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Why Turkey’s rise in Russia-Ukraine war is a masterclass in balancing, hedging strategy

Maintaining close defence ties with Ukraine while engaging with Russia to achieve foreign policy goals shows Turkey's balancing act has lessons.

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The ongoing war in Ukraine has forced hard choices on countries beyond their immediate defence theatre, upending their geopolitical calculations. New Delhi has responded by asserting strategic autonomy and prioritising its national interest. But India is not the only country whose confident balancing act of not taking sides has been a matter of widespread geopolitical scrutiny, criticism and even appreciation.

Turkey’s pursuit of its national interest has also been a masterclass in diplomatic and geostrategic manoeuvring. Unlike India, which has carefully avoided formal strategic alignment with either side, validating its multi-vector foreign policy approach with gusto; NATO’s membership renders Turkey strategically aligned with the West in a war fought in the Turkish maritime backyard, where Ankara has been strategising on supporting Kyiv without jeopardising ties with Moscow. The question is how long can Turkey do that?

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The issue with Turkey’s balancing act

Until a few months ago, Turkey and Ukraine were seeking to build close procurement ties. Maintaining close defence ties with Ukraine and supporting its territorial integrity, on the one hand, Turkey simultaneously engaged Russia in multiple ways to achieve broader foreign policy goals. For Russia, likewise, prioritising Turkey is aimed at countering the unity of NATO.

The infamous S-400 deal soured relations between Turkey and the United States. Ankara was kicked out of the F-35 fighter jet programme after paying Washington a whopping $1.4 billion, which it is still trying to recover.

So, how do states seek to cope with security challenges in a highly uncertain international environment? Playing all sides is an eternal yearning of the middle-order powers that manifest in balancing and hedging. These strategies have been at play all along. The Russia-Ukraine war, however, tightened the noose and forced Turkey to show tangible solidarity with Ukraine on the one hand, and commit to not disturbing ties with Russia on the other, while also maintaining its NATO identity.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to keep Turkey out of the Ukraine conflict as much as possible while maximising his own room to manoeuvre. As tensions started to build up, Erdogan repeatedly called for de-escalation and offered mediation. After the war broke out, Turkey was quick in offering to mediate the first formal negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow in early March 2022 but they failed. Turkey was clearly betting its odds on reconciliation before pressure ramped up to join Western sanctions against Russia. However, with no signs of tensions ebbing, Turkey voted for condemning Russia’s invasion but decided not to join the sanction regime. This seemingly pro-Russia stance was then balanced by several pro-NATO endeavours.

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Turkish dilemma

Unlike the popular perception of affinity, Turkey’s ties with Russia are complicated. On the one hand, both find each other in opposing camps in a host of global conflicts—ranging from Syria to North Africa and all the way to the Caucasus. On the other hand, Russian tourists bring in much-needed money to provide a breather to Turkey’s bad-performing economy, while Turkey’s only nuclear power plant is being built by Russia.

With Ukraine however, Turkey has established multifaceted cooperation in recent years, especially close defence ties that include joint development and manufacturing of “sensitive technologies in defence and aerospace.” Before Vladimir Putin started the war, Turkey was delivering TB2 drones at discounted prices to Ukraine, which built the engines for Turkey’s new Bayraktar Akinci drone. Turkish defence exports to Ukraine exponentially increased from $1.9 million to $59.1million, a staggering 30 times jump from the first quarter of 2021 to the first quarter of 2022.

Banking upon its robust defence cooperation with Turkey, Ukraine requested weapons worth billions of dollars in the wake of the Russian attack. Interestingly and as expected, details of Turkey’s deliveries have gone invisible ever since, but the frequency of cargo planes from the Turkish city of Tekirdag, where Turkish drone producer Baykar has its factory, to the Poland-Ukraine border has increased. It may be safely extrapolated that the Turkish supplies of drones and smart munitions to Ukraine have continued to date, while details have been muted to avoid direct friction with Russia.

That’s not all. Turkey’s balancing act is also evident in the sagacious decision to close the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to warships in the Black Sea by invoking the wartime powers bequeathed to it under the 1936 Montreux Convention, risking Russian anger. In yet another clever display of solidarity with NATO and Ukraine last month over the rising humanitarian costs of the war, Turkey closed its air space for Russian civil and military jets en route to Syria.

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From a position of weakness to strength

The balancing and hedging strategies exercised by Turkey described so far hinged on a position of weakness and the situation may have stretched longer. But the war suddenly took another turn with Finland and Sweden formally applying to join NATO. With this shift, Turkey has found itself in a position of power because without its consent, NATO cannot be expanded. Turkey is benefitting from this equation with all ingenuity. This is a window that Turkey can exploit to obtain written assurances from Sweden and Finland against not supporting the Kurds, and, with the US, to compensate for the losses incurred by the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act) sanctions specially renegotiating the F-35 deal to its advantage.

With the NATO summit underway in Madrid, to Russia’s dismay, a trilateral memorandum has been signed between Turkey, Sweden and Finland to accommodate Turkish demands and pave the way forward for NATO’s expansion in the Nordics.

Turkey’s position of weakness has switched to a position of power only because the war stretched on and favourable situations emerged. Timing, then, is key to how the Ukrainian situation will unravel.

The writer is an Associate Fellow, Europe and Eurasia Center, at the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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