Russia-Turkey Relations in the Context of War in Ukraine

As the Russia-Ukraine war continues, Moscow has been deepening its ties with Ankara. Turkey, in its turn, has been sending contradictory signals: on the one hand, making statements in support of Kyiv, and on the other, taking practical steps to expand relations with Moscow. What should the United States expect of this convoluted relationship triangle?

As the Russia-Ukraine war continues, Moscow has been deepening its ties with Ankara. Turkey, in its turn, has been sending contradictory signals: on the one hand, making statements in support of Kyiv, and on the other, taking practical steps to expand relations with Moscow. What should the United States expect of this convoluted relationship triangle?

Russia and Turkey continue to expand their relationship undeterred by Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine. The rapprochement is primarily rooted in the fact that both countries have tense relations with the United States. While Russia is interested in preserving Ankara’s fallout with Washington, Turkey seeks to use Russia to put pressure on the U.S. to obtain concessions.

At the same time, despite the signs of rapprochement, the Russia-Turkey relationship is no honeymoon: mutual distrust and several regional disputes mar the road to full-fledged cooperation, highlighting the situational nature of the rapprochement. It is crucial for Washington to analyze this situation to avoid foreign policy mistakes that could bolster the friendship between Moscow and Ankara.

Russia’s Interests and Goals

In the context of the increasingly aggressive war in Ukraine, Russia, while maintaining the appearance of friendly relations with Ankara, pursues the following goals.

Diminish the U.S. influence in the world, disrupt and divide NATO

One of Moscow’s goals is to undermine the Turkey-Ukraine relationship, the development of which is endorsed by the United States. In this regard, disinformation constitutes an important tool in the hands of Russia. For example, recently Russian media circulated alleged statements by Ukrainian politician Serhiy Pashynskyi that Turkish-made Bayraktar drones lack combat effectiveness, since they are extremely vulnerable to air defense systems. Pashynskyi thought he was speaking to former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, but was duped by the infamous Russian pranksters Vovan and Lexus [1].

This leak was clearly aimed at undermining trust between Turkey and Ukraine. Stirring up any kind of disagreement between U.S. allies in the interests of Moscow. Thus, Russia is trying to impede the implementation of U.S. plans on Ukraine.

 Moreover, Moscow deliberately makes concessions to Turkey to drive a wedge into its relationship with Ukraine. Offering a discount on gas sales to Turkey can serve as one example. In general, Russia’s growing military and diplomatic collaboration with Turkey should also be considered in the above-mentioned context.

Moscow is also using Ankara to sow discord between Turkey and its NATO allies. For instance, Russian and Turkish media reported that direct flights between Russia and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized by no one except Turkey, might be resumed.[2] This news emerged at a time when Turkish-Greek relations were starting to deteriorate after Turkish President Recep Erdoğan claimed to have “written off” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for lobbying against the sale of F-16 fighters to Turkey in the U.S. Congress in May.[3] What followed was fiery rhetoric, mutual accusations of sea and airspace violations, military maneuvers, and confrontations at international gatherings. In its turn, Russia included Greece in the list of “unfriendly” countries, signaling its siding with Ankara. As a result, a situation has arisen where, for the first time in history, Russia may not want to protect Greece from Turkey.[4]

Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, such tensions between NATO allies are of great use to Moscow, since any lack of solidarity, even paralysis, in the ranks of the alliance simplifies Russia’s objectives on the Ukrainian front.

 Prevent the overextending and destabilizing of Russia’s economy and armed forces, as well as fortify the regime’s political standing at home and abroad

The war in Ukraine is taking a great toll on the Russian economy, and Moscow will work hard to minimize the likelihood of a conflict with Turkey that could further strain its budget.[5] Trying to mitigate these risks, Moscow has opted for appeasement with Turkey, making political, material, or territorial concessions, e.g. settling international disputes by surrendering to Turkey positions and issues of secondary importance to Russia.[6] Thus, Moscow is buying time and room for maneuver.  The Kremlin realizes that it cannot take control over the situation in Syria without Ankara’s help, and so is consciously ceding ground to Turkey in the region, provided that Ankara acts in Syria independently—without support from Washington. Moscow’s overarching goal, until U.S.-Turkey relations recover, is to improve its positions, eliminate shortcomings, minimize losses and costs, and redirect all its energy to Ukraine, without worrying about opening a second front in Azerbaijan or Syria

Bypass sanctions through Turkey

Today, Ankara is emerging as one of the key trading partners for Moscow. Hundreds of companies with Russian capital or Russian branches are opening up in Turkey, investments are flowing, personnel is being transferred, and the Turkish side is being integrated into the production and logistics chains of Russian business. Experts report that around 720 companies were opened by Russians in Turkey in the first six months of the Ukraine war, and their number continues to grow.[7] By investing in Turkey, Russia is boosting the viability of Turkey’s ruling political elite, which is not interested in escalating relations with Russia at this stage. Additionally, the pro-Russian segment of the Turkish media reported that a process was underway to develop alternatives to Russia’s MİR payment system (which is currently under sanctions over the Ukraine war) in daily operations in Turkey.[8] In this context, it is worth noting that Turkish lenders Isbank and Denizbank suspended the use of the MIR system following the U.S. crackdown on sanctions violators.

Prevent Turkey from reducing its dependence on Russian energy sources

Uninterrupted supplies of Russian gas to Turkey keep the money flowing into the Kremlin’s coffers and help it fund the war in Ukraine. Moreover, energy serves as an important mechanism for Russia to influence Turkey’s foreign policy. Whether it wants it or not, Turkey, being overly dependent on Russian energy exports, is forced to take Moscow’s position into account when making certain foreign policy decisions.[9]

Turkey’s Interests and Goals

Officially, Ankara positions itself as a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine war. However, in practice, its relations with Ukraine are of secondary importance. There are good reasons for this.

As part of the tensions in U.S.-Turkey relations, Ankara sees Russia as a trump card, the loss of which at this stage would diminish Turkey’s political clout internationally. Turkey needs a strong relationship with Russia to win concessions from the U.S. on several issues. The main one is to strengthen its stance within the NATO bloc. For instance, Ankara wants Washington to greenlight Turkey’s increased influence in northern Syria, Iraq, and other regions.

Moreover, Turkey’s economic dependence on Russia does not allow Ankara to confront it over Ukraine. Turkey’s already weakened economy[10] will suffer even more if Moscow imposes sanctions against Ankara the moment the latter abandons its neutral stance on Ukraine. It will be sufficient to raise gas prices, and the Turkish economy may enter deep stagnation.

Ankara is simply not interested in ruining its current relations with Moscow over Ukraine. Even if Turkey moves away from neutrality and supports Kyiv against Moscow, the benefits of this policy shift will not outweigh the losses from the escalation in its relations with Russia.

Turkey’s stance irritates Ukraine, as shown by several diplomatic scandals that have flared up between Ankara and Kyiv in recent months. On August 29, the Ambassador of Turkey to Ukraine Yagmur Ahmet Guldere was invited to Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Deputy Foreign Minister Mykola Tochytskyi delivered to him a verbal note expressing Kyiv’s concern about reports that S-300 missile systems had been transported from Syria to Russia via the Bosporus Strait on board the vessel Sparta II, chartered by the Russian Ministry of Defense.[11] The news of the S-300 transfer points to agreements between Russia and Turkey that go against the positions of Washington and Kyiv, as both of them are interested in Turkey’s support of Kyiv without consideration of Moscow’s interests.

Based on the above, the following question arises: if the Russian vector of Turkey’s foreign policy sets the pace for Ukrainian-Turkish relations, then how should Ankara’s gestures of support towards Kyiv be interpreted?[12]

One explanation holds that, by developing ties with Ukraine, Turkey gains additional trump cards in its negotiations with Moscow, which is especially valuable in the light of its turbulent relationship with the United States, where disagreements continue to accumulate on issues like Syria policy and Ankara’s decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense system, with ensuing U.S. sanctions.

At the same time, Ankara is treading very carefully, trying not to cause too much concern in Moscow. It does not arm or offer military training to the Crimean Tatars in Ukraine, as it did with the Syrian opposition.[13] The Crimean Tatar diaspora in Turkey is unhappy with this situation, causing some to support the opposition. Moreover, Turkey does supply weapons to Ukraine, but they are insignificant compared to what Kyiv receives from other countries.[14]

What is important for Ankara is to keep its imports of Ukrainian military technology and exports of goods to Ukrainian markets. Cooperation with Ukraine in the field of military technology is of particular importance given the U.S. sanctions against Turkey in this sector. At this stage, the creation of a domestic military industrial complex is a priority for Ankara.[15]

However, it should be noted that, despite its limited assistance to Ukraine, Ankara is not interested in Kyiv losing the war. If Ukraine suffers a military defeat and returns to Moscow’s orbit of influence, this will strengthen Russia and diminish Turkey’s influence in the Black Sea region. It will be much more difficult to agree with pro-Russian forces in Ukraine than with the current, pro-Western ones. All these considerations inform Ankara’s mediating and neutral position in the Ukraine war. For this reason, a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine would be ideal for Turkey.

On the other hand, many Turkish analysts believe that Russia holds the initiative in Ukraine, and consider it a gamble too far to bet on Kyiv. So long as a Ukraine victory remains in question, the thinking goes, Turkey should not spoil relations with Russia.

Turkish experts also believe that a strengthening of the Eurasian forces in Russia is in Turkey’s interests, even if it contradicts those of the United States. And the coming to power of pro-Western forces in Moscow would lead to a disaster for Ankara, resulting in the collapse of its current foreign policy, since such forces would be able to deal with Washington at the expense of Turkey’s interests.

Problems in Russian-Turkish Relations

Despite the current Russia-Turkey favorable disposition, there are deep contradictions in the foreign policy goals and objectives of the two countries. Today, Turkey pursues a balanced foreign policy, the main goal of which is rapprochement with Russia in order to use it as a trump card in negotiations with the United States. If Ankara secures the concessions it seeks, it will no longer need Russia and is likely to abandon the balancing act. This highlights the situational nature of the rapprochement with Moscow and the fact that the idea of a balanced policy is just a cover for Turkey’s long-term plans.

Whereas Turkey strives to increase its influence while still aligning itself with the West, Moscow’s agenda is quite the opposite: it seeks to use Ankara as a springboard to weaken NATO, marginalize Ankara in the ranks of the alliance, and drive a wedge into U.S.-Turkey relations. These divergent goals feed the two countries’ mutual distrust.

Additionally, Turkey and Russia have conflicting interests in various regions—Central Asia, the Caucasus, Syria, and Libya.

Their energy policies are also opposed to each other. Ankara is interested in reducing its energy dependence on Russia, which is why it would benefit from the launch of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, as well as natural gas transit through Turkey—from the Eastern Mediterranean to the EU. Moscow is clearly against these projects, as they undermine its energy security.

However, despite the aforementioned differences, current circumstances, such as the tensions in U.S.-Turkey relations and the full-blown crisis in U.S.-Russia relations, are forcing Moscow and Ankara to carefully calibrate their policy towards each other and resolve contradictions at the negotiating table. For instance, they still manage to agree on zones of influence: Turkey gets the opportunity to expand its presence in Syria, Libya, and the Caucasus, while Russia, allowing Ankara to achieve this foreign policy goal, is causing damage to Washington’s relationship with Ankara.

Thus, at this stage, an escalation is undesirable, as it would have negative implications for both countries. At the same time, with rapprochement at the surface, deeper issues and latent tensions remain unresolved.

Risks for the United States

The accumulated problems between the U.S. and Turkey remain unresolved. Taking advantage of this conjuncture, Moscow is drawing closer to Turkey to bring discord into NATO’s ranks and reduce the effectiveness of the alliance. It complicates Washington’s tasks in Ukraine aimed at weakening Russia. Moreover, Ankara’s continued rapprochement with Moscow sets examples for other U.S. allies that could activate centrifugal forces in the U.S. alliance system.

Unity and solidarity within NATO is a vital factor in the fight against the Russian threat. Therefore, restoring full-fledged relations with Turkey is crucial to make U.S. and NATO policy on Moscow more effective. Turkey, with the support of the United States, could play a significant role in balancing the Russia in Azerbaijan, Syria, and other regions. It would help divert Moscow’s attention away from Ukraine and force Russia to fight on two fronts. This is just one of several examples of possible cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey against the Kremlin. The topic of U.S.-Turkey relations in the context of the Russian threat deserves a separate in-depth study.

Yaroslav Samoylov is a PhD candidate at Ankara University’s Faculty of International Relations where he is working on his doctoral dissertation on the role of Israel in Russian foreign policy. He has been a foreign policy analyst at the Sahipkiran Center for Strategic Research in Ankara since 2017.  Previously, he worked as a non-resident foreign policy advisor to the Higher School of State Administration at the National Academy of Public Administration under the President of Ukraine. Yaroslav’s professional background is in international relations with a focus on Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly, in Turkey.

[1] “Ukrainian official slams Bayraktar drones in prank call,” RT, October 18, 2022. URL: https://www.rt.com/russia/564899-ukraine-bayraktar-vovan-lexus/

[2] “Russian company submits a request to launch flights to Northern Cyprus” (in Russian: “Российская компания направила заявку на запуск авиарейсов на Северный Кипр”), TASS, September 28, 2022. URL: https://tass.ru/ekonomika/15855383

[3] Ezlan, Nartan. “Turkey, Greece escalate war of words as they drag in EU, NATO.” Al-Monitor, September 8, 2022. URL: https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/09/turkey-greece-escalate-war-words-they-drag-eu-nato

[4] Onoyko, Pavel. “Russia: we will not interfere with Turkey’s dealing with Greece and Cyprus…” (in Russian: “Россия: мы не будем мешать Турции разбираться с Грецией и Кипром…”), Afinskiye Novosti, July 23, 2022. URL: https://rua.gr/news/sobmn/49546-rossiya-my-ne-budem-meshat-turtsii-razbiratsya-s-gretsiej-i-kiprom.html

[5] Degotkova, Inna. “Experts estimates sanctions’ long term effect on the Russian economy,” RBC, June 3, 2022. URL: https://www.rbc.ru/economics/03/06/2022/6298c7e39a7947bd7f72b302

[6] Krivosheyev, Kirill. “Third condominium. How Karabakh will change Russia-Turkey relationship” (in Russian: “Третий кондоминиум. Как Карабах изменит отношения России и Турции”) Cargnegie.ru, October 9, 2020. URL: https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/82932

[7] “The number of companies opened by Russians in Turkey over six moths of the special military operations has reached about 720” (in Russian: “Число открытых россиянами компаний в Турции за 6 месяцев СВО составило около 720”), October 2022, “Turkey is” Telegram channel, URL: https://tlgrm.ru/channels/@turkey_is/2237

[8] “There is an alternative system to MIR” (in Turkish: “MİR’e alternatif bir çalışma var”), Aydinlik, October 6, 2022. URL: https://www.aydinlik.com.tr/haber/mire-alternatif-bir-calisma-var-343472

[9] O’Byrne, David. “Turkey, Russia gas ties grow contentious amid Ukraine war,” Al-Monitor, July 28, 2022. URL: https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/07/turkey-russia-gas-ties-grow-contentious-amid-ukraine-war#ixzz7mbdQMebZ

[10] Askew, Joshua. “Soaring inflation and a collapsing currency: Why is Turkey’s economy in such a mess?” Euronews, November 10, 2022. URL: https://www.euronews.com/2022/11/09/everything-is-overheating-why-is-turkeys-economy-in-such-a-mess

[11] “Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry delivered a note to Turkey’s ambassador—what this is about” (In Russian: “МИД Украины вручил ноту послу Турции — о чем идет речь”), Zn.ua, August 29, 2022. URL: https://zn.ua/POLITICS/mid-vruchil-notu-poslu-turtsii-o-chem-idet-rech.html

[12] For instance, Erdoğan attended the Crimea Platform Online Leaders’ Summit via video message on August 23, 2022. There, he said that “Turkey does not recognize the annexation of Crimea and has been openly stating since the first day that this step is illegitimate and illegal.” “Erdogan: Return of Crimea to Ukraine a requirement under international law,” TRT World, August 23, 2022. URL: https://www.trtworld.com/turkey/erdogan-return-of-crimea-to-ukraine-a-requirement-under-international-law-60053

[13] Karadeniz, Tulay; Alexander, David. “Turkey, U.S. sign deal to train, equip Syrian opposition, official says,” Reuters, February 19, 2015. URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-training-turkey/turkey-u-s-sign-deal-to-train-equip-syrian-opposition-official-says-idUSKBN0LN1YY20150219

[14] https://lostarmour.info

[15] Ptak, Guillaume. “What Is Driving Turkey’s Increasing Military Cooperation With Ukraine?” The Defense Post, January 25, 2022. URL: https://www.thedefensepost.com/2022/01/25/turkey-ukraine-military-cooperation/

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