Recently, Ankara and Kyiv have actively sought to demonstrate to all their intentions to develop and deepen bilateral relations on various fronts.
First of all, a certain anti-Russian vector is conspicuous, demonstrated in particular by the positions of both countries being close in not recognizing Crimea as Russian, which Turkish President Erdogan never misses a chance to make a defiant statement about in every conversation with the Ukrainian side. Erdogan has also repeatedly said that Ankara supports the “Crimea Platform”, an anti-Russian British project pushed by Kyiv to bring the international community together to discuss the territorial affiliation of the peninsula. Nevertheless, Ankara’s loud statements have never stood in Turkey’s way when it comes to actually cooperating with the Russian peninsula. Turkish delegations visited Crimea every year from 2014 to 2019, with the only exception being 2020, the year of the pandemic. The delegations invariably included officials, although the Turkish Foreign Ministry stressed that the trips were private in nature. Moreover, Turkey was for a long time the only NATO country to maintain direct transport links with Russian Crimea; ferries stopped running only in 2017.
The second area is the military sphere, as evidenced by the signing of “military-financial cooperation” agreements between the countries in 2020, as well as a “framework military agreement”, on the basis of which Ankara provided financial aid of 22 million euros to Kyiv.
The third area, which has been actively promoted by the countries and also has a certain anti-Russian component, is Turkish-Ukrainian cooperation concerning the Black Sea and NATO. Back in autumn 2018, the countries agreed to joint patrols of the Black Sea and support the prospect of Ukraine’s membership of NATO.
Reaffirming Turkey’s intention to actively participate in Ukraine’s development, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu attended the 4th International Conference on Reforms in Ukraine in Vilnius in July this year. Citing remarks made by the Turkish foreign minister there, the Habertürk newspaper stressed Ankara’s intention to continue its “comprehensive support for Kyiv”.
Given the US CAATSA sanctions, which limit military cooperation between Turkey and Russia, the partnership with Ukraine is particularly important for Ankara, said retired Admiral Cihat Yayci, a former Turkish naval chief of staff. According to him, “the two countries need each other very much”, especially in the military sphere, where Ukraine has useful Soviet-era know-how, in particular interesting technologies like engines for ships, tanks and UAVs. In addition, Turkey is selling its Bayraktar UAVs to Ukraine, which Kyiv intends to use in its military operations in the east, and a $200m loan has already been opened for this purpose, Yayci recalled.
As a result, military-technical cooperation in the production of Turkish combat drones and helicopters has been stepped up lately. In this regard, the Turkish media even reported that the Ukrainian company Kharkiv Machine-Building Plant FED would supply units for a Turkish-designed ATAK-II heavy attack helicopter. There are also reports of the Ukrainian authorities’ plans to sell the Motor Sich plant recently seized from Chinese investors to Ankara, although journalists already called Ukraine a risky partner. After all, in their view, the decision to nationalize the plant and break Ukraine’s earlier agreement to sell it to China was made by Kyiv under pressure from Washington. Therefore, according to experts, by offering to buy shares in the Motor Sich plant to Turkey, not only has Ukraine’s President Zelensky gotten himself involved in the US-China conflict and caused a public insult to China, but simultaneously intends to drag Ankara into this shady predicament. At the same time, Ankara’s reaction to Kyiv’s proposal remains unclear; still, if he defeats Beijing with the obvious support from Washington, Erdogan would clearly want to set for himself the prospect of a confrontation with China in Central Asia, where Turkey’s and China’s interests are also deeply intertwined.
As the European Council on Foreign Relations notes, Turkey is clearly attracted to the value that Ukraine represents to the West, as Erdogan now increasingly needs to mend his tainted relations with both the US and the EU. The Biden administration has been giving Turkey a cold shoulder since day one, with the obvious reason being the many problems in Turkish-American relations. First and foremost, it is Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems in 2019, which resulted in the US applying the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act against the Turkish Ministry of Defense. Turkey also has problems with other NATO members, many of whom have become suspicious of it since its unilateral actions last summer in the eastern Mediterranean.
Furthermore, Erdogan realizes that Turkey’s economy is in recession and his own popularity is declining. He knows that normalizing relations with Western allies and raising Turkey’s profile in the eyes of the West is the only way to ensure positive economic prospects and take Turkey out of isolation. Ankara therefore hopes that by supporting Ukraine it will woo Joe Biden, whose pro-Ukrainian stance is well known to all.
At the same time, Ankara is trying to avoid making Ukraine an irritant in uneasy Russian-Turkish relations and has so far limited itself more to rhetorical support for Kyiv, refraining from anti-Russian sanctions and military assistance to Ukraine in its conflict with pro-Russian forces in Donbass. But this did not rule out the fact that the situation has changed from time to time, partly because Ukraine became a useful counterweight in Turkey’s balancing act between the great powers, as well as a useful tool to be used against Russia.
Of course, it is difficult to make a clear-cut assessment of Ukraine-Turkey relations. Turkey is a highly controversial ally. On the one hand, Ankara disputes Crimea’s reunification with Russia and uses the term “annexation”; on the other though, the Turkish media often show Crimea and even Donbass as a zone of Turkish influence, clearly hinting at its own claims to part of Ukraine’s territory.
The contradictory nature of the Ankara-Kyiv “alliance” is also clearly visible in the gas sector. While Ukrainian President Zelensky has been pressing the UN, the OSCE and Germany to stop Nord Stream 2, Kyiv’s ally Recep Tayyip Erdogan has increased the capacity of Turkish Stream, thus taking about 50 per cent of Ukraine’s gas transit. This was made possible after Serbia and Hungary completed the interconnector at the border, connecting the onshore extension of Turkish Stream through Bulgaria and Serbia to the Hungarian gas transmission system. As a result, Russian gas will bypass Ukraine as far as Austria, where one of Europe’s gas hubs is located.
The result is that Ankara, like the rest of the West, is pursuing its main goal in its contacts with Kyiv – to enrich itself at Ukraine’s expense and to use Ukrainian chaos and crisis to its own advantage.
But the harmful nature of this alliance with Turkey for Ukraine’s national interests seems to be becoming more apparent for certain political forces in the latter, This was particularly evidenced in a recent article by the Ukrainian publication Korrespondent, which noted that Ukraine has been “goggle-eyed” in its “pursuit” of Russia, and in that pursuit it has not noticed that it became a target of another state, Turkey. For Ankara, there is a unique combination of stars in the Ukrainian sky: the Kyiv authorities are full of fears but not particularly bright or experienced, so Turkey stands a good chance of getting a big bite out of the “Ukrainian pie”.
Vladimir Platov, expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.