By Urte Peteris, Transatlantic Security Analyst
Turkey’s relations with Ukraine have never been particularly antagonistic. With recent announcements of wide-ranging economic and military cooperation from natural gas exports to joint naval maneuvers, however, neither have they been as overtly and actively amicable as they are now. What caused this change? Two long answers – Ukraine’s separatist conflicts in Crimea and the Donbas, and Turkey’s conflict on and beyond its border with Syria. One short answer – Russia.
A Growing Relationship
Since the end of the Cold War, Turkey has enjoyed a fairly stable relationship with Ukraine. Bilateral trade volume went up from $518 million in 1996 to $4.9 billion in 2014. There was talk of a possible Turkish-Ukrainian deal on liquefied natural gas in 2013. Even after crisis erupted in Ukraine’s eastern regions, Turkey offered a $50 million loan to the new Ukrainian government and refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which is heavily populated by Crimean Tatars – a Turkic ethnic group.
Until this year, however, relations with Russia still trumped Turkish and Ukrainian interest in each other. Russia and Turkey’s economic relationship bloomed under the leadership of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, with Russia planning a Turkish Stream project in 2015 to bypass Eastern Europe, and Ukraine in particular, in the flow of Russian natural gas. A steady supply of Russian energy appealed to Turkey as well, as the country’s growing economy demanded higher volumes of gas. Until recently, Russia provided 60 percent of the gas Turkey consumed. A 2010 deal introduced Russian nuclear energy into the mix, with Turkey agreeing to the construction of its first nuclear power plant by a Russian state-owned company.
Meanwhile, Ukraine faced the deterioration of its energy relationships. Not only did Turkey refuse to allow passage of Ukrainian gas tankers through Turkish straits to promote Ukrainian energy independence, but Ukraine’s access to Russian energy became increasingly volatile in light of its separatist crises. Turkey’s initial reactions to these events were noncommittal at best. Though Turkey condemned Crimea’s annexation, it did not join Western sanctions on Russia.
Currently, Ukraine and Turkey are on friendlier terms than they have ever been. High-level talks between Turkey and Ukraine’s defense secretaries, foreign ministers, and presidents take place regularly. Turkey seeks to transport gas through Ukraine. A free trade agreement is on the table. Joint Turkish-Ukrainian military exercises take place in the Black Sea. Such is the fallout from Russian intervention in Syria.
If there was a critical juncture, it was the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkish forces in November 2015. The incident resulted in the rapid deterioration of the Russian-Turkish relationship – threats of retaliation, a political standoff, and economic sanctions against Turkish goods. Turkey had repeatedly accused Russia of violating Turkish airspace in its Syrian campaign, but this was a fragment of a much wider Turkish opposition to Russia’s intervention. Russia’s bombing campaigns came uncomfortably close to the Turkish border, caused an influx of refugees, and decimated Turkish-supported moderate Syrian opposition groups.
Since then, Turkey has found an ally in Ukraine. With both countries seeing their trade sanctioned by Russia and their prospects for joining the EU as increasingly dim, the two have turned to strengthening bilateral ties in order to minimize losses. Sharing opposition to Russian interventionism, a Ukrainian official stated that that the two countries “are turning a new page in their relationship.” Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu discussed “common threats” with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in January, and announced the resumption of previously frozen free trade talks in February.
Turkey and Ukraine also announced plans to cooperate in transporting and storing natural gas, including Caspian and Iranian gas export projects and Turkish access to Ukraine’s underground gas storage facilities. Work on the Trans-Anatolian pipeline is scheduled to begin in 2018, and a surplus of Caspian gas stored in Ukraine could allow Turkey to re-export the gas to Europe.
This newfound friendship is not just economic in nature. In February, Kiev and Ankara announced cooperation in the production and procurement of defense equipment, including aircraft engines, radars, communications technologies, and navigation systems. A March high-level strategic council including presidents Erdogan and Poroshenko condemned Russian aggression against Ukraine, enhanced cooperation between defense ministries, and called for the “de-occupation” of Crimea. The parties’ joint declaration focused almost entirely on security, with a majority of the declaration’s points addressing mutual security in the Black Sea – just one day after joint naval maneuvers.
Mutual security interests in the Black Sea also stem directly from Ukrainian and Turkish opposition to Russia. When Ukraine lost Crimea, it also lost a major naval base in Sevastopol and was forced to relocate to the much smaller Odessa. Sevastopol has since been the site of major Russian military buildup in the Black Sea, which threatens Turkey’s substantial military presence in the waters. This threat ties in with broader Ukrainian and Turkish concerns. Russia continues to back separatists in a conflict in eastern Ukraine, undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity and drawing out a costly military conflict. Russian bombing campaigns in Syria support Syrian President Bashar al Assad and empower Kurdish forces, directly aiding Turkish enemies and compromising Turkey’s ability to project power in the Middle East. The result is threat-driven interest overlap for Ukraine and Turkey that created a balancing coalition.
Such a coalition allows for both countries to reap economic and military gains. Ukraine’s faltering economy is in desperate need for an influx of cash – something Turkey is willing to provide. Turkey, meanwhile, can foster increased access to European energy markets, not only aiding Ukrainian energy independence but also growing its own status as a regional energy hub. Military cooperation and joint procurement allows for both countries to project power in the Black Sea.
A Fleeting Alignment?
A common enemy hardly yields permanent relations, especially when an apparent sea change takes the shape of many broad declarations and few concrete actions. When a relationship such as Turkey and Ukraine’s solidifies under threat, it runs the risk of dissolving if its underlying basis is removed and its costs exceeds its benefits. This is especially true when these benefits exist largely as tentative plans that are currently neither particularly quantifiable nor institutionalized.
Ukraine and Turkey may have a converging strategic priority now, but this combines fairly distinct national interests. Turkey sees Russian action in Syria as a threat to its position as a political and economic leader in the Middle East. Ukraine sees Russian involvement in its eastern regions as a threat to its territorial integrity. Neither country has much at stake in each other’s conflicts outside of an opportunity to counter Russia. This is best exemplified in Davuto?lu’s insistence that the welfare of Crimean Tatars in the Russian-controlled peninsula is Ankara’s “strategic priority.” Not humanitarian, not democratic, strategic.
If the normalization of ties with Russia becomes a realistic option, Turkey would likely be more than happy to oblige. Russia provides a much larger market for energy and other goods than Ukraine, and offers a more direct opportunity for Turkey to grow its regional role. If Ukraine seeks to establish enduring ties with Turkey, joint meetings and declarations must be cemented by action.
The Trans-Anatolian pipeline is promising in its implications for Turkish, Ukrainian, and European energy independence. Turkey can also pursue a position as a leading transit country in aiding the export of goods to Ukraine and Europe, also allowing Ukraine to more easily export to Asia. Though it may invoke Russia’s ire, defense cooperation and the sale of arms and military technology can support a balance of power in the Black Sea and in Ukraine and Turkey’s regional conflicts at their respective borders.
Economically and politically, Ukraine and Turkey have far more to gain from their emerging alliance outside of serving as a counter to Russia. Such gains could provide great bilateral benefits in the long-run, but they can only be realized through a concerted effort to build the relationship.