27.03.2024 Author: Nazar Kurbanov

Turkish “support” for Ukraine


From the very beginning of Zelenskyy’s presidency, Ukraine was (and still is) both a window of opportunity for Turkey and an extremely delicate area of manoeuvring between Russia and Western countries.

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meets regularly with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The Ukrainian president has travelled to Istanbul or Ankara once a year since 2019 (with the exception of 2022), while Recep Erdoğan visited Kiev in 2020 and twice in 2022. The meeting on 8 March 2024 in Istanbul is no exception. The March talks covered the following points:

1) Turkey will “contribute intensively to the reconstruction of Ukraine”;

2) Turkey has proposed a peace summit between Russia and Ukraine;

3) Turkey continues to support the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine;

4) It was agreed to strengthen bilateral defence cooperation.

In order to understand the essence of the Turkish initiatives, in our opinion, it is appropriate to say how much Russian-Turkish interaction and Turkey’s co-operation with Western countries is developed.

Turkey has been in a very difficult position since the beginning of the Russian Special Military Operation against the Kiev regime. On the one hand, Russia is Turkey’s most important trade and economic partner: in Turkey’s statistics for the first 10 months of 2022, Russia was the country’s main trade partner in terms of exports and the 4th in terms of imports, and in 2022 bilateral trade turnover almost doubled by 85.8% (total trade amounted to $69.8 billion), and in January-October 2023 (compared to the same level last year) Russian-Turkish trade turnover increased by 49.8% in physical volume. Moreover, Russia is one of the largest investors in the Turkish economy, as the Russian company Rosatom is building The Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant in the republic at a cost of $20 billion and is very likely to build a new Sinop Nuclear Power Plant (the Turkish side has already decided to transfer to Rosatom the relevant site for the construction of the NPP). Also, the Russian gas pipeline “Turkish Stream” with a total capacity of 31.5 billion m2 and a length of 930 kilometres runs through the territory of the republic.

On the other hand, Ankara is heavily dependent on financial aid from the European Union, which severely limits Turkey’s political manoeuvring. For example, the European Commission has allocated €1 billion for the reconstruction of the republic following the devastating earthquake in February 2023. The high inflation rate is making Turkey even more financially dependent on EU countries – it is expected to reach 44.19 per cent by the end of 2024. Ankara is also a member of NATO, which makes it militarily and technically dependent on the bloc’s member states. For several years, Turkey has been seeking the delivery of 40 new F-16 fighter jets (the implementation of this deal has again been postponed until June-July 2024), which is used by Washington as a lever: for example, Turkey was forced to agree to Sweden’s accession to NATO in many ways. All this puts Turkey in an extremely difficult economic, political and military situation.

Nevertheless, Ankara is trying to maximise its benefits by constantly manoeuvring between the sides of the confrontation, promising cooperation to all players but retaining “freedom of action”, while trying to transform itself into an economic and political “hub”.

As part of its attempts to become a political ‘hub’, Ankara has taken a number of steps with regard to Ukraine. First, since 2014, Turkey has declared its commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and does not recognise Crimea’s incorporation into Russia. Turkey’s logic in this matter is understandable: during the years when Crimea was part of Ukraine, Turkey actively implemented humanitarian projects to support its kindred people – the Crimean Tatars – but with the return of Crimea to Russia, the implementation of such programmes became impossible, and Turkey lost a significant amount of influence not only in Ukraine itself, but also in the Black Sea region. The incorporation of the LPR, DPR, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions into Russia has further undermined Turkey’s position in the Black Sea region, as the Sea of Azov has become Russia’s internal sea, which can only cause irritation in Ankara.

Second, the current Turkish initiative to hold a peace summit is by no means new, as Ankara has played an active role as a mediator between the two sides in the conflict from the very beginning. For example, negotiations were held in Istanbul in March 2022, which resulted in Russia’s decision to “drastically reduce military activity in the direction of Kiev and Chernihiv”, which was a turning point in Russian-Ukrainian relations because, according to some experts, the phase of the special military operation as a campaign with decisive objectives was over and the positional phase of hostilities began. Another milestone directly related to the events in Ukraine was the signing in July 2022, again in Istanbul, of the “Black Sea Initiative” on the export of Ukrainian foodstuffs and Russian ammonia, better known as the “grain deal”, and the Russia-UN Memorandum on the normalisation of Russian exports of agricultural products and fertilisers. The very signing of these agreements and their functioning (and the “grain deal” existed for a year in open violation of its obligations towards Russia) is an unconditional victory for Turkish diplomacy, which was able to squeeze the maximum out of the situation and establish itself in the eyes of the world community as at least a serious mediator state. Therefore, Ankara will continue to try to offer its services in this field to both Ukraine and Russia.

As part of its transformation into an economic “hub”, Turkey is also pursuing a number of objectives in relation to Ukraine. First of all, Turkey is trying to improve its financial situation at Ukraine’s expense by attracting tourists (because tourists fill the republic’s economy with foreign currency). Thus, in 2021, Turkey was visited by 2.1 million Ukrainians, which accounted for about 8% of the total tourist flow (more tourists came only from Russia and Germany, and the total revenue from tourism was $24 billion). In 2022, however, Turkey lost 7 million of the expected 10 million tourists from Russia and Ukraine, which makes Ankara more active in offering mediation efforts to resolve the conflict in Ukraine.

In addition, in order to strengthen its economy, Turkey had been actively negotiating a free trade area (FTA) with Ukraine since 2020, which was signed in 2022. The new FTA will allow Turkish companies to export their goods duty-free not only to Ukraine, but also to Europe, as goods produced in Ukraine from Turkish raw materials will be considered Ukrainian and exported to EU countries with corresponding benefits. In our opinion, this scheme opens wide opportunities for “screwdriver assembly” – because of martial law in Ukraine it is too risky to build large processing enterprises, it is easier to import finished goods from Turkey, “re-label” them and send them to Europe. If we follow this logic, Ukrainian companies are unlikely to benefit from the creation of the FTA due to the cheapness of Turkish products; on the contrary, their situation will worsen.

Separate mention should be made of military-technical cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine. As one can guess, defence cooperation between the two countries intensified in 2014-2015, when Kiev started to carry out large-scale reforms of its armed forces. Turkey, for its part, was also interested in intensifying contacts with Ukraine, not only for the direct supply of its weapons to the new market, but also to equalize the balance of power in the Black Sea region, as Russia began intensive rearmament of units deployed in Crimea (for example, in 2015, modern Bastion coastal missile systems were deployed on the peninsula). Furthermore, defence cooperation with Ukraine improves Turkey’s position in the Syrian peace settlement, as there are regular disagreements between Russia and Turkey over the actions of Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. For example, Erdoğan criticised Putin for the capture of Aleppo by Assad’s army in 2016.

From the military-technical point of view, Turkey is interested in reducing its dependence on Western technologies, and Ukraine, which supplies it with engines, is also helping it in this respect. For example, Ukrainian companies Ivchenko-Progress SE and Motor Sich JSC export to Turkey AI-450T aircraft engines for the Akinci UAV (20 delivered in 2018-2020, the contract for delivery of thirty more is signed in 2021), AI-25TLT for the MIUS fighter UAV under development and TV3-117VMA-SBM1V for the ATAC-II attack helicopter under development.  After all, there is no more effective measure for any military-industrial complex than to supply its products to a real theatre of war against one of the world’s most powerful armies and see the use of its weapons in practice. Despite certain reputational losses for Turkish arms, in our opinion, they are fully compensated for by the opportunity to not only see the shortcomings in real time, but also to promptly improve the weapon and test it again in combat conditions.  That is why Turkey is interested in supplying more and more weapons to Ukraine: for example, since 2022 it has been supplying Kirpi armoured vehicles, and in July 2023 the T-155 Firtina SPA (killing radius: 40 km) arrived in Ukraine. A separate mention should be made of Bayraktar UAVs, the production of which this company is going to establish in Ukraine. In our opinion, the above-mentioned principle of “screwdriver assembly” may work here – the UAVs will be assembled in Turkey, while in Ukraine they will be “re-labelled” so that Russia cannot accuse Turkey of armed support of Ukraine.

Thus, in an attempt to mitigate the crisis in its economy and become an economic and political “hub”, Turkey is trying to use Ukraine as much as possible, as it supplies civilian and military goods there, offers various political initiatives through its mediation, attracts foreign currency revenues from both Ukrainian and Russian tourists – in a word, in every possible way manoeuvres between Russia and the West, pursuing exclusively its own interests at the expense of Ukraine.


Nazar KURBANOV, trainee, Centre for Spatial Analysis of International Relations, Institute for International Studies, MGIMO, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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