NATO is sounding the alarm that Russia may be planning to conduct a new military operation against Ukraine as early as January. This scenario has already prompted serious concern with warnings streaming in that as many as 175,000 Russian troops are positioned along Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region and in the Crimean Peninsula. According to the Financial Times, the United States has shared an unusual amount of intelligence to convince NATO allies that its concerns about Moscow’s intentions are justified. The message appears to be resonating as NATO leaders caution Russia against waging an attack on Ukraine, with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg promising a “high price” for Russia should an invasion take place.
Turkey, a NATO member with ties to Russia and Ukraine, has not hidden its concerns of war breaking out to its north. At the highest levels of the Turkish government, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, and directly reached out to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to voice his apprehensions about the prospect of a renewed conflict. None of this appears to be of any immediate avail. Prior to Erdogan’s call with Putin, the Russian foreign ministry flatly rejected his offer of mediation and the Kremlin suggested he instead “use his influence” in Ukraine to encourage compliance with the 2015 Minsk Agreement that froze the conflict. However, behind these calls to de-escalate, the urgency of US warnings about Russian intentions does not appear to be lost on Turkey. Its diplomats have remained in touch with their American counterparts in recent weeks and Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu dismissed the prospect of new sanctions as an insufficient substitute for “meaningful deterrence”.
Opposite a Russian Lake
Because of its military relations with Kyiv, Turkey is justifiably concerned that it would come under serious pressure from Russia should Ukraine be invaded. During the most recent flare-up in the Donbass last spring, Russia singled out Turkey, warning it to stop feeding Ukraine’s “militaristic sentiments”, in the words of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Following Ukraine’s use of a Turkish-supplied Bayraktar TB-2 drone to destroy a separatist position in Donbass on October 26, the Kremlin again accused Turkey of contributing to destabilization of the status quo.
If Russia is to launch an attack on Ukraine, it is likely that Turkey will face immediate pressure in the Black Sea. President Putin has accused NATO of exasperating regional security with its naval activities there and has bunched these exercises together with what he says is the alliance’s empowerment of the Ukrainian military. By default, Turkey would come into Russia’s immediate focus given its command of the Bosphorus Straits and its regulation of naval vessels’ entry through the Straits under the 1936 Montreux Convention. Turkey itself has been an active participant in NATO military drills while also aiding the Ukrainian navy in refitting its fleet with new warships. Turkey’s role here is considered important enough that Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba touted Turkish-Ukrainian cooperation as a model for NATO engagement in the region.
An invasion of Ukraine would be different from the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia when Turkey limited US humanitarian aid from entering the Black Sea to assuage Russian anxieties. With Crimea under its control, Russia has modernized its Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol and has displaced Turkey as the dominant naval power in the region. The addition of anti-access area denial (A2AD) assets into the mix has only cemented Russia’s supremacy here. Taken together, it is likely that Russia will seek to compel Turkey to limit any US or NATO-led effort to assist Ukraine by air or sea in the event of a new conflict.
Dreading the Bear’s Wrath
Unlike in 2020 when Turkey successfully confronted Russia in the Middle East and South Caucasus, this year Ankara has been keen to not upset Moscow. As Russia seethed openly about Turkey’s military exports to Ukraine, Erdogan made sure to speak to Putin ahead of Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky’s visit to Istanbul in April. Following this meeting, Erdogan reiterated Turkey’s support for Ukraine but insisted that peace would come through the implementation of the Minsk Agreement, a first for the Turkish leader and an echo of the position Putin pressed on him the day before. This was followed months later by Turkish officials scrambling to create distance from Ukraine’s first combat use of the TB-2 in the Donbass after it sparked backlash from Russia.
Turkey has good reason to worry about the means Russia can use to harm the Turkish economy if it so chooses. Despite efforts to lessen its dependence on Russia, it remains Turkey’s largest supplier of energy and it has yet to conclude new contracts for additional deliveries of natural gas before year end. Like much of Europe, Turkey is suffering from high gas prices and a failure to secure more supplies from Russia, a reality that can only add to its already high inflation rate. Tourism restrictions are also possible and something that Russia readily used earlier this year amidst tensions over Ukraine. Ostensibly, the reason cited by Moscow for banning flights before the peak tourism season related to concerns about COVID-19, but the timing of the sanctions after Erdogan met with Zelensky was suspicious. At a time when the Turkish Lira is bleeding value, the loss of more foreign currency into such a critical economic sector would be of great concern.
Russia also has political leverage that may hurt Erdogan directly. Anti-migrant sentiment has boiled over in Turkey, largely fueled by the presence of 3.5 million Syrians within its territory, and this anger has been harnessed in the campaigns of the Turkish opposition. In Syria’s Idlib province, Turkey has desperately worked to stem the flow of additional migrants across its borders in the face of Russian and Syrian regime offensives. Erdogan is determined to keep a tenuous ceasefire intact, wary of the consequences that renewed migration may have on his struggling approval ratings.
Turkey’s Tortured Choice
If Russia does in fact invade Ukraine next year, Turkey is likely to end up in an unenviable position. It is uniquely vulnerable to Russian political and economic measures, therefore its participation in any collective NATO effort to aid Ukraine promises to be costly.
At the same time, Turkey may not want to see its strategic position further diminished if Ukraine crumbles beneath a Russian offensive, especially given how productive its relationship with Kyiv has been. On top of this, at a time when Turkey has been angling to restore some of its value in the eyes of its Western partners, caving to Russian pressure in a new crisis would be yet another setback for this goal.
In short, regardless of how it responds to an advance by Russia into Ukraine, Turkey will likely be forced into the uncomfortable position of seeking the least painful path allowed it by its difficult geopolitical position.
*Nicholas Morgan is a freelance journalist who focuses on Russia, Turkey, and their respective foreign policies. His work has been published by Ahval News and New Europe. Find him on Twitter @NikMorgan10