Turkish military backing has been integral to Ukraine's stout resistance to Russia's invasion, as Ukraine tries for the first time in its history to define and assert itself outside of a Russian sphere. But defense ties between Turkey and Ukraine—perhaps symbolized most of all by the Bayraktar TB2, a Turkish drone that has been surprisingly effective against Russian forces—represent just one element of what was already a steadily progressing integration between Turkey and its neighbors around the Black Sea and Caucasus.
Given the seeming centrality of the Mediterranean in Turkey's foreign policy, this might come as some surprise. Whether the importance of a resolution on Cyprus, a maritime agreement with Libya, or its more recent standoff with Greece concerning territorial claims in disputed waters, the sea to Turkey's south gets all the attention, though Turkish policy has been no less active across from Turkey's other, northern coast in recent years. There is a colonial fascination, if not subtle Islamophobia, to the fact that Turkish engagement toward the Middle East attracts such persistent if undiscerning obsession, whereas this integration northwards, which is no less significant, has taken place mostly outside of Western interest.
Despite the recent headlines, Turkey's relationship with Ukraine is, in fact, neither entirely new nor entirely military in nature. The Turkish government extended its support to Ukraine after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, primarily over cultural ties, with implicit Turkish backing for the peninsula's Turkic population of Crimean Tatars, which Turkey supports along with marginalized Turkic minorities in Balkan states, particularly Greece and Bulgaria. This outreach is not only tokenistic, and Russia has at times given way to Turkish entreaties on behalf of the Crimean Tatar leadership, as a means of balancing its relationship with Ankara—although that limited space has since closed along with the all-around coarsening of global ties with Russia.
Aside from this cultural kinship with Tatars put forcibly under Russian rule, Turkey's government has refused to recognize Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea, and strongly defended Ukraine's territorial integrity. Turkey has taken this same position on territorial integrity in other conflicts, most notably in Azerbaijan and Armenia's intermittent wars over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and in Israel's occupation of Palestine. Turkey's position reflects its longstanding concern that the West has an undeclared but relaxed attitude to militant Kurdish separatism at and within Turkey's borders. While Turkish support for the idea that borders be redrawn only by consensus and treaty is consistent across Nagorno-Karabakh, Cyprus, Palestine and Ukraine, Western interest in the principle is more selectively applied. The Israeli-occupied and -annexed Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza, and support for Armenia's occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh all underscore this Western double standard.
Defense ties between Turkey and Ukraine represent just one element of what was already a steadily progressing integration between Turkey and its neighbors around the Black Sea and Caucasus.
- Julian Sayarer
Alongside their diplomatic alignment, the partnership between Turkey and Ukraine is also deepening their industrial ties. While Turkey is a strong manufacturing economy with major industrial output and aspirations, it is yet, despite research programs and partnerships, to produce its own domestic-built engines. Turkey has imported South Korean Hyundai-Doosan engines to use in its armored vehicle manufacturing, and recently partnered with Ukraine's aircraft manufacturer Antonov to supply jet engines for the second generation of the Turkish Bayraktar drone, which aims to challenge the monopoly of fighter jets in air wars. Turkey has also become one of the largest sources of foreign investment to Ukraine, with its telecommunications, construction and renewable energy firms all now active across the Black Sea. Ukrainian trade flows continue to increase in the other direction, with strong tourism ties—plus now many Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Turkey—all furthering a climate of cultural exchange.
For all of Turkey's interest in integration around the Black Sea today, history also makes a persuasive case, given the gradual loss of Ottoman territory around the region from the late 19th century onward. These losses were often furthered by steady attacks from Tsarist Russia, which backed blends of Christian supremacy and Slavic ethnonationalism in the Balkans, and, where convenient, Armenian nationalists in eastern Anatolia. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, have often made this Ottoman history a feature of their approach to foreign policy, complete with the sense that an allied rather than hostile state immediately across the Black Sea would have been helpful at many points in late-Ottoman history. Were it not for the usually kneejerk hostility toward Turkish concerns and strategic aims, a West hoping for Russian containment might also recognize the utility of this Turkish goal.
What's more, given the now-obvious centrality of Turkey to NATO's Russia policy, and the equally clear likelihood that even an independent and autonomous Ukraine would still not be able to join the alliance easily or without further conflict with Moscow, Turkish ties with Ukraine could have the benefit of a subtler integration with the West. In this version of the Black Sea, Ukraine could abut the NATO alliance through a partnership with Turkey, while securing the multilateral commitments to its defense that Ukraine would likely seek as alternative to full NATO membership.
This kind of arrangement around the Black Sea could help buck the simple East-West binary of Russia versus NATO. Its constructive ambiguity could embed the ethos that soft, or overlapping, borders at the edge of alliances, unions and blocs might be superior, both morally but also judged by political results, to hard borders that produce greater antagonism and friction. If the world needs to chart ways to forge a more secure and less confrontational multipolar order—as it most certainly does—there are worse examples of how it might go about it.
A more integrated Black Sea could help stretch and in turn retire the hopelessly broad category of the "Middle East" itself—which is more an outdated conceptualization shaped by racialized Western tropes than a label with actual descriptive value.
- Julian Sayarer
Whatever happens with Russia's war, Turkey's partnership with Ukraine has been strengthened by events of the past few months, and could carry over to Turkey's other ties in the region. In the Caucasus, Turkey and Azerbaijan have already sealed their relationship under the mantra of "one nation, two states," based on strong strategic ties, a seemingly deep admiration from the Azeri government for Turkey, and the closeness of the Turkish and Azeri languages, with all the ease of integration this affords.
The changes underway in Turkey's outreach around the Black Sea and Caucasus region extend to neighboring Armenia, where Yerevan and Ankara are finally negotiating "without preconditions" for fully normalized ties. This development comes after Azerbaijan in 2020—with Turkish military support—reclaimed nearly all the territories it had lost to Armenian occupation around the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Not only does a closer relationship have the potential to integrate Armenia with essential economic development through Turkey, it can also improve Turkish-Armenian relations inside Turkey itself, helping both communities take greater ownership of their shared and painful common history, rather than having it shaped by diasporas and hostile foreign governments. Good ties between Turkey and Armenia are, moreover, not unprecedented; Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Armenian independence from the collapsing Soviet Union, and the two countries enjoyed a brief period of normal relations until 1993, when Turkey closed the border in response to Armenia's invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh the previous year.
Without seeking to instrumentalize the implicit moral good of restoring Turkish-Armenian relations, their improved ties can also lessen the immediate influence of Russia, by reducing its necessary role as a guarantor of Armenian security and broker with Azerbaijan. To facilitate this shift, Turkey would have to use its influence in Baku to improve Azeri-Armenian relations too, as well as finalize borders and curb any Azeri aims at removing Armenians who seek to stay in Nagorno-Karabakh.
A more integrated Black Sea along these lines could offer the inadvertent benefit of helping to stretch and in turn retire the hopelessly broad category of the "Middle East" itself—which is more an outdated conceptualization shaped by racialized Western tropes than a label with actual descriptive value. Existing Armenian-Iranian ties, and longstanding Israeli-Azeri relations, demonstrate that these regional overlaps occur anyway, but are detrimentally absent from overly simplistic Western perspectives. The scale of diplomatic and other activity now underway in the Black Sea presents a corrective to the overwhelming and often disproportionate focus on Turkey's southern neighbors—driven predominantly by monolithic ideas of deserts, Muslims, Arabs and war, rather than cultural exchange and integration. Understanding the totality of relations in all these neighboring states, beyond the conceptual confines of "the Middle East," might broaden horizons toward a better and broader view of what are in reality multiple and interconnected regions, including Europe.
For now, the very idea that Turkey has regional interests and might pursue them is, in many Western capitals, still ordinarily interpreted as an affront. Turkish support for Palestinians and the revolutions of the Arab Spring was always seen as a threat to Israel, Egypt and other Western client states in the Gulf, whereas in the Black Sea, there is for the time being a clear shared interest in supporting Ukraine and lessening Russian influence. If this temporary alignment can also create a lasting and badly needed change in perspective, it might bring benefits beyond those currently foreseen.