How long can Turkey play both sides in the Ukraine war?

Since day one of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Turkey has been caught in something of a geopolitical jam, carefully balancing ties with both sides.

For example, Turkish drones have played a key role in Kyiv’s ability to fend off the Kremlin’s troops. But Ankara’s complex relationship and economic partnership with Russia could also seriously damage its image in the West as a credible peacemaker in the conflict.

The latest twist came on Thursday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres for talks. Two weeks earlier, Erdogan had met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi—where they pledged to increase their cooperation.

All this begs the question: How long can Erdogan continue playing both sides of this bitter conflict?

So we reached out to three of our experts—Rich Outzen and Yevgeniya Gaber, nonresident senior fellows at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY program, as well as Brenda Shaffer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Global Energy Center—to make sense of Turkey’s delicate balancing act.

From what we’ve seen so far, how would you rate the success of Ankara’s diplomatic maneuvering?

We can measure the Turkish balancing act along three dimensions: helping Ukraine avoid defeat, avoiding open conflict with Russia while demonstrating solidarity with the West, and increasing Ankara’s regional diplomatic weight. On all three, the Turks have performed reasonably well. Early provision of military aid, especially armed drones, helped blunt the Russian assault on Kyiv. Erdogan’s continued coordination with Russia on trade and Syria strikes some observers as unseemly, but given Turkish economic and regional concerns, it is prudent. As the grain-corridor deal shows, Turkey’s influential—if complicated—role in this war makes it likely that it will also play an influential role in whatever peace follows. 


With Russia’s war on Ukraine, Turkey has managed to turn the vulnerabilities of its shaky position between Russia and Ukraine (and the West) into diplomatic assets. Ankara has capitalized on its relations with both Kyiv and Moscow, first by offering its mediation services, and then by using its constructive role in the conflict to get a certain “immunity” from the West to develop trade and economic relations with Russian-sanctioned businesses while also militarily supporting Ukraine. The country’s increased geopolitical significance also gave the Turkish leadership additional leverage to renegotiate the Western arms embargo against Ankara; it advocated for renewed cooperation with NATO in the areas of defense and security. Yet six months into the war, this policy has proven to have its own risks and limitations.


In the field of energy, in particular, Turkey has made major contributions to Europe, including the transit of additional natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. This has been especially meaningful for Bulgaria, to which Moscow cut gas supplies, so gas from Azerbaijan via Turkey is now Bulgaria’s only dedicated supply. Ankara is also preparing its gas-supply infrastructure to transit additional gas from Azerbaijan to Europe in both the short and medium terms. Turkey is able to transit more gas (instead of stocking up on supplies) because it prepared its energy market much better than most European states through multiple gas suppliers, extensive storage, and even new gas discoveries through continued exploration of its territorial waters. 


What are the various considerations going through Erdogan’s mind as he sustains this delicate balance?

Erdogan faces a geopolitical imperative to preserve an independent Ukraine, because a Russia that absorbs Ukraine poses a far more serious threat to Turkish security. Turkey’s economic difficulties remain top of mind, too: Its pragmatism with Russia is driven by the potentially painful fallout of an open rift. With elections next year, Erdogan is also concerned with burnishing his image as a grand statesman. For him, the Ukraine war is inextricably linked to the war in Syria, because he needs Moscow’s tolerance of the safe zone in northeastern Syria that preserves the anti-Bashar al-Assad opposition and offers hope of resettling some of the four million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. 


The complexity of Ankara’s decision-making on the Ukraine-Russia dilemma is rooted in domestic politics, regional security, and Turkey’s relations with the West. Domestically, less than a year ahead of presidential elections, Erdogan’s desire to stabilize the economic situation and financial markets, Turkey’s dependence on Russian gas, the Russian state-owned atomic agency’s work on the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) project, and increasingly anti-American public sentiment make cooperation with Russia a must. Regionally, Turkey needs a green light from Moscow for its operation in Syria against Kurdish fighters it considers “terrorists” (and to resettle some part of the Syrian refugees in Turkey to the safe zone). At the same time, Turkey needs to strike a delicate balance to help ensure Ukraine’s survival as an independent state in its war with Russia and avoid major crises with Western allies.


It’s easy to overlook geographic factors in international relations, such as the limitations on landlocked states in accessing energy and other goods. This factor has a strong impact on how states craft their policies toward Russia. All the states that border Russia or Russian forces—in this case Turkey (across the Black Sea), Azerbaijan, and Israel (which borders Russian forces controlling Syria’s airspace)—need to conduct a successful balancing act. On the one hand, these bordering states, such as Turkey, want to keep Moscow’s expansions in check, since their own security is directly threatened by Moscow’s invasions of Russia’s neighboring states. On the other hand, Russia has many tools in its toolbox to undermine and disrupt the security of neighboring states, which is why its neighbors need to identify a policy to check the expansion while not increasing conflict with Russia. The potential price to pay from miscalculation is much higher than for any state in Western Europe or the United States.


Could there come a point when Ankara will be compelled to more clearly pick a side? 

Turkey will avoid picking a side in the sense of a binary, zero-sum outcome to the war. Ukrainian defeat and dismemberment would be an unmitigated disaster for Turkey, but a defeated and potentially unstable Russia would negatively impact Turkish interests in Syria and the Caucasus, as well as its economy. Erdogan has a transactional but positive relationship with Putin. The formulation of supporting Ukraine militarily and politically, but remaining engaged with Russia economically and diplomatically, is an effective hedge—and while neither Kyiv nor Moscow is entirely pleased, there is no dynamic at play to force Ankara into a different position.


For Turkey, cooperation with Russia and Ukraine (and the West) has never been a question of either/or. Ankara will try to maintain its relations with all sides, but on different levels: political, diplomatic, and limited military support for Ukraine; a certain level of engagement with NATO, while trying to prevent its allies from getting directly involved in the region (for instance, by avoiding NATO ships in the Black Sea); and cooperation in the trade, economic, energy, and tourism spheres with Russia. The first two factors should help Ankara deter Russian political clout and a military build-up in the Black Sea and Mediterranean, which is crucial for its own national security. The latter is viewed as key to Turkey’s economic interests and domestic stability.


Turkey will benefit most from a situation where security and trade is restored in the Black Sea region, while at the same time Ukraine retains as much as its territory as possible (especially the coastal cities). Ankara has a long history of promoting its security interests vis-à-vis its neighbors without joining the rhetorical rituals that can escalate conflict. We see this in its relations with several neighbors, including Iran and Iraq. 


Is there a single geopolitical partner with whom Turkey stands to gain (or lose) more?

The upside (potential gain) is with Ukraine for Turkey, and the downside (potential loss) with Russia. A strong Ukraine that retains a coastline—and potentially regains territories previously lost—promises burgeoning trade, defense, and diplomatic ties. Ukraine and Turkey share exposure to Russia and peripheral status in Europe, making partnership even more vital. Yet Russia is a nuclear power with extensive bilateral trade with Turkey; it also has the ability to hurt Turkey in three or four conflict zones. A split-decision outcome to the war is in Turkey’s interest, whereby Ukraine survives and Russia backs down, but is not itself debilitated.


In the short term, cooperation with Russia might seem beneficial. The relocation to Turkey of Russian businesses hit by Western sanctions, Russia’s transfer of billions of dollars toward the Akkuyu NPP, and its introduction of the “Mir” card system in Turkish banks may look like an easy influx of cash and investment without any conditionality. But in the long run, the costs of such deals will largely exceed whatever limited gains they might bring. Turkey’s role in helping Russia bypass Western sanctions is likely to backfire, potentially resulting in the West introducing sanctions against Turkey itself. (Ultimately, $35 billion of trade turnover with Russia versus $178 billion with the European Union says it all.) Turkey’s slide from being a neutral broker between democratic Ukraine and authoritarian Russia toward favoring the latter would definitely damage Ankara’s international image and reputation—while Ankara’s alienation from the West will only boost its dependence on Russia. The balance sheet for Turkey is obvious.


Further reading

Related Experts: Rich Outzen, Yevgeniya Gaber, and Brenda Shaffer

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in Sochi, Russia, on August 5, 2022. Photo by Vyacheslav Prokofyev/Sputnik/Pool via REUTERS