Why Turkey Could Help us Understand Putin’s Intentions in Ukraine

Why Turkey Could Help us Understand Putin’s Intentions in Ukraine

Russia has staged the largest mobilisation along the eastern Ukrainian border since the Annexation of Crimea in 2014. Iuliia Mendel, spokesperson for the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, stated that Moscow had stationed more than 40,000 soldiers near the separatist-held region of Donbas along with an additional 9,000 in Crimea. The sudden increase of Russian military presence in the region comes amid deepening defence cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine. This development in the Ukraine conflict follows a pattern of strategic rivalry between Ankara and Moscow in Libya and Syria. Although on opposing sides in each of these crises, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, share the same geopolitical goal of undermining Western pre-eminence in the post-Cold War system of international relations. Initiative in defence and security in the conduct of relations that Moscow and Ankara exercise with third countries means it is likely the crisis in eastern Ukraine will intensify.

The Russia-Turkey Strategic Rivalry

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the concept of great power status has been at the heart of Russian foreign policy. In seeking to re-establish itself as a global power, Moscow has actively sought to reverse what it sees as a Western-led approach to international security governance under the auspices of NATO and the European Union.

At the Munich Security Conference in 2007, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, criticised the United States for overstepping its national borders in every way in order to impose its own policies on other nations since the end of the Cold War. When the United States began to scale back its footprint in the Middle East under the Obama and Trump administrations in light of the flawed Iraq invasion in 2003, Putin interpreted Washington’s move as vindication of his criticism of unilateralism in the post-Cold War system of international security.

In giving his backing to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, after Obama decided not to intervene, Moscow used the civil war as an opportunity to reassert a multipolar system of international relations. Despite Turkey supporting forces opposed to the Russian-backed Assad regime, Putin helped establish the Astana format in 2017, which convened Turkey along with Iran and Russia, to formalise an end to the conflict. This had the effect of leaving Washington on the sidelines in the crisis resolution process in Syria.

In 2018, Trump withdrew US forces after Turkish President Erdoğan asked him why there were still 2,000 American soldiers in Syria since the Islamic State had been defeated. The decision by Turkey, which is a NATO member state, to acquire a Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system signalled a further blow to Western resolve in the face of Russian ambitions to cement multipolarity.

In Libya, Russia is pursuing a similar geopolitical strategy. Although Moscow and Ankara are on opposing sides in the conflict as is the case in Syria, relations have proven to be resilient since their respective roles in regional crises are undermining NATO and EU strategic coherence.

In response to the Turkish intervention in support of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord (GNA), the French president, Emmanuel Macron, accused Ankara of acting irresponsibly as a NATO member state. Furthermore, the EU-led peace process in the form of the Berlin conference held at the start of 2020 struggled to gain traction after the United Arab Emirates – bolstered by the intervention of Russian mercenaries – initiated a mass mobilisation in support of the GNA-opposition led by General Khalifa Haftar.

NATO and the EU Isolated in Ukraine

Russian and Turkish manoeuvres in Ukraine in recent months suggest a similar approach to that taken by Moscow and Ankara towards Syria and Libya in seeking to limit the influence of NATO and the EU. The largest build-up of Russian forces near the separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine since the Crimea annexation in 2014 comes amid deepening defence cooperation between Ankara and Kyiv over the past two years.

Russia’s threat to Ukrainian security has afforded Turkey the opportunity to revive its Ottoman ties with the pro-Western, post-Soviet states of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova (the GUAM grouping). President Erdoğan, alongside his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, issued a joint-statement last year formalising Turkey’s commitment to Kyiv to support its effort to restore Ukrainian control over Crimea and Donbas. This includes a Turkish supply of surface-to-air missiles to eastern Ukraine with a range of 200km – capable of confronting Russia’s dominant position in the Black Sea region.

Although the Turkish initiative to enhance Ukraine’s defence capabilities may seem, on the face of it, to be favouring Western interests, the isolation that this creates for NATO and the EU complies with Russian advocacy of multipolarity in international affairs. In contrast to Turkey’s commitment to upholding Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, NATO and the EU have found it difficult to inject coherence into their respective strategies on the issue of Ukraine’s place in the post-Cold War European security architecture.

Russian occupation of secessionist regions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova makes it difficult for NATO to offer a clear pathway to membership. If NATO were to grant Ukraine membership today, it would call into question the central purpose of the Alliance in guaranteeing collective defence under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. This explains why France and Germany defied US calls for NATO expansion into the post-Soviet space at the 2008 Bucharest Summit for fear that it would lead to conflict with Russia.

As for the EU, the emphasis that Germany, its most powerful member state, places on engagement with Moscow undermines Zelenskyy’s efforts to renegotiate the Minsk II agreement. In March, Berlin issued a non-paper which, despite accusing Putin of violating international law, notes Russia’s indispensable role in various global policy fields. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also remains insistent on completing Russia’s gas-supply pipeline, Nord Stream 2, which contravenes sanctions imposed by the Biden administration on Moscow following the poisoning of Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.

The lack of policy coordination on Russia among transatlantic allies puts Kyiv in a difficult position in regards to its security. The Kremlin will not be in a rush to give Zelenskyy concessions on Ukrainian constitutional reform to grant Donetsk and Luhansk autonomy as stipulated in the Minsk II agreement.

Western Incoherence Leaves a Security Vacuum Open to Russia and Turkey

Although defence cooperation between Ukraine and Turkey may test relations between Ankara and Moscow, the resilience of Russian-Turkish diplomacy in Libya and Syria indicates that Putin and Erdoğan are interested above all else in the reversal of the Western-led system of post-Cold War international relations.

The failure of NATO at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 to admit Ukraine may prove to be an historic error for the Alliance. The presence of the United States in Ukrainian defence and security is at risk as strategic cooperation deepens between Kyiv and Ankara. Although a member state of NATO, Turkey has seen its relationship with Washington deteriorate ever since it objected to the 2003 war in Iraq. Similarly, the soft approach that Germany has taken in its relations with Russia strengthens Moscow’s hand in the implementation process of the Minsk II agreement.

The comparative weakness of the Euro-Atlantic fold in exercising hard power in the crisis in eastern Ukraine vis-a-vis Turkey may well encourage further acts of intimidation from Putin.

Categories: Europe, Security

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