Turkey has been criticised heavily over the past few years for what some see as a series of foreign policy blunders, from its military intervention in northern Syria to its assertiveness before the US and Europe. Now, though, it may have taken a very firm stance that could alter its fortunes and reputation on the international stage.
In a meeting between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month, the Turkish president expressed his concern about the developments in Ukraine's occupied eastern Donbas region where renewed fighting has broken out between the government and pro-Russian separatists. Calling for the conflict to be resolved peacefully through dialogue, Erdogan gave his country's full support to Ukraine and its territorial integrity and sovereignty. "Our main goal is that the Black Sea continues to be a sea of peace, tranquillity and cooperation," he added.
The Black Sea has long been relatively calm in comparison with its southern neighbour the Mediterranean, lacking much of the geopolitical drama that the latter has been victim to over the past few years. There have been no disputes over energy resources, collisions of vessels or attempts to dominate territorial waters.
Since the end of the Cold War in the eighties, there has been, overall, a balance of power in the Black Sea between the six nations on its shores, in which NATO had a significant presence represented by Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. A decade ago, the Turkish navy was also relatively dominant there.
In 2014, however, Russia's forced annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula shifted that balance of power dramatically. Suddenly Moscow had control over major Ukrainian ports such as Sevastopol and was detaining Ukrainian ships in a show of strength while monopolising access to the ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol through the strategic Kerch Strait. Only last week, Russia announced that it will close the Strait and parts of the Black Sea, restricting access by foreign navies and vessels until October.
The gain in geopolitical influence and leverage that the annexation of Crimea has given Russia, worries Turkey immensely. However, it was only Moscow's recent muscle-flexing that alerted Ankara to the seriousness of the threat to its own influence in the Black Sea.
Apart from its membership in NATO, it is only fitting that Turkey's card in the game is Ukraine. Fortunately for the Turkish government, the feeling is mutual in Kyiv. Marginalised and facing a very real threat of destruction by Russia, Ukraine is seeking a protector from this threat, and Turkey may fit the bill.
The arms industry and defence are at the centre of bilateral relations between Turkey and Ukraine, which decided in 2019 to cooperate with each other in the development of "sensitive" defence technology. Last year, Ukraine also agreed to buy Turkish warships and even struck deals with Turkey's burgeoning space industry, agreeing to broaden its capabilities and satellite technology under the Turkish Space Agency.
The allies' defence cooperation has probably seen the most impact in the form of armed drones. These are the very same Turkish-produced unmanned aerial vehicles which Turkey used to such great effect in Syria and Armenia last year, and which have garnered worldwide attention, with purchase requests and praise – not without concerns – by Western military officials, strategists and political analysts.
With the Turkish drones, the Bayraktar TB2 amongst them, the Ukrainian military is thought to be undergoing a revival against pro-Russian militants and Russian forces in the occupied eastern regions. And with Russia having already witnessed the effectiveness of the drones in Libya and Syria, Moscow is showing signs that it is far from pleased at the prospect of having such military hardware on its border.
In many ways, this further complicates the already complex relationship between Turkey and Russia, which are strategic partners in some areas and indirect military opponents in others. Ukraine, therefore, is set to serve as another of the numerous fronts in the perplexing connections between Ankara and Moscow.
However, Turkey could be the mediator that Ukraine and Russia need. It is currently the only prominent country that has significant relations with both; it has a recent history of negotiating with the Kremlin in a conflict zone, and it is also a major fellow stakeholder in Black Sea politics.
The situation also presents Turkey with opportunities regarding its relationship with NATO and the United States. After numerous attempts by some NATO members to have it kicked out of the alliance, the Ukraine-Russia issue is a reminder of Turkey's crucial status and value as the state through which the major gateway to the Black Sea — the Bosphorus — runs, and which happens to have NATO's second-largest armed forces.
Thus, Turkey's role in NATO is not only very necessary but also one that could well serve to bring Ukraine into the fold of the organisation. With that in mind, the strained relations between Turkey and the US could be revived, as the two have every reason to cooperate on naval and defence matters in the Black Sea.
Hence, Turkey's overt support for Ukraine and its territorial integrity represents a well thought out and successful foreign policy decision that could – in the eyes of its estranged Western partners – redeem its reputation as a reliable ally and mediator. Turkey and Ukraine could each be the foreign policy saviour of the other.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.