Where Does Turkey Stand in the 6 Months After the Invasion of Ukraine?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one of the most important events in recent political history. In addition to Russia’s moves in this war, Turkey’s position was closely watched by all countries, and everyone wanted Turkey to act together with him. The political style and political expectations of President Erdogan, who has been in power for 20 years, determine Turkey’s attitude in foreign policy. The way to understand Turkey correctly and to make successful predictions for the future is not based on foreign policy principles or national interests, but through understanding Erdogan’s political calculations correctly.
Turkey’s attitude in the first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 created hope that it would act in harmony and coordination with the West and NATO. In the first days of the invasion, Turkey declared that it was against the war and that Russia’s attack was unacceptable. In the following days of the invasion, he brought the parties together for negotiations in Turkey to stop the attacks. In addition, the fact that the “armed drones” that Turkey had previously sold to Ukraine facilitated Ukraine’s self-defense made Turkey the center of attention.
Since 2016, Turkey has been getting closer to Russia and its relations with the West have been deteriorating, and therefore it was very important for both NATO and the EU that Turkey remained close to the western side during the invasion of Ukraine.
In this context, the prime ministers of Germany and the Netherlands visited President Erdoğan in Ankara. Turkey’s stance on both geopolitical and geostrategic issues was promising.
However, at the end of 6 months from the beginning of the invasion, the fact that Turkey took steps that gave Russia a breath of fresh air and that it was a country that broke through economic sanctions showed that Turkey under Erdogan’s rule has unchanging facts.
Recent Period in Turkey-Russia Relations
Before discussing the recent period of Turkey-Russia relations, it is necessary to state the foundations of the realpolitik of Turkish foreign policy. The foreign policy of a country can be considered from 2 angles in the form of both international principles and the interests of that country. However, there is a 3rd factor that should be taken into consideration when considering Turkey’s foreign policy for many years. The 3rd factor that needs to be examined to understand Turkey’s foreign policy is the consideration of the domestic political interests of Erdogan’s governments. In other words, Turkey’s foreign policy should not be read in terms of the interests of the country, but mostly in terms of Erdogan’s dialogue with his voters.
Turkey has increasingly changed its direction since Erdogan won the 2011 election with 50 percent of the vote. This political force both caused and enabled Erdogan to move the country to a more one-man regime.
The principles of the rule of law have been further suspended, and the principles of judicial independence and free media, which are the main elements of democracy, have been regressed. As a result of this climate, Erdogan’s Turkey has begun to receive more criticism from western institutions and countries. There was a split between Erdogan’s personal and party interests and Turkey’s interests.
Erdogan’s tension with western values has allowed both Erdogan and Putin to develop a relationship of mutual interest. Russia has utilized from Erdogan’s crisis, which is in a difficult economic situation and has lost some of its electorate, to turn an important country like Turkey into a loyal ally. Erdogan, on the other hand, has begun to take an anti-western stance and close to Putin and Russia because it is in line with his own interests in domestic politics, even though it is against Turkey’s interests in the country. Thus, Erdogan tried to discipline the West by Turkey’s approach to Russia.
In fact, Turkey and Russia’s interests in the region have not been very compatible for a long time. But despite the conflict of interests of the countries, the alliance of Putin and Erdogan continued. Turkey and Russia have always been in opposition on developments such as the civil war in Syria that began in 2011, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which is Ukrainian territory, the Armenian-Azerbaijani war in 2020, the civil war in Libya in 2020, and the natural gas exploration of the Greek Republic of Cyprus in the Mediterranean-Aegean. In all the events in these countries, Russia and Turkey supported the opposing sides.
So much so that, despite the close relations of the 2 leaders, there were also conflict-sized incidents between Russia and Turkey. On February 27, 2020, 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike by the Russian and Syrian Armed Forces on a battalion of the Turkish Armed Forces in Syria’s Idlib province. After this attack, it was very hurtful for Erdoğan that Erdoğan had to go to Russia to visit Putin and that Putin made him stand in the waiting room for minutes.
Putin was aware of how isolated Erdogan had become in the international arena and the economic deterioration in domestic politics, and he often imposed his own superiority based on Erdogan’s crises.
However, Erdogan continued to remain close to Putin despite Putin’s attitudes and Turkey’s conflicts of interest. He avoided experiencing the crisis with Western countries with Russia as well. From this relationship, especially Erdogan, but in fact both leaders were making significant gains in their domestic politics. Erdoğan based his foreign policy discourse entirely on the interests of his own party in domestic politics.
For a very long time in Turkey, anti-Western sentiment has been intensely pumped up by Turkish Nationalists, secular nationalists and political Islamists. They represented a broad section of society and were all united in the fact that “the West was imperialist and foreign powers that were causing problems in Turkey”.
Putin’s Russia has also utilized this political climate in Turkey and supported this process with social media and media investments. So much so that when Russia invaded Ukraine, the polls conducted in Turkey showed us, US and NATO as the culprits of this invasion rather than Russia. These  results demonstrated the power of Russia’s public diplomacy and propaganda in Turkey.
The vast majority of Turkish society sees the US-NATO axis as responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (30 March 2022)
Turkey’s stance on the invasion of Ukraine
In the first 10 years of Erdogan’s rule, he followed a west-facing, pro-EU, loyalist line to NATO. From the moment he decided to become authoritarian, he stayed close to the Russian-Chinese countries and followed a process that forced Western institutions and countries to negotiate with him.
When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, contrary to the Turkish political tendency of recent years, it adopted an attitude in line with NATO and the West, critical of Russia’s invasion and supportive of Ukraine.
This attitude has created a positive hope for Turkey. However, in fact, there was no change in terms of Erdogan’s Turkey. Turkey was not seeking a position on the western side again, and it was a very pragmatic process for Erdogan to stay balanced in this war.
While Erdogan has been getting closer to Putin in the last 6 years, this has been interpreted by Putin as Erdogan is obliged to him and has no other alternative. Gaining some trump cards in the Ukraine issue against Putin, who has always dictated his own policy in areas such as Syria, Azerbaijan and Libya, would put the relationship between these two on a more equal level for Erdoğan.
We can explain the reasons for Turkey’s attitude in the first days of the invasion of Ukraine with the following articles.
1- Both Turkey and Erdogan did not want Ukraine to be completely eliminated in the Black Sea and a complete Russian domination to be established. Because this would give Putin’s Russia another disproportionate power against Turkey.
2- Turkey has had close military relations with Ukraine for some time and has been selling “armed aerial vehicles” called SİHA drones belonging to the family of Erdogan’s son-in-law, Selcuk Bayraktar. These drones played an important role in Ukraine’s resistance against Russia. There were positive relations between the two countries due to this arms sale. In addition, this war, as drones are advertised in the international arena, has given Erdoğan the opportunity to propagate a “playmaking force” in domestic politics.
Ukrainian officials’ statements that they want to procure more drones from Turkey were also reflected in the press during this process.
3- Turkey had the opportunity to remind Western countries and especially the United States of its geostrategic importance and power. As a matter of fact, Turkey’s quest for dialogue between Ukraine and Russia was appreciated by many countries, and the prime ministers of countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, which are dependent on Russia for energy resources, visited Erdogan in Ankara after a long break. Being the center of attention in the international arena and being accepted as part of the solution was very important both for Erdogan’s own personal style of politics and for the appreciation of Turkish voters.
4- Erdogan’s role as a mediator in regional and international crises and taking the initiative have an important place in the eyes of the Turkish people. Such crises offer significant opportunities for Erdogan to regroup his voters. According to the polls, in March 2022, Erdoğan achieved a significant increase of 3 points in his votes.
5- The growing power of Putin’s Russia created a deterioration in terms of the policy of finding a place for itself in the east-west balance in Erdogan’s mind and caused an inequality against Erdogan. The opportunity to take advantage of Russia’s disadvantageous situation in the invasion of Ukraine and sit at the table with Putin on more equal terms was an important gain for Erdogan. In this way, Erdogan reminded Russia of its importance.
6- The Western world’s economic sanctions and embargo on Russia have created an opportunity for Turkey, whose economy is not in good situation. Turkey tried to attract Russian oligarchs’ money to Turkey as an investment. In addition, Turkey, which had previously benefited from the embargo imposed on Iran, was aware that it would also benefit from the sanctions against Russia. For this reason, from the first days, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that they would not be included in the sanctions against Russia.
Therefore, the stance taken by Turkey in the first days of the invasion could not mean that Erdoğan took a pro-western position again. With the stance Turkey took in the invasion of Ukraine, Erdogan reminded both the West and NATO, as well as Russia, of its indispensability.
The effect of facilitator role in Ukraine crisis on AKP vote support. Compared to February, the AKP’s vote increased by 3 points. (2 April 2022)
The positive atmosphere that emerged in the Western public opinion in favor of Turkey in the first days of the invasion of Ukraine has been replaced by the realities of President Erdoğan’s realpolitik.
One of the most important crises in this process was Turkey’s veto threat for Sweden and Finland, which applied to join NATO in the face of the Russian threat. Turkey has made it a condition for these countries to extradite those they describe as “terrorists.” According to analysts, the real bargain was the lifting of sanctions on Turkey’s arms industry following its military incursion into Syria. This veto threat has again shocked the West and called into question Turkey’s position in NATO.
In addition, the dialogue between Erdoğan and Putin continues. Erdogan met with Putin in Iran on July 18 and in Sochi on August 5. Thus, the Erdogan-Putin duo met 29 times in the last 81 months. With this agreement, Turkey has committed to make some of its energy import payments in the Russian currency, the ruble. The two leaders also discussed the military operation against Syria, the grain corridor agreement, the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). “In September, the Shanghai Five will meet in Uzbekistan. During our meeting, Mr. Putin also requested; I hope we will attend the meeting there,” Erdoğan said, pointing out that the dialogue will continue at the Shanghai level in the coming days.
The sharpest point where Turkey differed from the West was its non-participation in the furor of sanctions launched against Russia. Turkey, which has adopted the principle of non-compliance with sanctions resolutions other than UN Security Council resolutions for many years, does not hide the fact that it aims not to sacrifice its complex economic, trade and energy relations, which are highly interdependent, with Russia. This situation continues to cause concern in the West.
As sanctions against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine increase day by day, at least one of the oligarchs and thousands of Russians who have been the target of sanctions in Putin’s inner circle have taken refuge in Turkey. Although Turkey is a member of NATO, it is seen by the Russians as a safe haven for living, investing and harboring assets.
In this process, Turkey continues to be a breathing pipe for Russia in circumventing sanctions. Turkey mediates Russia in transactions such as global trade and banking. Russia’s ability to bring its economic opportunities into the global system and its continued shopping through Turkey with countries that impose sanctions on it also provides economic power to Turkey, which is in a difficult situation.
Putin Does Not Want to Lose Turkey!
Turkey’s balanced stance in this invasion process, as seen as noteworthy by the West, reminded Putin of the importance of Turkey and Erdogan.
The drones used effectively against the Russian armed forces were Turkey-made. In addition, Turkey, which voted “yes” to the condemnation of Russia in the UN General Assembly, did not allow the 4 warships that Russia wanted to send to the Black Sea on February 27–28.
The U.S. and German foreign ministries said they appreciated Turkey’s Montreux move. It was noted that there was no negative statement from Russia against this decision.
Events such as Russia’s agreement to negotiate with Ukrainian officials in Istanbul and Turkey’s involvement in the solution of the grain crisis can also be read as Russia’s understanding of Turkey’s message correctly, giving it what it wants and not wanting to lose it to the western world.
A step was taken to solve the global food crisis, which is one of the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on July 22 at the Presidential Dolmabahçe Work Office in Istanbul-Beşiktaş. Kiev and Moscow had decided to allow the transportation of grain products from the Black Sea to world markets. Putin drew attention to Turkey’s role in the signing of the grain corridor agreement with the following words: “This is a very sensitive issue, especially for developing countries. These countries are on the verge of serious problems with the shipment of food products and fertilizers. For all these countries, decisions like these taken with your participation (Turkey and Erdogan) are important. Thank you for that.”
Erdogan is a leader who loves to be praised and being praised with the words of a leader like Putin gives Erdogan a propaganda opportunity in the domestic public. With these words, we see that Putin understands Erdogan and his needs very well.
Putin’s words after the meeting in Sochi on August 5, “Europe should be grateful to Turkey for the uninterrupted flow of natural gas from Russia” and his invitation to the Shanghai meeting to be held in September can be interpreted as Putin giving Erdogan what he wanted.
It is preferable for the Western world to establish principled relations with Turkey, and therefore they probably would not be bothered by someone other than Erdogan running the country. However, Erdogan is a historic opportunity for Putin and despite Turkey’s negative attitude in the first days of the invasion of Ukraine, it is quite valuable that he gave Erdogan what he wanted before the upcoming elections.
For Erdogan, being the leader who solves the grain crisis, mediating in the war, being invited to the Shanghai meeting and being the leader who is addressed in global crises is a very important opportunity before the upcoming elections. In addition, inputs such as Russia’s use of Turkey in trade due to sanctions and its promised payment for the construction of the nuclear power energy plant could have remedial effects for the Turkish economy.
It should be added that there are strong allegations that hackers in the Russian state interfered in the elections won by Trump in 2016 and in the voting of Brexit in the UK in 2016. From the very first days of the invasion of Ukraine, we have seen that Russia has very wide propaganda networks in Turkey, both in the traditional media and in social media. For this reason, Erdogan’s re-enlistment of Putin’s support was crucial for the upcoming elections.
Erdogan is also preparing for a new military intervention in Syria. On May 23, he said, “We are also starting to take new steps regarding the missing parts of the work we have started to create safe zones along our southern borders at a depth of 30 kilometers. As soon as our Turkish Armed Forces, security forces and intelligence complete their preparations, these operations will begin.” With his words, he stated that he was preparing for military intervention. In this case, he will also try to persuade Putin to approve this military action based on the difficult situation he is in.
The way to understand Turkey’s foreign policy preferences correctly is to understand Erdogan’s domestic political needs and personal expectations. The autocratic administration, which has been fortified day by day for nearly 11 years with the strength of its 50 percent election victory in the 2011 elections, is based on the basic foreign policy moves of Erdoğan maintaining his power contrary to the interests of the country. Therefore, instead of principles or national interests, the polls and the interests of Erdogan’s party are the main determinants.
Erdogan’s goal is not global regional peace or Turkey’s interests. Winning the next election. For Turkey, domestic policy gains are the main factor determining the behavior in foreign policy.
In this case, the point that needs to be underlined is to understand Erdogan’s discourse and political style correctly. The most distinctive feature of Erdogan’s more than 20 years in power is political pragmatism. One of the main elements of Erdogan’s pragmatism is to prepare the ground for other power centers to fight and strengthen his own hand.
Turkey has taken a position according to Erdogan’s political expectations of the fight that started in a new channel between Russia and the West during this invasion of Ukraine. On this occasion, he wanted to show both the western world and Russia that he was an important political figure.
 “In September We will attend the Shanghai Five meeting” — Breaking News (trthaber.com)
 FT says Western governments are alarmed over Turkey’s deepening ties with Russia | Reuters
”To the Russians Being a Safe Haven is Risky for Turkey” (amerikaninsesi.com)