Reading the headlines, one could be forgiven for thinking that Russia has become, all of a sudden, Turkey’s new best friend. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his loyalists are up in arms against the U.S., which they have branded the archenemy. The EU, and especially Germany, has long been on Turkey’s bad side. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, wins praise as a trustworthy partner—whether in Syria, in the fight against Fethullah Gülen and the movement he heads, or on Turkey’s quest to become an energy heavyweight.
But appearances can be misleading. Ankara’s so-called pivot to Moscow is, in actuality, consistent with a broader trend in Turkish foreign policy of late. It is a bid to assert autonomy in foreign affairs, rather than a step towards a lasting alliance with the Kremlin. Case in point: Erdoğan’s visit to Kyiv on October 9 was a reminder that Turkey’s interests often diverge from Russia’s. Though the media picked up on Erdoğan fighting off sleep during a news conference with President Petro Poroshenko, there is nothing soporific or dull about the links between Turkey and Ukraine. On the contrary, over the past two years those connections have become stronger than ever.
Take Crimea for instance. Despite its recent rapprochement with Russia, Ankara’s views of the 2014 annexation have not changed one iota. “Turkey will continue to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Erdoğan said during his Kyiv visit, echoing a statement made by Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in February after the regular session of a joint planning group between Turkish and Ukrainian ministries of foreign affairs, also held in Kyiv.1
Turkey has also gone out of its way to back its ethnic kinsmen, the Crimean Tatars. Turkish dignitaries have used every occasion to demonstrate support to the exiled leaders of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar community’s umbrella structure which the Russian authorities blacklisted as an extremist organization in 2016. However, in a recent concession to Erdoğan, Russia recently handed two Crimean Tatar leaders, Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, to Turkey (both had been imprisoned for opposing the 2014 annexation). Turkey’s government has also been providing assistance to the Tatar volunteer battalion involved in the blockade on land connections to Crimea (though it has been careful not to send arms). In March 2017, Turkey went so far as to ban ships under its flag from visiting Crimea. Ukraine’s Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who was in Turkey at a time, greeted the move as “a very strong signal.” Turkey also rolled back an earlier decision taken in November 2016, soon after the rapprochement with Russia got off the ground, to start a ferry service with the ports of Sevastopol and Kerch.
The uptick in security ties between Turkey and Ukraine is another story mostly missing from the headlines. Few noted that General Hulusi Akar, the Turkish Armed Forces’ chief of staff who gained international fame on the night of the failed coup in July 2016, was at Erdoğan’s side throughout the Kyiv visit.
Cooperation first picked up speed in November 2015, during the Russo-Turkish spat triggered by the shoot-down of a Russian Su-24 by Turkish forces at the Syrian border. By February 2016, Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was already overseeing the conclusion of an agreement with Ukraine for the joint manufacturing of aircraft engines, radars, military communication and navigation systems. This sort of cooperation is very important to Ankara: Turkey hopes to advance its plans for developing an indigenous defense industry, thereby minimizing its dependence on Western contractors. Turkish officials view Ukraine as a potential supplier of technology and equipment to that end. Joint production of phased space rockets, ballistic missiles systems, and even cruse missiles is under discussion.
In Ukraine, Turkey is seen a welcome customer to compensate for severed links with Russia’s military-industrial complex. In April, the commander of Ukraine’s navy, Vice Admiral Ihor Voronchenko, toured the Gölcük shipyards on the eastern coast of the Marmara Sea, where Turkey has been building a new class of corvettes under the MILGEM (“national ship”) project. This wasn’t a one-off signal, either: the Turkish navy trains on a regular basis with its (greatly diminished) Ukrainian counterpart. That includes NATO-led exercises as well as bilateral drills.
Last but not the least, there’s an important investment and trade angle to Turkish-Ukrainian relations. Recently Erdoğan, along with a number of cabinet ministers, took part in the sixth session of the so-called High-Level Strategic Council with Ukraine, a joint intergovernmental body for the promotion of economic ties that has been around since 2011. The Council’s goal is to raise trade volumes from their present level—at just under $4 billion—up to $10 billion. That figure may seem trifling next to the $30 billion turnover between Russia and Turkey; but if one subtracts the Russian natural gas imported into the Turkish market, the comparison starts to look a lot more even. During this most recent session, a slate of new agreements were signed, including provisions to protect investment and avoid double taxation. In recent years, Turkish contractors had already won contracts for various construction projects in Ukraine in excess of $5 billion, including building the Donbas Arena in the separatist-held town of Donetsk for the 2012 European soccer championship. Tourism is another bedrock of the trade relationship: more than 1 million Ukrainians visited Turkey in 2016, and as of March 2017, Ukrainians and Turks have been able to travel between their countries passport-free, using only an ID card.
Of course, it’s important not to exaggerate the significance of this relationship. Erdoğan’s trip to Kyiv does not mean that Ukraine could replace Russia as Turkey’s main interlocutor in the former Soviet sphere. And Moscow has two points of leverage that Kyiv lacks: First, its military is deployed around Turkish borders, in Syria, in Armenia, and in Crimea. And second, Turkey’s remains dependent on Russian energy imports and is vulnerable to trade embargoes.
Still, it is truly remarkable how Russian leadership in particular seems to be altogether oblivious of the Turkish-Ukrainian affair. It’s possible that the Kremlin does not think Turkey’s overtures to Ukraine count for much in the grand scheme of things. Alternatively, it may discount this burgeoning relationship because it is held hostage to two familiar narratives: that Turkey is being inexorably drawn into Russia’s fold, while Ukraine exists as primarily a Western vassal with no foreign policy of its own.
Whatever the reason, Russia isn’t outwardly recognizing an important shift in a region that’s vital to its immediate interests. And that could have lasting consequences.
1To be fair, all this hard-hitting talk has not been met with much action. The Turks have refused to join Western sanctions against Russia. And they keeps a low profile on the war in the Donbas, even though a Turkish diplomat currently presides over the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission there.