Reinvigorating military relations with Turkiye will help thwart Moscow’s expansionism, hinder its Black Sea strategy, safeguard NATO allies, and boost deterrence.

As fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine grow, the military buildup shows no sign of dissipating, and diplomatic talks between the United States and Russia remain at an impasse, there is one country in particular that is closely watching events unfold.

That country is Turkiye, which has nurtured close relations with both Moscow and Kiev over the past decade and one that will feel most of the economic and diplomatic fallout should a full scale military conflict take place.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who backs Ukraine's NATO aspirations, recently warned Russia against invading Ukraine, referring to it as a "powerful" country with international friends.

Ankara is aware of the conundrums it could find itself in should war materialise on the other side of the Black Sea.

Russia and Turkiye are longtime frenemies. Historically, the Ottoman Empire fought against Tsarist Russia at least twelve times between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, losing much of the Balkans, Crimea and Caucasus to Tsarist Russia.

However, following Russia’s military occupation and annexation of Crimea, as well as its support for pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk, Turkiye and Ukraine were drawn closer together. Turkiye denounced the annexation and voiced its support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, despite stopping short of slapping sanctions on Russia.

Parallel to that, Turkiye stepped up its cooperation with Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, seeing these countries as instrumental in balancing Russian military presence in the Black Sea region.

Faced with growing animosity in Western capitals, Ankara and Kiev partnered in developing military technology, including diesel engines for its fifth-generation fighter jets, drones and Altay battle tanks. Ukraine has also purchased nearly 20 Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drones which have already proven to be a game-changer in Karabakh and has already used them to strike pro-Russian separatist forces in Donbas.

In 2020, Turkiye inked a contract with Ukraine's engine developer company Icvhenko-Progress to deliver AI-35 engines that are expected to be used in Turkiye's new cruise missile—Gezgin. Such cooperation, using reliable Ukrainian engines and advanced Turkish technology, allows Turkiye to export its own military hardware without the worry of securing export licences from the United States or Europe.

Turkiye provides access to advanced technological military know-how and is a new partner for cooperation with Kiev, which has been cut off from the Russian defence market. In an attempt to boost its naval defence capabilities, Ukraine also agreed to buy four of Turkiye’s MILGEM Ada-class corvettes, famed for their manoeuvrability.  

Trade between the two, as well as investments, have also been on the rise. As of 2021, Turkiye was the largest foreign investor in Ukraine, totaling nearly $4.5 billion, with more than 700 Turkish companies operating in Ukraine.

Finally, Turkiye’s unstinting diplomatic support for Crimean Tatars is seen as another bond that binds Ankara and Kiev. In the early twentieth century, millions of Crimean Tatars were ethnically cleansed—either massacred or forced aboard death trains to Central Asia—with most survivors fleeing to the safety of Turkiye. This sizable Crimean Tatar minority today is vocal, active, and influential in Turkiye and a major lobbying force for greater Turkish involvement vis-a-vis Ukraine and the entire Black Sea.

A military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine will force Ankara to make tough decisions, especially with respect to the Bosphorus which Turkiye regulates in accordance with the 1936 Montreux Convention.

Russia, being a littoral country, has the right to enter the Black Sea limited only by the tonnage of its ships, while vessels belonging to non-littoral states (like an American destroyer) must request a permit two weeks in advance and cannot stay longer than three weeks.   

As Marc Pierini notes, Moscow has a number of options it can utilise against Turkiye in the case of Ankara’s firm shoulder-to-shoulder stand with Kiev – including economic counter-sanctions on Turkiye, as they have done in previous crisis; a hardened stance in northern Syria against Turkish troops; and a tougher response against Turkish military equipment used by the Ukrainian army.

The United States and Turkiye have been on opposing ends over a number of regional issues lately. However, if the United States – and NATO – are serious about containing Russia, they will need Turkiye’s exponentially expanded geopolitical and military clout.

In the crucible of conflict, neither NATO nor Russia will appreciate Turkish ambiguity. This crisis is a perfect opportunity for Ankara to demonstrate its undisputed geostrategic significance to the Western alliance, while at the same time compelling NATO to appreciate Ankara’s unique position and value to the Alliance.

Security analysts and defence experts have come to realise that reinvigorating military relations with Turkiye will contribute to NATO interests by thwarting Russian territorial expansionism, foiling its designs in the Black Sea region, safeguarding NATO allies in the Balkans such as Bulgaria, Romania and Greece, and boosting deterrence in a region that has become a springboard for Russian military power projection in the Middle East.

Constraining Moscow’s expansionist policies in the Black Sea needs to involve practical steps, such as establishing a permanent Black Sea NATO maritime policing mission where Turkiye – having by far the largest navy of all NATO Black Sea member states – will undoubtedly play an instrumental role. Instead of having a perpetual punitive approach toward the second-largest NATO member, the Alliance and - United States in particular - needs a better understanding of Ankara’s national interests and legitimate security concerns.

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Source: TRT World