Turkey continues balancing relations with Ukraine and Russia despite Western pressure

Russian President Vladimir Putin Recep Tayyip Erdogan Volodymr Zelensky Ukraine Turkey Ukrainian Turkish

Turkey continues its mediation efforts with Ukraine and Russia, effectively maintaining a neutral position despite pressure from the US and NATO to impose sanctions on Russia. To try and entice Ankara to impose sanctions, Washington suggested that the country’s Russian-made S-400 missile defense system be donated to the Ukrainian military in exchange for a return to the F-35 fifth-generation fighter jet program.

Commenting on the proposal from Washington, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated: “Our position has not changed. This is not for discussion. This issue is closed for us. This is our equipment for defensive purposes.”

Sanctions against Russia has already affected the global economy, with food and energy prices in the West reaching unprecedented heights. Given the reality of Turkey’s struggling economic situation, the country will only suffer more if sanctions are imposed. Erdoğan cannot politically afford greater economic decline, even at the enticement of a return to the F-35 program, as his popularity is plunging. More importantly, Turkey’s desire for these jets has diminished anyway, especially as experts continue to negatively review the American fifth-generation fighter jet.

The effectiveness of sanctions is already highly questionable and Erdoğan will not take a huge risk for little reward. For now, Turkey is gaining far more by maintaining the greatest balance between Ukraine and Russia out of all NATO members. Erdoğan understands that maintaining a balance in the face of a very serious conflict in the region will bring Ankara significant benefits. In this way Turkey continues to pursue this strategy and for now has received far less condemnation for not imposing sanctions or closing its airspace to Russia than a traditionally non-aligned country like India.

Ankara’s unapologetic policy of neutrality has also emboldened other countries like Hungary to not just impose sanctions for the sake of foreign interests that are contrary to national and ethnic interests.

On March 25, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó said that his country does not support any sanctions on Russian energy shipments as it would endanger Hungary's energy security. This received the ire of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who implored Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán “to decide who you are with” and attempted to shame him for his disinterest in allowing Hungary to be a conduit of weapons for Ukraine.

Although many in the EU celebrated Zelensky’s shaming of Orbán, it is recalled that on January 26, less than a month before the war started in Ukraine, Szijjártó warned that Kiev's racist policies towards minorities, including against the 140,000+ Transcarpathian Hungarian minority, “will very much limit the Hungarian government’s ability to provide any kind of support to Ukraine, even in this conflict.”

Ukraine’s parliament in 2017 adopted the law “On Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language,” which Budapest says violates the rights of the Transcarpathian ethnic minority to study in Hungarian. This is similar discrimination faced by the Polish, Greek and Romanian minorities in Ukraine, but ignored by Warsaw and Athens, and less-so by Bucharest.

With Turkey and Hungary, remembering that the latter is an observer member of the Turkic Union, not joining the entire sanctions regime against Russia, it could lead to a serious rift in NATO. For this reason, the US is trying to restore its relations with Turkey over the S-400 by offering a way out. However, the proposal is unrealistic when considering the country purchased the S-400 from Russia, and expects proper compensation, not just a re-entry into the F-35 program. It is recalled that Turkey has also paid for the F-35 jets, which have not yet been delivered to the country because of its purchase of the S-400.

As the proposal puts Turkey in an obvious disadvantage as they do not want to hand over the S-400 to Ukraine without compensation, it will likely be rejected. The other issue is that if the S-400 is delivered to Ukraine, Moscow could in turn retaliate by listing Turkey as an “unfriendly country” – and how that might impact the many points of cooperation that the two countries have, such as the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, is unknown.

In addition, Turkey sees deep systemic rifts between the Euro-Atlantic Axis and Eurasia. In this way, Ankara leverages its NATO membership and EU candidacy to pivot to the West, whilst taking advantage of its Eurasian geography to also engage with the East, particularly in mind of a Turkic Order. In this way, Ankara has a policy of waiting to see which Great Powers will win and lose in the long run, just as did in World War II and other key moments in modern history, having learnt its lesson from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I for backing the wrong axis.

Judging by Turkey’s assessment, it appears that it believes Eurasia will be the ultimate victor in this ideological struggle over Ukraine, and for this reason it will not accept the American S-400 proposal or impose the ultra-aggressive sanctions as demanded by the West.

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