The Ukrainian crisis has been the main agenda of international politics for the last two years. However, the Ukrainian state has been on the table of the Western-Russian global rivalry for the last two decades. Accordingly, Ukraine’s political discourse is divided into two different and conflictual realms, mainly by the pro-Western and pro-Russian actors.
The Orange Revolution was the first front won by the pro-Western alliance since it prevented Victor Yanukovych from coming to power as the country’s president. However, Yanukovych seized power in 2010 and became president. During his presidency, as expected, he adopted a pro-Russian policy.
Then, the pro-Western alliance fought back and won a second front with the Maidan Revolution in 2014, when they ousted Yanukovych. In retaliation, Russia meddled in Ukraine’s domestic politics, illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula and supported pro-Russian separatists to declare independence from Ukraine in the Donbass region. The world public opinion, especially the Western countries, did not recognize this annexation and began to impose economic sanctions on Russia due to this illegal move. Thus, the crisis was internationalized.
Under the leadership of the United States, many Western countries have been trying to deter Russia and started to take certain security, political and economic measures against Moscow. However, there are some significant differences among the Western countries regarding the measures against the Russian Federation. The U.S. instrumentalizes the NATO alliance and follows a securitized policy toward Russia. However, some countries such as Germany pursue a relatively moderate policy and do not want to alienate Russia.
As a NATO member, Turkey’s position is similar to the moderate group. Turkey, which wants peace and stability in the region, prefers to rely on diplomatic means to de-escalate tension. First, Turkey maintains a neutral stance toward the Ukrainian crisis. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other Turkish officials have repeatedly declared that Turkey is ready to mediate between Ukraine and Russia. Although Ankara openly rejects the annexation of Crimea and supports the political sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, it intends to play a benevolent mediator’s role for both sides.
Second, to avert large-scale violence in the region, Turkey prefers the use of a peaceful political and diplomatic discourse to resolve the crisis. Therefore, Erdoğan considers the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), not the NATO alliance, the main address for fixing the problem. Accordingly, he declared that he is ready to host the peace talks and/or the next Minsk Meeting in Istanbul or in any other Turkish city.
The four parameters
There are four parameters that determine Turkey’s policy toward the Ukrainian crisis. The first parameter is Turkey’s friendly relations with Ukraine. Ankara and Kyiv do not have any pressing negative agenda. Their political, security and economic relations are really good. Ukraine is one of Turkey’s biggest trade partners; bilateral trade has recently exceeded $7.4 billion (TL 100 billion). Last year more than 2 million Ukrainians visited Turkey. Turkey has sold effective unmanned aerial vehicles to Ukraine, which will increase its deterrent power against any external threat. The two countries have initiated a joint project to develop an engine of some strategic weapons, which is a critical subject for Turkey.
The second parameter that shapes the Turkish position in the Ukrainian crisis is its relations with Russia. Turkey follows a sectoral policy toward Russia. At a time when Turkey is otherized by most of the Western countries, Ankara’s relations with Moscow, especially in certain issue areas, are quite significant. Generally considered an exit strategy, Turkey, which has a conflictual relationship with Russia on the Syrian and the Libya crises, has improved its relations with Russia.
On the one hand, Turkey and Russia have signed an agreement under which Russia will build a nuclear reactor in Turkey. On the other hand, when the Western countries refused to sell Ankara an effective system, Turkey purchased S-400 air defense systems from Russia, which triggered a fierce reaction from the U.S. Additionally, Russia is one of the largest economic partners of Turkey. At least, Turkey is one of the leading buyers of Russian natural gas and one of the leading tourism destinations for the Russians.
The third parameter is the NATO alliance. If NATO directly intervenes in the Ukrainian crisis, naturally if all member states agree on this, then Turkey, as a member state, has to take a position against Russia. Taking sides in the crisis will come with a high cost for Turkey as well as for many NATO members such as Germany. In other words, while some NATO members, such as Poland and the Baltic states, are more vulnerable to the Russian threat, others like Germany and Turkey have an interdependent relationship with Russia. While the first group asks NATO to take measures against Russia, the second group prefers to find a diplomatic solution.
The fourth parameter is the situation of the Crimean Tatars, indigenous Turkic people of the Crimean Peninsula. Turkey does not want the Crimean Tatars, who have already suffered from the annexation of their lands by Russia, to get hurt further by the conflict. Turkish officials know well that the Crimean Tatars will be among the first victims in case of war between the two states.
To sum up, due to the parameters mentioned above, Turkey has been following a neutral policy and mediatory role in the Ukrainian crisis. Since Turkey has interdependent relationships with both Ukraine and Russia, it does not want the crisis to turn into a large-scale regional war, detrimental to all regional countries. Therefore, Turkish officials are determined to continue to work for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.