How Turkey’s Ukraine role is shaping its foreign relations
Turkey has demonstrated that it can play a positive role when it wants to. This is what it has done during the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine. Both of the directly interested parties — Moscow and Kyiv — and the international community at large all seem to be content with what Turkey is trying to do.
Russia’s military operation in Ukraine has come at a time when Ankara has had to reevaluate its policies in many areas. Its Syria policy is still up in the air and it has not devised an exit strategy. No progress is being made in Libya. Efforts are underway in the South Caucasus to stabilize the region.
While such endeavors are ongoing, Turkey is now engaged in another effort: It is trying to use the Ukrainian crisis to consolidate its relations with the Euro-Atlantic community.
Before this crisis, US congressmen were competing with each other to blame Turkey for not doing enough for the sake of the Euro-Atlantic’s defense and for drifting away from the West. Now, however, the West’s attitude toward Turkey has become milder because of the growing awareness of its positive role. If Turkey tilts toward either side in the Ukrainian crisis, it may affect the power balance because of its military power and its custodianship of the Montreux Convention regulating naval traffic through the Turkish straits.
Turkey has been able to make a tangible contribution to the efforts to defuse tensions between Russia and Ukraine. The first direct talks between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers were brokered in Antalya by the Turkish foreign minister. Nothing concrete came out of this first meeting, but it may lead to other similar encounters in Turkey or elsewhere.
Ankara is trying to use the Ukrainian crisis to consolidate its relations with the Euro-Atlantic community.
The role that Ankara has played in the Ukrainian crisis has been more concrete than that of many other countries because, before the crisis broke out, it had close cooperation with Ukraine in the field of defense and had sold it several squadrons of drones. Moscow expressed its unease when these drones destroyed several Russian targets, but did not push this issue because, after all, Turkey’s sale of drones to Ukraine was a commercial deal and not the result of a political attitude.
On the question of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Turkey joined its NATO allies in refusing to recognize the move. It did so because the annexation was a flagrant violation of international law.
On the other hand, Ankara refused to join the other NATO countries in imposing economic sanctions on Russia, on the grounds that they were not based on a UN Security Council resolution; in reality, however, it wanted to maintain its economic ties with Russia. In return, Moscow has refrained from overreacting to Turkey’s dealings with Ukraine. This give and take arrangement works satisfactorily between the two countries.
Furthermore, Turkey and Russia are cooperating in a number of areas, such as Syria and the South Caucasus. There is also a high degree of economic interdependence between the two countries: Russia is building a nuclear power plant in Turkey that will, from next year, increase the country’s power generation capacity by 8 percent; Turkey purchases 33 percent of its natural gas from Russia; and the highest number of foreign tourists visiting Turkey come from Russia. More importantly, Turkey has not imposed restrictions on Russian civil aviation and has made a safe corridor available.
Russia’s efforts to distance Turkey from NATO has been a steady policy for decades. We do not yet know where Turkey will stand in any new security architecture that might emerge after the Ukrainian crisis.
Turkey is expecting a warmer response from the EU as a result of the positive role it has played in Ukraine. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rightly complains about his country’s EU accession process. After Brussels adopted a milder attitude on Ukraine’s EU accession, Erdogan drew attention to the bloc’s double standards by saying: “Please demonstrate your sensitivity toward Turkey as well, as you do for Ukraine. Or will you include Turkey in the agenda only when another country attacks Turkey?”
This may have been a to-the-point remark, but what Erdogan fails to see in this comparison is Turkey’s democratic shortfall and its poor record in the field of the rule of law. Ankara deliberately challenges European norms and values. For instance, despite its binding commitment, it recently defiantly announced that it will not implement a verdict of the European Court of Human Rights. An infringement process is already underway because of this attitude.
Turkey’s past mistakes might have made it wiser, but the EU may not be prepared to ignore Ankara’s obligations despite the positive role it is now playing in the Ukrainian crisis.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar