyiv and Moscow. It was Turkey’s diplomacy that facilitated the grain shipments from Ukraine’s ports on Aug. 1, the first since the start of the war. This increasingly proactive approach to the conflict has presented both substantial opportunities and significant challenges for Ankara while offering important lessons for the West on how to most-effectively deal with Russia.

Ankara has long sought to leverage its strategic position at the intercontinental crossroads between Europe and Asia as well as emphasize the concept of connectivity. Functionally, Turkey serves as a vital transit corridor for key resources like energy and food supplies, and this corridor has become all the more important given the economic and trade disruptions of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Institutionally, Turkey is a vital member of the NATO security bloc but one that operates independently—and sometimes counter to—the position of its American and European partners, including in its relationship with Western adversaries like Russia and Iran.

Under the leadership of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara has leveraged both forms of connectivity to enhance its position as a regional power, one that doesn’t fit neatly into either the pro-Western or pro-Russian camp. Turkey provides substantial amounts of weaponry to Ukraine, including Bayraktar TB2 drones, which have proven instrumental in helping Ukrainian forces attack Russian positions.

As the Russia-Ukraine conflict heads for the six-month mark, Turkey has emerged as a major swing player in the protracted war. Ankara is involved in the conflict on a number of fronts, from security cooperation with Ukraine to energy cooperation with Russia to serving as a diplomatic mediator between Kyiv and Moscow. It was Turkey’s diplomacy that facilitated the grain shipments from Ukraine’s ports on Aug. 1, the first since the start of the war. This increasingly proactive approach to the conflict has presented both substantial opportunities and significant challenges for Ankara while offering important lessons for the West on how to most-effectively deal with Russia.

Ankara has long sought to leverage its strategic position at the intercontinental crossroads between Europe and Asia as well as emphasize the concept of connectivity. Functionally, Turkey serves as a vital transit corridor for key resources like energy and food supplies, and this corridor has become all the more important given the economic and trade disruptions of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Institutionally, Turkey is a vital member of the NATO security bloc but one that operates independently—and sometimes counter to—the position of its American and European partners, including in its relationship with Western adversaries like Russia and Iran.

Under the leadership of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara has leveraged both forms of connectivity to enhance its position as a regional power, one that doesn’t fit neatly into either the pro-Western or pro-Russian camp. Turkey provides substantial amounts of weaponry to Ukraine, including Bayraktar TB2 drones, which have proven instrumental in helping Ukrainian forces attack Russian positions.

At the same time, Ankara did not join the West’s sanctions against Russia in response to the Ukraine invasion, and Erdogan discussed expanding Turkish-Russian energy cooperation in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on Aug 5. Even still, Turkey serves as a conduit for non-Russian energy supplies to Europe via the Southern Gas Corridor, which the European Union is seeking to expand to diversify away from Russian natural gas.

Yet while avoiding joining sanctions, Turkey has broadly supported NATO’s position on providing security support for Ukraine—even as Ankara held up the expansion of the military bloc to Sweden and Finland for months over issues related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the harboring of other Kurdish elements that the Turkish government deems security threats in these countries. Although the dispute has been tentatively resolved, it demonstrates Turkey’s propensity to prioritize its own national interests as well as its willingness to challenge what is otherwise unanimous NATO support of fast-tracking Finnish and Swedish membership into the trans-Atlantic military bloc. Such an approach could potentially compromise the perceived dependability of Turkey within NATO in the future, but for now, Ankara remains an indispensable member of the bloc.

Perhaps Turkey’s most consequential role has been as a mediator over the grain and food supply issue between Moscow and Kyiv. Turkey, along with the United Nations, worked to negotiate a deal to unlock food and grain exports that had been cut off since the start of the war in late February, reaching a breakthrough agreement on July 22 that included the launching of a grain coordination center in Istanbul.

Much of Ukraine’s food and grain exports (as well as those from Russia) must transit Turkey’s maritime waters in the Black Sea and Bosphorus to reach global markets in the Middle East, Africa, and beyond. Turkey was the only member of NATO that has good working relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and thus, it could help guarantee the safe passage of maritime vessels through this area. Ankara was able to seize on an opportunity where both Ukraine and Russia benefited from cooperation (Western sanctions on Russia were selectively eased to allow food shipments to go forward), whereas polarization among Moscow, Kyiv, and the West would likely have prevented such cooperation efforts without an independently minded mediator.

Turkey’s strategic connectivity approach has thus produced significant benefits, allowing Ankara to not only unlock vital food supplies but also bolster its diplomatic prestige in the process. However, Ankara’s connectivity pursuits have not come without challenges for Turkey. Ankara’s efforts to mediate the grain deal between Russia and Ukraine only came after failed attempts by Turkey to negotiate a broader peace agreement between Moscow and Kyiv. Ankara has certainly improved its leverage vis-à-vis Moscow in the Eurasian theater (as seen by Turkey’s pivotal role in inserting itself as a major player in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict), but Russia is clearly willing to act against the interests of Turkey when it deems fit, whether in Ukraine, Syria, or elsewhere. Indeed, the Kremlin’s spokesperson threatened on Aug. 9 to make Turkey’s plans to build a Bayraktar plant in Ukraine subject to so-called demilitarization efforts.

At the same time, Turkey’s success in negotiating the grain deal has yet to be fully proven. Although ships have now begun to make their way out of Ukrainian ports and into Turkish waters, such traffic will be very limited in the initial weeks and subject to challenges out of Turkey’s control. For example, Russia could further threaten the agreement by striking at port facilities it designates as military targets, as Russian forces did within 24 hours of the deal’s signing, or pull out of the deal altogether, which would compromise Turkey’s image as a mediator and as an influential power broker in Eurasia. And Ankara’s ability to balance between the West and Moscow also faces its limits, as the United States has inflicted its own sanctions against the Turks for defense and other forms of cooperation with Russia.

But the Turkish strategy has still produced meaningful results. As grain shipments are now underway, Ukrainian officials have floated expanding the deal to include the export of other goods, such as metals. Such progress offers an important lesson for the West when it comes to dealing with Russia.

Thus far, the United States and EU have pursued a strategy focused on sanctions and other punitive measures when it comes to responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, just as Moscow has responded with its own energy cutoffs and other pressure tactics. In essence, both Russia and the West are utilizing a weaponized form of connectivity to undermine the other side in the hopes that it will lead to a change in behavior. There is little in terms of constructive or even conditional outreach, with both sides suffering economically as a result.

The tangible impact of such a zero-sum approach has been skyrocketing inflation, energy disruptions, and rising food insecurity throughout the world—not to mention the death and displacement of so many Ukrainian people. While the West is right to stand up to Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, it is important to recognize that a multifaceted connectivity strategy that combines pressure with constructive engagement along the lines of Turkey’s approach can be more effective in yielding results when it comes to dealing with Moscow. This is something the United States and EU can learn from and adapt to their own connectivity strategies, if only to mitigate against the most disruptive elements of the war and build the grounds for peace.

Eugene Chausovsky is a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute. Chausovsky previously served as senior Eurasia analyst at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor for more than 10 years. His work focuses on political, economic, and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East.

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