Ukraine and Turkey: Strategic Partnership with Deep Geopolitical Dimensions | QHA media
17 February 2020, 15:01

Ukraine and Turkey: Strategic Partnership with Deep Geopolitical Dimensions

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Rıdvan Bari UcostaMr. Urcosta joins Geopolitical Futures as an analyst with wide experience in the Black Sea region, Russia and the Middle East, Ukraine and Crimea as a geopolitical region and Eastern Europe. He is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Strategic Studies, University of Warsaw and he also teaches an independent ERASMUS course: “Russia and the Middle East: Geopolitics and Diplomacy.” He was born in Abkhazia, Georgia where he lived until the onset of the Civil War.

Turkey’s interest in improving bilateral ties with Ukraine to counter Russia is coming to the fore. In recent years relations between Turkey and Ukraine are shaping into new geopolitical status. The Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky hosted recently his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan in Kyiv. During the visit, Ankara offered Ukraine her deep military and economic cooperation and intensified its support of the Crimean Tatars.  The visit happened to coincide with a new nadir in Turkish-Russian relations, as Turkish-Russian cooperation thins out and the risk of confrontation increases in Northern Syria and Libya. As with the case of Russian-Turkish confrontations which took place in Syria in November 2015, Ankara almost immediately seeks to use the “Ukrainian card,” a tool to balance out deteriorating relations with Russia. Erdogan deeply feels how sensitive Russia is towards Ukraine and again as in 2015-2016 he strikes on Russia for Syria through Ukraine.   

While a strategic military and economic partnership between Ukraine and Turkey poses a threat to Russian strategic interests in the Black Sea the most deleterious scenario for Russia because it is Russian traditional geopolitical competitor in the region, for Ankara it is a great opportunity to seal off a Russian expansionist drive to the Near and Middle East. In order to understand why  Turkey resorts to using ties with Ukraine in its geopolitical strategy with Russia, it is necessary to understand the Ottoman Empire’s strategy in the Northern part of the Black Sea, historically known as the Pontic Steppe. We should also take a look at contemporary geopolitical repercussions of the most interesting “love-hate” triangle in the Black Sea region between Russia, Ukraine and Turkey.

Turkey’s Geopolitical Approach to the Pontic Steppe

At its peak,  Ottoman Empire was an expansive state with many geopolitical theaters.  It stretched from the Atlas Mountains in Northern Africa to the Zagros Mountains and the Persian Gulf in the East, and to the Balkans and the Caucasus in the West..  Former Ottoman territories still play a large role in contemporary Turkish foreign policy, particularly in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s agenda that ambitiously seeks to rebuild influence in the Persian Gulf, the Levant, Black Sea, Eastern Mediterranean, and Northern Africa. We have even forecasted that Turkey will continue its expansionary efforts in former Ottoman areas of control. But while Turkey’s geopolitical interests in areas such as Syria and Eastern Med have garnered much attention as of late, discussion of Turkey’ strategy towards Ukraine merits geopolitical consideration for Ankara’s expansion and relationship with Russia.

The memory of an Ottoman-controlled Crimea is a main driver of Turkey’s foreign policy with Ukraine given it was once part of the empire. When the Ottoman Empire  lost the Crimean Khanate, she was immediately pushed into retreat from almost all theaters, especially from the Caucasus and from the area of the Pontic Steppe. The Crimean Khanate existed from 1441 to 1783; it was a   useful to Ottomans a bulwark against Russian presence in the Black Sea  for several centuries. Nominally the Crimean Khanate – since 1475 – was under control of Constantinople (Istanbul) and exercised limited, autonomous rule.  With   Ottoman assistance, it controlled  strategically-important chokepoints in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. These chokepoints still are an integral part of modern-day Turkey’s geopolitical strategy, and are crucial in understanding the Turkish drive to the north.  If the Ottomans were responsible for the chokepoints in the Pontic Steppe area, the Crimean Tatars’ zone of responsibility were the land masses from the Danube to the Don River and beyond (mostly the Taman peninsula and Kuma–Manych Depression) that sealed up the Black Sea from Slavic expansion to the south and to the warm waters. A short historical look allows us to see the territories that beforehand had belonged to the Crimean Tatars and the Ottomans, and which are now parts of three Ukrainian regions: Odessa, Nikolayev and Kherson. The Russian Empire took these territories from the control of the Turkic nomad people that had been living there for centuries.

During the 18th century, the Ottomans’ bulwark against Russia in Crimea grew ineffective, opening up space for Ottoman-Russian competition.  Moscow initiated a  process of mass Slavization of surrounding  territories after that initial 18th century annexation of the entire area of the Pontic Steppe. This came as a result of Russian-Crimean Wars from the 16th to the 18th centuries and Russia-Turkish Wars in the 18th century.  Interestingly, the Pontic Steppe was immediately subjected to the process of fierce colonisation and Slavization. In 2014, the Russian Federation claimed these territories as of its Novorossiya geopolitical project. Under this pretext Russia invaded Donbas.  However, in the case of Russian geopolitical claims from 2014, the project of Novorossiya stretches from the Odessa region to Kharkov.

After the first annexation of Crimea in 1783, the expansionist drive of Russia was formidable and it stopped only by Revolution in 1917. After Crimea the expansion was in two directions of the Caucasus and the Balkans, both of which were possible when Crimea was in Russian hands. Geostrategically Crimea as peninsula allows to control, expand or deter expansion in three main strategic theaters: Central Ukraine; Northern Caucasus and Balkans. In XVIII Russian cognized one serious wisdom that without destroys Crimean Khanate it is almost impossible to undertake military operations into deep Balkans because the Crimean Khanate and Turks had always chance to break communications and line of supply of Russia in Central Ukraine.The loss of Crimea and inferiority of Ottoman Black Sea influence was formalized with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca. It marked the exact point at which Crimea was formally hand over  from the Ottoman Empire to Russia and allowed  access to warm waters. It was regarded as a watershed, marking the beginning of the (Ottoman) Empire’s overwhelming decline.

Turkey then was reminded of a valuable geopolitical lesson about the importance of the Pontic Steppe (now territorially Ukraine) for her security. This can be summarized by a specific principle or dictum: “maintain geopolitical diversity in the Black Sea region and keep the Russians out of the Pontic Steppe and Crimea.” Splitting this into three components, we can argue that Turkey in 2014 has been successful with the first two, but in case of Crimea she has failed dramatically when Russia took Crimea from Ukraine. However, as long as the Crimean Tatar factor persists within Crimea, Ankara still has influence in the peninsula.  Thus, Turkey’s strategy is to support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and to maintain the political and societal resilience of the Crimean Tatar nation, both within Crimea and in exile in the Ukrainian mainland.The Crimean Tatars as indigenous people of Crimea in its majority did not supported annexation of Crimea and pledged their support to Ukraine.

The issue of Crimea and competition over Pontic Steppe returned only in October 1914 when the Ottoman Empire under the support of the Germans undertook the famous “Black Sea Raid”; Russia considered this a casus belli and declared war on Turkey. In 1917-1918, when two nations (the Ukrainians and the Crimean Tatars) were struggling for independence from the Ottoman Empire, a strategic choice was made – the creation of a Ukrainian independent state in the areas of Pontic Steppe that would isolate Russia from the shores of the Black Sea. The treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 created an independent Ukrainian state and Crimea became part of it. When the Tatars asked Istanbul for aid in asserting their own sovereignty, the Ottomans abstained and only delivered feeble sympathies. The independence of Ukraine was a geostrategic priority for the Ottoman Empire.  Even during (and throughout) the 17th century, Ottomans and Tatars had been a balancing power that helped Ukrainian Cossacks exercise greater geopolitical maneuverability among regional centers of power like Muscovites and Poland that struggle for dominance in territories of former Kievan Rus notably in the Treaty of Bakhchisarai (1681) which partitioned the territories of contemporary Ukraine between Muscovites and Ottomans (together with Crimean Tatars).  It was one of the first agreements that enshrined Ottomans as a  “stakeholder” of Ukrainian territories. If lands between contemporary Odessa and Taman Peninsula (now Russia) was long before under control of Turkic peoples.  Moreover, in Treaty of Buchach1675  with Poland the Ottomans attached historical region Podolya. 

Turkish Strategy towards Ukraine After 2014

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey did not share land borders with Russia, and in general until 2014 the status quo remained acceptable to Turkey as Russia did not pose a major threat due to plenty of buffer space. Ankara enjoyed such a status quo when the regional hegemony according to possession of geostrategic assets: the best naval forces; possession of narrows (Turkish Straits) and possession of the largest share of Black Sea shores. Russia controlled just a tiny piece of the Black Sea shores and even then any maritime transit for trade outside the Black Sea had to pas through the Bosphorus, an extremely strategic chokepoint wholly under Turkey’s control. this was regarded in Moscow as a humiliation, or paraphrasing Putin’s words, it was one of the evidences of the “geopolitical disaster” that occurred in 1991. The situation in the Sea of Azov was not satisfactory either because the Crimea provided to Ukraine to possess the most valuable areas of the sea.

From 1991 to 2014, Turkish support of the Crimean Tatars in Kyiv was considered as very dangerous for Ukrainian sovereignty. The annexation of Crimea reopened the possibility of power competition between Turkey and Russia in the Black Sea is turning the geopolitical situation in the Black Sea region upside down and even far beyond the Black Sea region.For Turkey was clear that old geopolitics returned to Black Sea region.  Now it is certain that without the annexation of Crimea, Russia would not have been able to conduct her military and naval operations, unprecedented in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey was taken aback by rapid geopolitical developments, but she from very beginning of Ukrainian crisis was vocal about Ukranian territorial integrity and even Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu  planned in February 2014 to visit Crimea. At present, Ukraine has a relatively small piece of the Black Sea shores in the western part of the sea and the biggest stakeholders of the Black Sea shores are two old rivals now – Russia and Turkey. However, from the very beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, Turkey has not recognized the annexation of Crimea, continuing to maintain close relations with the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar Peoples (banned in Russia and recognized as an extremist organization) and further increasing military cooperation with Ukraine. Turkey needs Ukraine to show Russia that she has serious geopolitical assets in Russia’s soft underbelly and Ankara knows well how sensitively Russia is regarding Ukraine and Turkey’s increasing presence in Ukraine. Right after the incident in Syria with the Sukhoi Su-24, Erdogan improved relations with Ukraine in order to pressure Russia. In March 2016, Kyiv and Moscow held joint naval exercises in the Black Sea, during which both sides practiced anti-submarine operations. Both Ukraine and Turkey consider Russia as a potential adversary. The (geo)political agenda between the two countries consists of three “baskets”: military cooperation; economic cooperation, and the idea of Turkey as a ‘broker’ between Moscow and Kyiv.  Cooperation to military sphere was established only after 2014.

While Piotr Poroshenko’s presidency relations were warm and evolved to the status of strategic partnership, the cooperation in the military sphere was more deeply rooted.The relations between countries has evolved into the status of strategic partnership when both countries saw geopolitical importance of deepening of cooperation in different fields of economy and industries. Turkey is perhaps the only NATO country enjoying such a level of cooperation with Ukraine owing to that comparing for instance with Poland which struggles for building strong and independent industries (military, airspace), but can not allow such independence as Turkey does.Ukraine’s state-owned defense-industry enterprise Ukroboronprom collaborates with many Turkish companies: Hevelsan, ASELSAN, Roketsan, etc. It should be noted that Turkish defense companies are currently cooperating with Ukraine in the field of digital communications systems, drones, high-precision aviation weapons and more. The Ukrainian defense industry in turn is conducting joint projects to create An-188 and An-178 military transport aircrafts, active defense systems for armored vehicles and radar systems. In addition, there are a number of projects in the field of co-production of ammunition, drones and communications equipment. They created a joint venture in the field of precision weapons and aerospace technologies. Recently, operational tactical unmanned aerial vehicles Bayraktar TB2 successfully passed the test in the sky of Ukraine. The Turkish drones were armed with high-precision MAM-L air bombs from Turkish company Roketsan. Moreover, Turkey – with Ukrainian specialists – aims to create a new Turkish battle tank. Thus, Turkey is trying to squeeze out from Ukraine its most precious technologies and to build its own sophisticated military industries. In some aspects Turkey is substitutes Russia in military industries of Ukraine by investing and provides contracts to Ukrainian companies. By this cooperation Ukrainian military sector is becoming stronger On the one hand, this brings Ukraine into line with NATO standards (one of the conditions for cooperation) and on the other hand, Turkey builds its military industry, being less dependent on NATO. Ukraine and Turkey even discussed building Corvettes and SAM for both armies. Ukrainian armorers, who found themselves in an extremely difficult situation due to a complete break in military-technical cooperation with Russia, are ready to grab a hold of any order.

It should be noted that in the Ukrainian political elite, there still exist some doubts about the intentions of Turkey, especially because Ankara has not joined the sanctions against Russia. They negatively observed signs of a Putin-Erdogan bromance that did not stop either after the Crimean annexation or the incident in 2015 with the Sukhoi Su-24, when Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet.  Turkey blocked Ukrainian hopes for diminishing Ukraine’s dependence on Russian energy. Kyiv had planned to build an LNG Terminal in one of the Black Sea ports but Turkey refused to allow tankers to pass through the Turkish straits. Ukraine raises the issue of closing the Turkish Straits for Russian warships and is calling for a revision of the Montreux Convention that will increase the NATO presence in the Black Sea. All these concerns overcome the major challenge. It is a fact of belligerence of Russia which occupied Ukrainian territories. Moreover, in Kyiv there exist some hopes around the construction of the new “Istanbul” Canal that would allow Turkey to approach Russia and block her expansionist ambitions in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

The agenda of a recent meeting between Erdogan and Zelensky was based on previous agreements and promises that were negotiated during Poroshenko’s presidency. One of the oldest are negotiations about a free trade agreement. If Poroshenko had maneuvered from Erdogan’s pressure to finalize the agreement and did not want to sign it, the new president is ready to sign the agreement even if it puts the Ukrainian economy in an unequal situation (because of the size of the two economies). The two presidents promised to bring economic turnover to $10 billion and encourage Turkey to allocate $36 million for the Ukrainian Army. Evidently, Zelensky is ready to go quite far in order to satisfy Erdogan. Possibly giving an example of his decision, he instructed the Security Service of Ukraine to “check” how lawful were the activities of Fethullah Gulen’s at the educational centers in Ukraine (in Ukraine, there are at least two Gulen educational centers – in Odessa and in Kyiv). Compared with Zelensky, Poroshenko was against the repatriation of “Gulenists” to the arms of Erdogan. Such Zelensky behaviour far beyond only international relations he wants to abandon a moratorium on the sale of land was imposed in 2001. According to a new draft that will allow sale of Ukrainian land the foreigners (except Russian citizens and enterprises) since 2024 may buy land. Zelensky is ready for serious concessions to international capital and ignite Ukrainian economic growth.  Turkish investments for him  are a good source of money that can restore Ukrainian economy.

Moreover, Ukraine welcomes such alternative gas pipeline as TANAP, and is planning to receive gas from the Trans-Balkan pipeline. How it is possible unfortunately Zelensky didn’t explain but some experts supposed that it would be possible to do if the Trans-Balkan Pipeline will be terminated its major purpose: the delivery to Balkans Russian gas from territory of Ukraine, but Bulgaria is still getting gas from this pipeline. Therefore, it is not the perspective of the near future for Ukraine, but even voicing such an opportunity makes Russia nervous.

Finally, Crimea has a special place in the Ukrainian-Turkish relations because of its geographic value and often shared view of Russia as a threat. Particularly, the Crimean Tatar factor was exploited by all presidents of Ukraine. For example, in 1998 Suleyman Demirel visited Kyiv after Crimea and Recep Erdogan visited Crimea in 2012.  The creator of the notion of Neo-Ottomanism, Ahmet Davutoğlu, paid serious attention to Ukraine and especially to Crimea.Crimea perfectly was adjusted to the ideological doctrine because this doctrine called for restoration of Turkish influence in the areas that before belonged to Ottoman Empire. Davutoğlu regularly had an official meeting with the Crimean Tatar leadership and often visited Kiev and always emphasized about Turkish commitments towards the Crimean Tatars. If before 2014 it highly irritated Kiev but after annexation the Crimean Tatars were part of official delegations.  Inside the political establishment of both countries, Crimea is regarded as “a bridge of friendship.” As the numbers of Crimean Tatar diaspora in Turkey ranges from 1 to 3 million people, even Erdogan has to take into account its role as an internal political factor. The geopolitical pivot of the diaspora is deeply pro-Ukrainian. This pivot is pressuring Erdogan to act. For instance, in October 2017, he personally spoke with Vladimir Putin for state recognition of Crimean Tatar activists. Now Zelensky asks Erdogan to speak with Putin for Crimeans Muslims (followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned in Russia) that are held in Russian prisons.

Right after the annexation of Crimea, Turkey and the Crimean Tatars asked Kyiv’s permission to build ethnic settlements (villages) in the Kherson region for those Tatars that had fled from Crimea because of Russian repressions. Poroshenko got scared and the issue was postponed up to six years, whereas Zelensky has pledged his support for building Crimean Tatar settlements in the Kherson region that was actually once a part of Crimean Khanate. Russia will definitely increase its propaganda amongst locals and would try to trigger anti-Tatar sentiments.  Turkey is gradually increasing its presence in the areas of the former Pontic Steppe. The economic of Turkey appears in those three Ukrainian regions (Odessa, Nikolayev and Kherson_quite successful. Turkey is the leading trade partner in each of those regions Turkish ally Qatar has recently won the competition for the Ukrainian port “Olvia” which is going to be the biggest FDI in the history of the port industry of Ukraine. Thus Turkey is establishing its political and economic presence in the regions that belonged to her for centuries.

Strategic conclusions

Major strategic conclusion that Turkey is returning to the Northern part of Black Sea and this fact restore old regional rivalry between Russia and Turkey over the influence in this part of the Black Sea area.

First, their military-technical cooperation may help to speed up the transformation of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and may assist in bringing them closer to NATO standards. And on the other hand, Turkey is drawing on Ukraine’s own intellectual and technical resources, including tank engine or aircraft design and construction that would help Turkey to build on the basis of the Soviet military infrastructure of its own independent military industry.Cooperation between Ukrainian and Turkish industrial and military sectors allow both countries to benefit from it. Ukrainian  benefits based on the considerations that Turkish investments are able to Ukrainian military sector survive at the times of economic shortages and  war with Russia;

Second, Kiev considers Turkey as additional geopolitical counterbalance in the Black Sea region that is able to deter Russia in the region;

Third, the quintessence of the basic strategic considerations of two countries is following:

  • Turkish to reach full access to Ukrainian economy and establish a strong economic presence there. The Free Trade Agreement actually is about it;
  • to use Ukraine as a geopolitical  factor of pressure on Russia;
  • To contribute to the strengthening of Ukrainian independence both in terms of military and economically; 
  • To have Western support on closer relations with Ukraine because not everyone would be happy in Europe with returning of Turkey to the Pontic Steppe terrains;
  • Crimean Tatars as community in Ukraine must be preserved and its contacts with Turkish diaspora and Turkey at large should be enhanced;
  • Receive the most precious high technologies that left in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Turkey can use Ukraine as India and China did the source of building (even partially) own military technologies; 

Finally, Turkey and Ukraine’s close cooperation is driven by a national security interest to counterbalance Russia in the Black Sea region. Furthermore, Turkey is a country that has its own geopolitical agenda, that sees for itself the benefits of Ukrainian independence as a guarantee of own security.  Turkey  has learned a difficult lesson about how important it is to keep Russia out of Crimea and the Pontic Steppe.  These two countries have a common threat and it is dramatically important for them not to cease their cooperation. It is hard to believe that a strategic alliance between Ukraine and Turkey is possible, yet it must be supported by common Turkish and Ukrainian allies in the West.  The two countries have to further develop their economic and military cooperation.

It is inevitable Turkey is returning to the its traditional geopolitical area and it is possible to expect that in the near future in Ukrainian chess board will be  the Turkish factor will be only increasing.