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


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

Last week, the Turkish government formally requested that the United Nations refer to the country only as “Türkiye” rather than “Turkey,” part of a larger campaign announced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year to promote international use of the country’s Turkish-language name and discourage the one that English speakers tend to associate with a large, edible bird.

Rebrandings like these have a mixed success rate — “Czechia” for the Czech Republic hasn’t really caught on — but the U.N. immediately granted the request.

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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.

Harder to resolve will be Turkey’s latest clash with its fellow NATO members. When Sweden and Finland announced in May that they would seek NATO membership in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, their accession looked like smooth sailing. The alliance’s current members all enthusiastically welcomed the two Nordic countries — all, that is, except one. Erdogan threatened to oppose Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership unless they abandoned their support for Kurdish militants. Since all 30 NATO countries must approve new members, Erdogan has a lot of leverage in this situation.


Meanwhile, Erdogan is vowing to launch a new military incursion into Syria in the coming weeks, an attack that would target Kurdish forces there. Those forces happen to be the most important U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State — and the timing is no coincidence. Erdogan is acting at a moment when the U.S. and other Western nations need Turkey and might be less inclined to oppose such an incursion.

To add a third crisis to the mix, Turkey broke off talks with historic rival Greece this week over a range of issues involving territorial claims and energy exploration rights in the Aegean Sea.

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.

Turkey, which controls international access to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits, also complied with Ukraine’s request to block Russian warships from crossing those bodies of water, earning the gratitude of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Turkey has also sold the Ukrainians a significant amount of weaponry, including the low-cost Bayraktar drones that have become one of the iconic weapons of this war. (Selcuk Bayraktar, the Elon Musk-esque inventor and CEO behind the drone is Erdogan’s son-in-law, and his signature product has become a useful way for Turkey to exert influence in conflicts from Nagorno-Karabakh to Ethiopia.)


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.

Beyond the personal relationship, Turkey is also a major consumer and transit country for Russian energy exports, and Russian visitors made up a large chunk of Turkey’s $30 billion-a-year (pre-pandemic) tourism industry. Turkey has also purchased air defense missile systems from Russia, angering the U.S. and other NATO allies in the process.

Given these ties to NATO and Russia, Erdogan has sought to play a mediator role. In the early days of the war, Turkey hosted ceasefire talks between Ukraine and Russia, and Erdogan has been in regular contact with both Putin and Zelenskyy. More recently, Turkey has been in negotiations with Russia on a deal to reopen the Black Sea for grain exports — vital for both Ukraine’s economy and global security.

“[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.

Well before Erdogan’s rule, Turkey has fought to clamp down on Kurdish separatists within its own borders. Now it wants to prevent an internationally backed, autonomous Kurdish statelet from forming on its border with Syria; hence the plans to send troops in to fight the YPG. It won’t be the first time, and with the notable exception of then-President Donald Trump in 2019, previous Turkish incursions have been roundly condemned by the U.S. and NATO.

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.”


Erdogan has demands of Washington as well. Namely, he wants the Biden administration to pressure Congress to lift a hold on a proposed sale of 40 F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been holding up the sale over Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles and other issues.

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

It’s not all war and brinkmanship. In the past year, Turkey has held talks aimed at normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which had been strained by Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood during the uprisings of the Arab Spring. This paid off in a reported $10 billion Emirati investment package. In May, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu became the first senior Turkish official to visit Israel in 15 years, showing at least a partial thawing of Israeli-Turkish relations, which have ranged between cold and outright hostile in recent decades.

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.


But as Turkey has been working to mend fences with other powers in the Middle East, it has doubled down on tensions with historic rivals — including Kurdish militants and Greece, with whom it is at odds over territorial claims in the Aegean, the sovereignty of Cyprus and potential energy reserves in the area.

The rhetoric has gotten heated: Erdogan has said that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who spoke publicly against the U.S. F-16 sale, “no longer exists for him.” The Turkish government has threatened to challenge Greek sovereignty over several of its Eastern islands if it does not “demilitarize” them. The government of Cyprus has accused Erdogan of developing a Putin-style plan to annex the Northern portion of the island, which is currently under the control of a Turkish-backed semi-autonomous government.

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.

The Turkish economy is in dire straits. Inflation in May rose 73.5 percent, year-on-year, with food prices rising 91.6 percent. This hasn’t been helped by high energy prices, covid-related trade disruptions, the pandemic’s blow to the tourism industry or Erdogan’s stubborn refusal to raise interest rates, which he has said would be contrary to the teachings of Islam. Turkey has general elections scheduled next year, and Erdogan’s AK Party has been losing support in the polls, even among his core conservative supporters.


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.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.