Ukraine-Turkey cooperation has its limits

Turkey cannot extend the same support to Ukraine it has given to Azerbaijan.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in Istanbul, Turkey, on April 10, 2021 [Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Press Office/Handout via Reuters]

On April 10, President Volodymyr Zelensky made his way to Istanbul to take part in the ninth meeting of the Turkish-Ukrainian High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. The primary purpose of his visit was to solicit support from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against Russia, a more pressing priority than trade and investment.

In recent weeks, Ukraine has been feeling the heat. Since the end of March, Moscow has been amassing troops on the Ukrainian-Russian border. According to Kyiv, there are currently about 40,000 Russian troops in the area, not far from the frontlines in the Donbass, and the same number in Crimea which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

While Zelensky’s first port of call is the United States, he has good reason to count on Turkey, too. Ankara refuses to recognise Crimea’s annexation and offers rhetorical support to Ukraine. In a joint declaration, Erdogan and Zelensky pledged to continue “coordinating steps aimed at [..] the de-occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, as well as territories in Donetsk and Luhansk regions”. The wording matches their last joint statement from October 2020, when the two leaders met in Turkey.

Erdogan also re-committed to the so-called Crimean Platform launched by Kyiv and backed by the Biden administration, which aims to put pressure on Russia. Turkey intends to use the foreign policy initiative to channel economic assistance to Crimean Tatars in regions bordering the peninsula.

There is substance to the Ukraine-Turkey relationship, not just grand rhetoric. In 2019, Kyiv purchased 12 Bayraktar TB2 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), the very weapon system that gave Turkish allies advantage on the battlefields of Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. General Ruslan Khomchak, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, has confirmed plans to acquire five more.

The two countries have long been discussing joint defence production, with Turkey benefitting from Ukrainian industries that had been cut off from the Russian market and Ukraine obtaining access to drone technology.

The Turkish government is furthermore leveraging its links to Ukraine in order to engage the US. While the reset Erdogan is probing with the West is bearing fruits regarding the EU, Biden’s team has thus far been ignoring Ankara’s overtures. Washington is not taking at face value arguments that Turkey is the only power ready and willing to curb Moscow’s expansionism, whether in Libya, Syria, or the Southern Caucasus. Erdogan’s double act with Putin has left a lasting negative impression across the Atlantic.

Now the rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine offer Turkey an opportunity to reinvigorate its ties with America and the rest of NATO after a lull. On the eve of the Erdogan-Zelensky summit, the Turkish authorities announced two US destroyers, USS Donald Cook and USS Roosevelt were headed to the Black Sea.

The Pentagon was much less gung-ho, noting that such deployments are part of NATO’s regular rotation arrangement. Eventually, the US cancelled the ships’ dispatch. Biden’s team opted for imposing a new round of sanctions on Russia, linked to interference in American politics rather than Ukraine, instead of ramping up American military presence in the region.

Turkey is therefore unlikely to take a gamble risking a head-on collision with Russia over Ukraine. At the joint press conference with Zelensky, Erdogan called for de-escalation in the Black Sea. There is no indication that Turkey is prepared to up the ante, sending direct military assistance to the frontlines, as it did in Nagorno-Karabakh or in Libya last year.

It is in no position to tip the balance of power in Kyiv’s favour and, in addition, might have to face harsh consequences. On April 12, the Russian government announced it was halting regular and charter flights to Turkey until June 1 because of COVID-19 worries. This decision, reminiscent of the pressure campaign Moscow carried out during the “jet crisis” of 2015-16, might have been driven by genuine pandemic-related concerns, but it also sent a clear message.

As Konstantin Kosachev, deputy speaker at the Federal Council (the legislature’s upper chamber), commented on Facebook, avoiding visits to Turkey “would be a truly powerful response of [Russian] society to the statements of a national leader who invites Russians to vacation counting on their love for the warm sea and not for their homeland”.

Most important of all, Ukraine itself does not seem to be in escalatory mode. For all the finger-pointing coming from the Russian side, Zelensky is not beating the war drum and amassing troops in the east. Doing so would be clearly counterproductive, as it would give credence to Moscow’s narrative of Kyiv staging provocations or, worse, provide a pretext for an attack. Rather, the Ukrainian president is trying to build diplomatic support.

US State Secretary Antony Blinken was in Brussels last week for a round of consultations within NATO where Ukraine was on the agenda. There, he met Kyiv’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, too. The Alliance would project unity but likely not overreact to Russian sabre-rattling.

Turkey’s back-and-forth with Ukraine tells us something important about its strategy vis-à-vis Russia. For all its swagger, Ankara makes sure competition with Moscow does not get out of hand. Erdogan may be much less risk-averse than the former guardians of Turkish foreign policy, but he is aware that showdown with the Russians over the Donbass or Crimea carries lots of costs and few, if any, gains.

With odds stacked against it, Turkey’s best option is “soft-balancing”: simultaneously cooperating with Russia in the post-Soviet space, hiding behind NATO’s deterrence shield, and building security ties with Azerbaijan, Georgia or Ukraine. As in 2014, Ankara will seek to avoid conflict without losing face.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.