It's time to break the news.The Messenger's slogan

How Turkey is turning the war in Ukraine to its own advantage

Turkey is a NATO member with close ties to Russia. As the war in Ukraine drags on, Turkey’s leader sees opportunities.

Hear more from Joshua Keating about this story:

Erdogan has been making a lot of demands of the international community lately, seeking to leverage his country’s outsized influence in the complex geopolitics of the war in Ukraine. As those demands go, the name change was an easy one.

Experts who spoke with Grid said all these situations are connected and should be seen as part of a larger effort by Turkey to take advantage of the moment. The war in Ukraine may turn out to be an unprecedented opportunity for Erdogan to turn a geopolitical crisis into personal opportunity. It wouldn’t be the first time, noted Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “One of Erdogan’s greatest assets is that he’s able to make what is good for Turkey into what is good for Erdogan,” Cagaptay told Grid.

The Ukraine balancing act

As the two largest military powers on the Black Sea, Russia and Turkey have long been rivals for regional influence. Turkey has historically sought good relations with other Black Sea nations as a counterweight against Russia. A full Russian takeover of Ukraine, which appeared likely at the outset of the war, would be met with alarm in Ankara. So it made sense when war broke out to see Turkey standing with its NATO allies in condemning Russia’s invasion.

But this support has its limits. Turkey has not joined its NATO allies in placing sanctions on Russia, and Erdogan has been far more cautious in his criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin than other members of the alliance.

In recent years, Erdogan and Putin have built the unlikeliest of friendships. Turkey and Russia backed opposite sides in the Syrian civil war, and relations between the two countries reached their nadir after the Turkish shootdown of a Russian fighter jet near the Syria-Turkey border in 2015. But after Erdogan apologized for the incident, relations between the two improved, and they even began some limited cooperation in Syria.

More than any one issue, what has brought Erdogan and Putin together is a shared world view: a desire to restore their nations to historical glory, a frustration with what they see as hypocritical Western lectures about human rights and democracy and a penchant for conspiracy theories. The ties between the two were reportedly cemented in 2016, when Putin voiced immediate support for Erdogan following a coup attempt, while most Western governments demurred.

“[Erdogan] has to constantly balance Turkey supporting Ukraine with his own policy of keeping trade and tourism with Russia open and nurturing his relationship with Putin,” said Cagaptay. “But he’s created an opportunity out of this crisis by positioning Turkey as the only country that can talk to both sides.”

The Kurdish connection

Even as a new war rages to its northwest, Turkey’s bigger concern is still the one that has been raging to its south for over a decade. That’s the long-running civil war in Syria. Turkey’s principal object of interest there is the People’s Defense Units (YPG), a predominantly Kurdish group that controls a wide swathe of territory along the Turkish border in Northeast Syria. The YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish government for decades. Particularly galling to Erdogan’s government is that while the U.S. lists the PKK as a terrorist group, it has been providing aid, arms and direct military cooperation to the group’s Syrian offshoot as part of the fight against ISIS.

This is where Sweden and Finland’s NATO bids come in. Erdogan accuses the two countries of providing safe haven to members of the YPG. They are also among several countries that have refused to sell weapons to Turkey since the 2019 military operation.

“Erdogan definitely sees these as all interlocking problems,” Nicholas Danforth, Turkey analyst and senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, told Grid. “He sees NATO not taking Turkey’s security concerns seriously, and he sees this as a moment to force NATO to deal with those concerns.”

Turkey may be able to leverage its veto over Sweden and Finland’s membership to extract some concessions at a planned NATO summit in Madrid at the end of June. And if Turkey does launch a new military operation in Syria before then, NATO countries are likely to be more muted in their criticism and less likely to apply sanctions than they would were the NATO membership plans not in play.

Syria’s Kurds may turn out to be one of the unexpected losers of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Turkey’s everywhere-all-at-once foreign policy

Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and director of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy, told Grid these new partnerships are partly motivated by a sense that the U.S. is reducing its role in the Middle East. “These countries rely on the U.S. security umbrella. They’re now looking to reestablish regional security partnerships that could complement the security relationship with the U.S.,” Ulgen said.

Danforth said there are worrying signs that Turkey views recently improved relations between the U.S. and Greece “the way they see U.S. support for the YPG in Syria: ‘Our traditional enemies are ganging up with the West in order to encircle us and bring us down.’”

All politics is local

Another possible reason for the Putin-Erdogan affinity: Both are highly adept at using international crisis to rally their base in times of crisis on the home front.

Cagaptay sees Erdogan taking aggressive stances on multiple foreign crises at the same time as “doubling down at home to build his conservative base. He realizes that the base is imploding, and he needs to do something to keep it together. He thrives on this global strongman image.” In particular, said Cagaptay, the current rift with NATO is made to order for Erdogan’s political purposes. “Turkey’s population loves a good fight with Europe that they win. And in this fight, I think Turkey will win. Sweden probably won’t satisfy all of Turkey’s demands regarding the YPG, but it will come close to it and the Turkish media will write it up like it’s the defeat at Vienna in reverse.” (The Ottoman Empire’s failure to take Vienna from the Habsburg Empire in 1683 is often viewed by historians as the beginning of the empire’s long decline.)

While Erdogan and Putin constantly invoke centuries of history to justify their actions, both leaders are probably best viewed less as long-term strategists than as skilled short-term tacticians, adept at seizing opportunities to advance what they see as their countries’ geopolitical goals, which just happen to line up with their own domestic political interests. In this case, Putin’s crisis has been Erdogan’s opportunity.

Start your day with the biggest stories and exclusive reporting from The Messenger Morning, our weekday newsletter.
By signing up, you agree to our privacy policy and terms of use.
Sign Up.