Faced with the close conflict between Russia and Ukraine – two countries with a coastline on the Black Sea – Turkey apparently adopted an intermediate position. On the one hand, it voted in favor of condemning Russia in the general assembly of the UN (United Nations Organization), and determined that the conflict is effectively a “war”, which allows it to close the Bosphorus Strait -for the Montreux convention of 1936 – to all warships, and mainly to Russian ones, thus benefiting Ukraine. On the other hand, it did not join the economic sanctions on Russia, nor did it close its airspace to Russian aircraft. In addition, Ankara has even promoted peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in the Mediterranean city of Antalya. This intermediate position, which some nations accuse of being ambiguous, can be explained by a complex combination of several factors: the historical and present relations with Russia, Turkey’s membership of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), the complex relationship with the West –particularly between Europe and the US–, and because of the potential economic consequences.
Turkey has historically always had a leading role in the Black Sea. It has a geographical location of great geopolitical importance, because it controls the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, which join the Black Sea with the Mediterranean, and, like Russia, has one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. In times of the Ottoman Empire it had a dominant role in the Black Sea, in such a way that until the 18th century, the Black Sea was in effect an “Ottoman lake”, totally controlled by this empire. Only in 1774 did Russia manage to take over the area facing the Sea of Azov, and Crimea, to the detriment of the Ottomans. And from Bessarabia – to the south of Romania – in 1812. Thus, the relationship between the Turks and Russia was intense and complex for centuries. Russia and the Turks have fought 13 wars since the 16th century, and have negotiated 13 peace agreements as a result, allowing deep mutual understanding and interaction. Russia – which was considered the “third Rome” – even played the role of defender of the Christian Orthodox within the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
Over time, both Russia and the European powers fought to transform the Black Sea from an “Ottoman lake” into a neutral sea, although Turkey preserved its influence. Thus, it maintained the power –through the aforementioned Montreux Convention of 1936– to militarily control the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, and the Sea of Marmara. This allows it not to let warships pass through these straits, in any direction, in the event of a military conflict, while always ensuring the free navigation of non-military ships. On the other hand, with clear symbolic importance, the new Istanbul airport was built on the Black Sea, when the previous one – known as Atatürk Havalimani – was on the Sea of Marmara. In turn, President Recep Erdogan mentioned the Black Sea as a key part of the Turkish “Blue Homeland”.
Turkey is also the eastern pillar of NATO since its alliance with the US in 1945 – the end of World War II – making it a key member. Thus, there are NATO bases in Incirlik (with fifty nuclear weapons), Izmir and Konya, and a radar station in Kürecik -500 kilometers from Iran-, allowing a military projection over the Black Sea, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Middle East. But the very strong Turkish leaning towards the US, traditionally among pro-Western military and secular elites, was seriously affected by the failed 2016 coup, where President Erdogan’s government became suspicious of Washington’s actions. That is why 24,000 pro-NATO guidance officers were removed. However, and carefully, Turkey continues to demonstrate its membership in NATO, while avoiding upsetting Russia – NATO’s main potential enemy – and thereby suffering economic reprisals. In addition, Turkey was recently able to delay Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO, only agreeing in exchange for written commitments from those governments to avoid supporting what Ankara calls Kurdish terrorists, and the lifting of the arms embargo.
The relationship between Turkey and Europe was always very complex and with external and internal consequences. Although the recognition of Turkey as a European power was a constant goal of Turkish foreign policy, this could not be achieved, due to the resistance of some European countries, using Europe’s Christian roots as an argument. This led Turkey to abandon an Atlanticist strategy in favor of one oriented towards Eurasia. On the other hand, according to Nobel Prize winner for literature Orhan Pamuk, a certain anti-Turkish sentiment in Europe led to anti-European sentiment in Turkey. To make matters worse, suspicions of Western intervention in the failed 2016 coup led Erdogan to make a nationalist, Islamist and anti-Western turn. This poses a tension with the ideal of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, who sought to create a secular, modern, and science-driven country, connected to the West, with higher levels of education, and with a greater role for women. . Instead, Erdogan was seen supporting Islam’s growing role in public life, even building a massive mosque in central Taksim Square, a symbol of secular Istanbul.
From the economic point of view, although Turkey is self-sufficient in terms of food, it is not in terms of fuel, where 50% of the gas comes from Russia –via two gas pipelines–, as well as 20% of the oil. That is why Turkey tries to buy more fuel from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. The presence of the Russian fuel company Lukoil in Turkey is also noted, while the Rosatom company is building a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, which will provide 10% of the country’s energy. On the other hand, Russian tourism plays an important role in the Turkish tourism strategy, representing an income of 5 to 6 billion dollars per year. Thus, the indications in hotels or on the menus are written in Turkish, English and Russian, and the Russian clientele returned en masse to Istanbul, Cappadocia, and Antalya, after the covid-19 pandemic. The new Istanbul airport was also one of the exit gates for Russian citizens abroad, in particular to Europe.
In this complex and multifaceted context, the conflict in Ukraine was a real inconvenience for the relationship between Turkey and Russia, because it exposed NATO as the main enemy of Russia, and Turkey is a member of NATO. But the relationship between Erdogan and Putin, who share a distaste for the Western model, has always been pragmatic and opportunistic. And interestingly enough, NATO’s eastward expansion was as much of a threat to Russia as it is to Turkey. On the one hand, the membership of Romania and Bulgaria brought NATO into the historical areas of Turkish influence. On the other hand, Turkey has always sought to prevent the Black Sea from being the scene of a confrontation between Russia and NATO, which is why it opposed the membership of Ukraine and Georgia in the latter. For its part, Russia showed great strategic patience with Turkey, passing up even the limited sale of up to twenty deadly Bayraktar TB2 drones to Ukraine, before the Russian invasion. Part of this strategic patience may stem from the intention to sell Russia S-400 anti-aircraft defense systems, as well as Russia’s medium-term goal of seeking to separate Turkey from the West.
*Specialist in International Relations. Author of the book “Searching for Consensus at the End of the World. Towards a foreign policy with consensus (2015-2027)”.
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Turkey and the war on the Black Sea