Turkey and the War in Ukraine: An Opportunity to Unify NATO’s southern flank
By Captain Neil Bultman, LtGen Victor H. Krulak Scholar
The conflict in Ukraine could be a catalyst for reducing tensions between Turkey, NATO, and the EU in the Eastern Mediterranean. As Russian President Vladimir Putin displays the full range of his aggression and violence in Ukraine, Ankara may be ready to cooperate more fully with her NATO allies and EU partners as Russia becomes a more unstable actor and partner in the region. While certain economic realities may restrain the options available to Turkey, there may be no better time for NATO and the EU to convince Turkey that prosperity in the Eastern Mediterranean is best made with the West, provided NATO and the EU make it worth the while for Turkey.
Turkey has for years been considered an important partner, but not a full member of the European Union. In 2018 its accession to the EU effectively stopped, citing a backslide in democratic principles and the rule of law. This was in large part due to the failed military coup in 2016 that left President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan battered but in power. Since then, Turkey has used Syrian refugees as a bargaining tool with the EU and balked over US and EU intervention in Syria. The widening gap in relations between the EU and Turkey as well as Turkey and its NATO allies has not only given Russia room to grow and expand its influence within the Eastern Mediterranean but has made Turkey a more aggressive actor in the region. The war in Ukraine has already compelled Turkey to work more closely with its NATO allies in response to Russian aggression. To reinforce this cooperation, the EU and NATO should assist Turkey in reducing its economic dependence on Russia and use this period of good faith to resolve disputes within the Eastern Mediterranean. This can be done by increasing domestic energy production and transportation within Turkey, re-designing Euro-Turkish trading policies, and promoting military cooperation within the Eastern Mediterranean to counteract Russia.
While Turkey does not have a historically warm diplomatic relationship with Russia, the two have been significant energy partners since the Soviet era. In 2018 Turkey imported roughly 53% of all its gas from Russia. More recently, Turkey has worked with Rosatom, a Russian state nuclear energy company, to create three nuclear power plants in Turkey. These energy dependencies have created a steady relationship between Moscow and Ankara, but it is not iron-clad. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has seen Turkey having to balance its relationships with both Russia and NATO. Turkey has famously been supplying the Bayraktar TB-2 drone to Ukrainian forces but will not join Europe in imposing economic sanctions on Russia. This balancing act belies Turkey’s deep economic ties to Russia.
Since 2018, however, Turkey has been taking steps to diversify its energy consumption. Most notable among these steps has been the creation of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), a series of pipelines transporting gas from the Caspian region to Europe. These pipelines represent a realization within Ankara that their dependence on Russian energy is a vulnerability and that Turkey’s strategic location as a bridge between Asia and Europe is potentially very lucrative. The EU should help Turkey’s quest for energy independence from Russia by investing in and promoting the construction of additional gas lines from places like Israel or the Caspian Sea region though Turkey into Europe. Not only will this provide Turkey with new economic opportunities, but it will have the added benefit of decreasing European dependence on Russian gas. That dependency has complicated EU efforts to sanction Russian gas imports as some member states such as Germany and Italy are overly reliant on them.
Gas exploration in the Black Sea will help decrease tension within the Eastern Mediterranean. Territorial disputes between Turkey and Cyprus have escalated in part due to the discovery of undersea gas deposits within contested exclusive economic zones (EEZs). In 2019 Turkey on more than one occasion dispatched drilling vessels with military escorts to Cypriot territorial waters in search of gas deposits, claiming the EEZs as their own. Turkey does not recognize Cyprus as a legitimate state and has infringed on its territory multiple times. In 1974 Turkey invaded the island of Cyprus to counter a Greek coup d’état of that island’s government. Since then, the northern part of the island has been illegally occupied by Turkey and made into a state that is only recognized by Turkey. These disputes have created heightened tensions in the Mediterranean between Turkey and its NATO partners, namely Greece. With potentially larger gas reserves being discovered in the Black Sea, Turkey’s impetus for aggravating territorial disputes in the Mediterranean will be greatly reduced. The EU should support gas explorations in the Black Sea and encourage European companies to participate should Turkey allow private companies to drill there. To this end, the EU should support the construction of new gas lines from the Black Sea region into Europe, a move that would benefit both Turkey as the producer of the gas, and Europe as the consumer.
Turkey’s inclusion into the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Form (EMGF) -established in 2019- could also facilitate cohesion between Turkey and her neighbors. Even though the EMGF was largely created in response to Turkey’s aggressive actions in the Eastern Mediterranean, its inclusion could create a shared vision for economic cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean and prompt cooperation between its members on issues outside of the EMGF’s purview. The most important of these issues is the Cyprus dilemma. In order for the participant nations to come to an agreement, hostilities in the area must cease. One area that may bring all sides to the table is the profitable extraction of natural resources in the region. Ensuring Turkey’s participation as a partner in energy exploration will also close the door to Russia that may seek to exploit cracks within NATO.
In addition to encouraging alternatives to Russian energy imports, creating new markets for Turkey’s leading export to Russia, agricultural products, is vital. The EU should further open its doors to Turkish agricultural imports to decrease Turkey’s dependence on the Russian market. For example, Turkey exported around $423 million worth of citrus to Russia in 2020. In order for the EU to provide a market for Turkey’s agricultural products it must finally update its Customs Union with Turkey. At present, only certain agricultural products are allowed to pass the border between the EU and Turkey under the Customs Union. One way to increase this trade is to add Turkey to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) within the EU. The CAP is an EU-wide program which provides financial benefits to farmers as well as promotes sustainable farming practices. Adding Turkey as a non-EU member participant could provide a viable alternative to the Russian market for Turkey’s exports. Another option could be to create multiple free trade agreements between the EU and Turkey based on specific products. Since the creation of the Customs Union between Turkey and the EU, the EU has signed free trade agreements with other nations that puts Turkey’s agricultural products at a disadvantage. Making these decisions on a product-by-product basis may be tedious but could ensure that neither the EU nor Turkey’s domestic markets are upset by an overarching CAP. Overall, providing opportunities for Turkey to reduce its economic ties to Russia in favor of the EU will help the two when it comes to security and stability.
Disputes between Turkey, Cyprus and Greece long predate the discovery of gas deposits beneath the Eastern Mediterranean sea floor. They date back decades and revolve around national sovereignty. The disagreements over EEZs and territorial waters will not be solved by reducing Turkey’s dependence on Russian trade. It will require earnest diplomatic work between the nations directly involved. But reducing Turkish dependency on Russia can create an opening for NATO and the EU to work with Turkey in combating a true regional threat, Russia.
In 2013 Russia held one of its largest naval exercises in the Mediterranean since the Cold War. Since that time Russian officials have insisted that the Eastern Mediterranean is a key area of interest for Russia. Russia proved these assertions to be true with its intervention into the Syrian conflict in 2015. The Kremlin intervened militarily to help stabilize the Asad regime against a growing force of rebels and extremists. Assisting in this operation were a number of Russian naval vessels belonging to the Mediterranean fleet. Russia’s use of naval forces supporting operations ashore demonstrated the usefulness of the Mediterranean fleet as well as the utility of Russia’s only overseas port in the Mediterranean located in Tartus, Syria.
Russian forces have had mixed results thus far in the war in Ukraine. One area they have succeed in however, is the blockade of shipping within the Blask Sea. Russian forces have seized Ukrainian port cities and the Russian navy can sail the Black Sea without fear of an opposing navy. The result has been Ukrainian ports filling with unsold grain and the resulting threat of a global food shortage. Russia has found that its naval campaign and its economic consequences may be its greatest weapon in the war thus far. This could set a precedent for future Russian aggression in the area that sees economic warfare on the Mediterranean as the focus. It also reinforces the need for Ukraine to have more direct access to trade with the EU. It will take a unified NATO to balance against this threat.
Turkey possesses one of the most capable fleets in the Eastern Mediterranean. Instead of being used to harass Greek vessels in the Aegean Sea or escorting drilling ships into Cypriot waters, this fleet should be aimed to curbing a growing Russian presence. The presence of a common enemy within the Eastern Mediterranean should be the driving force behind greater military cooperation between Turkey and her NATO allies. Turkey has already closed the Dardanelle Straits to Russian warships as a sign of its commitment to curtailing Russian military operations in the Black Sea. Europe and the US should work more closely with the Turkish navy to provide security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. This common goal can in turn reduce tensions between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, and provide mutual benefits for everyone involved.
The Eastern Mediterranean is a complex place. Conflict between its resident states has caused serious concern in NATO and the EU. The war in Ukraine may be an unlikely catalyst for repairing damaged relations between Turkey and her NATO allies -namely Greece- and normalizing relations between Turkey and Cyprus. As Russia continues to behave erratically the stage may be set for Turkey to work more closely with NATO and the EU on Mediterranean security. In order for this to happen, the EU and the US should help Turkey gain energy independence from Russia, provide expanded trading opportunities, and work hand in hand on countering a Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.
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