Ankara has made it clear that it is ready to send its troops to defend Ukraine against a “Russian invasion”. But this does not mean that Turkey is going to fight Russia – the Erdogan’s crafty plan is to collect crucial dividends for him through demonstrating willingness.
Recently, Turkish-Russian relations – already uneasy since the Second Karabakh War – have been strained by the situation in Ukraine. Moscow was already unhappy with Turkey’s arms sales to the Ukrainian regime (including Bayraktar drones), and now Ankara has hinted at its willingness to send troops to protect Ukraine against a “Russian invasion” and to lead NATO military campaign in that country. Firstly, the Turkish media wrote about it, and then the Turkish Foreign Ministry did not refute this theory. “The fact that we have comprehensive relations with Russia does not mean that we will ignore our principles and close relations with Ukraine. In solving such complex equations we do whatever is necessary for our national security”, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu declared.
The irony of the situation is that Turkey’s plan in this play is war without war. Ankara believes that there will be no real war in Ukraine (and even more so with NATO troops participation), while the actions of the Turkish party during the paramilitary games will allow it to break the bank on four critical fronts at once: the allied, the electoral, the Russian and the Ukrainian.
External and internal loyalty
To begin with, Turkey wants to demonstrate its loyalty to the United States. Washington has recently been extremely irritated by too independent (and sometimes, as in the case of the purchase of S-400 systems from Russia, by demonstrative independence) Turkish foreign policy. Things came to such a pitch that Ankara offered to solve problems of the South Caucasus in the 3+3 format, i.e. only by local powers, which, in fact, looks as open removal of the United States from the most important region from many points of view. In addition, U.S. authorities suspect that Turkey is violating class and bloc solidarity in NATO by getting too close to Russia.
Such sentiments are fraught with the risk that the U.S. will start to seriously punish Ankara – up to and including a new attempt to organize a regime change. Against the background of current internal problems (Turkey is in a serious financial crisis), Recep Erdoğan does not want to be an enemy of America. And by his demonstrative anti-Russian actions in Ukraine like selling the “wunderwaffe” in the form of Bayraktars to Zelensky, as well as by demonstrating his willingness to help the Kiev regime in other ways – the Turkish leader is showing to the United States that he is still an ally, albeit a problematic one. Thus, according to the Atlantic Council, Turkey, through its actions, has become one of the main countries promoting the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.
Secondly, Recep Erdoğan demonstrates its loyalty to the idea of a “Turkic world” which is popular among his electorate. Turkish pan-Turkists viewed Crimea and the Crimean Tatar diaspora as part of this world and took the transition of the peninsula under the Russian sovereignty with great displeasure. Moreover, this transition was very specific and accompanied by the FSB purging of all terrorist Islamist chapters that had been created for years in Crimea by Turkish intelligence and nongovernmental organizations with the inaction of the Security Service of Ukraine. Since then, Turkey has supported and financed emigrant Crimean Tatar organizations in Kiev, in particular the Mejlis, a group banned in the Russian Federation. And by indicating its willingness to help Kiev, Ankara is actually supporting its own projects in Ukraine.
Political and technological bargaining
Thirdly, Erdoğan is showing his foreign policy capabilities to Russia. Turkish elites reacted adversely to the return of Crimea to Russia, but they were much more negative about the Russian Federation’s entry into Syria. This is not just because Turkey had made huge efforts to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and bring to power in Damascus “jacket-wearing Islamists” from the groups loyal to Erdoğan. Rather, it is because the fact that Turkey considers the Syrian space as its exclusive sphere of influence – the territory, the control over which is necessary for provision of the Turkish national security (because of the Syrian Kurdistan factor), as well as the economic development of the southeastern regions of the country (which, until recently, were self-contained to the Syrian Aleppo). And not only did the Turks have to force the Iranians out of this country, but the Russians came there as well. And they not just came, but destroyed the pro-Turkish terrorists and fortified themselves on the Syrian territory, establishing several military bases, including on the territory of Syrian Kurdistan, not allowing Ankara to solve the “Kurdish question” through the occupation of these lands.
So Erdoğan decided to reciprocate by entering the territory that already Moscow construes as its exclusive sphere of influence directly affecting the security of the Russian Federation. That is, in Ukraine. However, it is not so much a question of sending a Turkish military contingent to Ukraine but an attempt to create opportunities for a swap – that is to achieve a decrease in Russia’s activity in Syria at the expense of Erdoğan’s activity in Ukraine. Thus, Ankara may well tender Ukraine during the January meeting of the Russia-NATO Council and try to exchange its non-participation in the Ukrainian conflict for some concessions from Moscow, including within the framework of the wording on security guarantees proposed by the Kremlin.
Finally and fourthly, Ukraine is important to Turkey per se, as a market, as a Black Sea power and, of course, as a source of technology for the booming Turkish military-industrial complex. Even in spite of the fact that Ukraine has stolen, lost or already sold a significant part of its technological heritage, even the Chinese defense industry, not to mention the Turkish one, is interested in the remnants of its aircraft industry. And if the Americans have strictly forbidden Kiev to cooperate with China, the ban may not apply to Turkey, especially if Ankara succeeds in the first – allied direction. Vladimir Zelensky, in his turn, will sell his friend Recep everything the latter can find. Europe and the US have been tired of Kiev lately, so the Ukrainian regime could use an extra “friend”.
The problem for Erdoğan is that this crafty plan to break as many as four banks will only work if war does not break out in Donbass. After all, if the Ukrainian authorities, which are not fully controlled by the West, decide to organize a blitzkrieg against the LNR and DNR, Turkey will not have to send troops to Ukraine, but to urgently withdraw all military advisers and specialists from there (as Britain will also do). However, Ankara apparently believes that the game is worth it, because the risk of starting a war is small. Perhaps they are right, but it is possible that they overestimate the degree of controllability of Kiev’s elites by the West. For them, a local war in Donbass may at some point prove to be the only possible way to undermine the Russian-Western agreements.