Following Russia’s declaration of war against Ukraine on February 24th, the universe wherein Turkey had imagined its role and place in the world in recent years dramatically changed. Said universe was premised on the assumption of a multipolar world order where Ankara could attain its interests through a geopolitical balancing act between different centres of power, not least between Russia and the West. Turkey’s stance was also grounded in the basis that Russian-Western relations fall under the ‘frenemy’ category, which in return rendered Turkey’s hitherto balancing act tenable. However, the war has changed all these aspects dramatically. Russia has fallen to the ‘enemy category’ vis-à-vis NATO and European security. As such, Turkey’s previous balancing act — which was a by-product of grey-zone politics in Russian-Western relations — will increasingly come under pressure.
In this high-stake war for Turkey, Ankara wears many hats. Moreover, its relations with the US and France — and the West as a whole —are improving. However, a number of sticking points in the relations remain.
Turkey’s multiple roles in this conflict
Many have focused on Turkey’s provision of armed drones to Ukraine. Albeit important, Turkey also plays a plethora of other roles in Ukraine of a geopolitical, diplomatic, and humanitarian nature, which boost its international stature.
Furthermore, the war has improved Turkish-Western relations, specifically triggering a sense of realism in Turkish-French and Turkish-US relations—two countries which shared a recently tumultuous past with Ankara.
The thawing of Turkish-French relations: Libya and Eurosam are benchmarks for their future
The war is pushing both sides to re-evaluate their previously crisis-stricken ties, as epitomised by the more positive language they are using towards each other. The Turkish and French navies have also recently participated in a joint exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, in the aftermath of the latest NATO meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke of improving ties with Paris, indicating that both sides will work together in Libya. Finally, French President Emmanuel Macron announced France, Turkey, and Greece will undertake a joint evacuation mission in Mariupol, Ukraine.
Russian revisionism is pushing Ankara and Paris to manage their disputes more adroitly, though not without difficulty. Three matters will be indicative of where these relations might be heading to. First, their level of cooperation and coordination in Ukraine. The second is whether Turkey’s offer of joint production of Eurosam SAMP/T defence systems — which are currently co-produced by France and Italy — will be approved. On the sidelines of the NATO summit, Erdogan indeed raised the issue with Macron and Italian Prime Minister, Mario Draghi. It appears a middle ground on this subject might be reached. The third is whether Turkey and France can bridge their differences on Libya. In any case, if progress on the first two points is achieved, it seems there will be room for compromise and engagement between France and Turkey.
Turkish - US relations: Convergence with limited cooperation?
Similarly, there is more geopolitical convergence with the US, too, ranging from Ukraine to the Balkans through Afghanistan, to name a few. Nonetheless, despite said convergence and Turkey’s important role in the invasion, the US did not invite Turkey to join the consultation meetings related to Ukraine.
In addition, in their latest phone call, Erdogan asked President Biden to lift the CAATSA sanctions (triggered by Ankara’s the purchase of the Russian S-400 systems) and reinstate Turkey in the F-35 fighter jet programme. Plus, Turkey wants to purchase 40 new F-16 fighter jets and modernise its existing flee, which requires the US to be forthcoming. The US has not met these demands yet; however, the war has widened the room for engagement between the US and Turkey and potentially a better prospect for common ground on the F-16 request, even for a new engagement between the sides on the Syrian imbroglio. If this were to occur, Turkey would likely inch further towards the West.
In other words, in its relations with Washington, Turkey will press for the lifting of the CAATSA sanctions and the acquisition of the F-16 jets. As for the EU, Turkey will push for the modernisation of its Custom Union and more probably for a more structured foreign policy dialogue with Brussels. In both cases, Ankara is likely to find sympathetic approaches from Western executive branches but face resistance from the legislative ones, given the quite anti-Turkey US Congress and the European Parliament’s opposition to many of Turkey’s requests.
Regardless of this, as the EU is seeking ways to reduce its dependence on Russian energy, Turkey’s importance might increase as a potential transit route for Azerbaijan’s gas as well as other resources.
In spite of this picture, four scenarios will determine the next phase of Turkey’s policy towards the war. First, the invasion could turn into a protracted war of attrition, with a real prospect of it morphing into a quagmire for Russia. Second, whether the Western resolve to confront Russia will continue and acquire a more military dimension. Third, the convergence of positions between the West and Turkey could morph into active cooperation. If Ankara assesses the answers to these three questions as positive, it is likely to gradually ratchet up its anti-Russian invasion rhetoric and continue providing military assistance to Kyiv. In this respect, it is plausible to anticipate Turkey will operate more as a NATO country in the crisis. However, before adopting such a language, Turkey will want to try and exhaust the diplomatic option.
Undoubtedly, the war in Ukraine is a boost for Turkey’s defence industry and international stature. However, the prolongation of the conflict will make Ankara’s hitherto balancing act more difficult and costly to sustain. In the end, for Ankara and Moscow, previously the cost of a rupture in the relations was higher than the cost of managing their differences. However, after this invasion, the cost of maintaining the geopolitical balancing act between Russia and the West will highly likely outweigh its benefits, a factor that will probably push Turkey and the West closer.