Does Turkey Need a Weak or Strong Ukraine?

by Huseyin Oylupinar (PhD)

Expert, Foreign Policy Institute
Former Research Program Coordinator at CMES, Harvard University

 

Finding a plausible answer is essential as tensions rise between Russia on the one side, and Ukraine and the US on the other, while Turkey caught in between. I argue that stronger Ukraine is critical for protection and continuation of Turkish sphere of influence in the Black Sea region. Here Turkish people’s peaceful existence and well-being is at stake.

Turkey is cornered in between the US and Russia. While Turkey considers the Black Sea as a sea of Russia and Turkey, standing against the US side by side with Russia leaves Turkey without a leverage against rising Russian power. Taking a position favorable to the US interests will cause Russian enmity against Turkey. In either case, Turkey and Turkish people are and will be on the losing side.

Turkey is losing because its interests in the Black Sea basin are challenged by Russian territorial expansionism, as in the case of Crimea, and by increasing Russia’s sphere of influence through creation of conflict zones, as in the case of Ukraine’s Donbas (Donetsk+Luhansk oblasts), and also by assuring continuation of frozen conflicts such as in the case of Moldova’s Transnistria and Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Similarly, the US military access to the Black Sea through Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania for balancing Russia is effectively running risks of overriding Turkish interests in the region. While all that being the case, Ukraine could play a significant role by being a stronger actor in the region. However, Ukraine’s critical role in the regional balance was ignored by Turkey before 2014, and that is still the case which should be changed.

In pre-2014, Turkey could not comprehend and create tools to support Ukraine politically and military-wise for assuring strong Ukraine which Russia would hesitate to destabilize. Thus, the Russian infiltration paralyzed the Ukrainian state apparatus and resulted in Russia dismembering Ukraine. The disabled Ukrainian state and its incapacitated army caused dramatically increased Russian control in the Black Sea and allowed the US to rise its interest in Ukraine. This called the US to expand its presence in the Black Sea basin for supporting Ukraine. All of the foregoing could have been avoided and Turkey would not find itself cornered if it had had understood the extend of Russian control within the Ukrainian state structures in pre-2014. More powerful Ukraine could have stop such infiltration into state cadres and the means to deter external and internal threats. This could contribute to regional power balance in such a way not to cause external powers having the grounds to move into the region. Ukraine, which would be gradually recognized with Turkish initiative as the third influence center in the Black Sea, would readjust power balances.

Recent rise of tensions may pave the way for Ukraine to gain the status of a third Black Sea power. Ground for this is available at present: Ukrainian government is relatively better organized to secure its sovereign control; its military is getting stronger and not influenced by a rival foreign power as it was in pre-2014. Moreover, the Ukrainian society is changed for the better: the occupation of Crimea and the war in Donbas moved the society to become a political nation for the first time in history, empowering the people’s desire to live together. All of the forgoing encourages Ukrainian government to take much stronger stance to reclaim lost Ukrainian lands in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

Now it is Turkey’s turn to catch the tide which it missed before 2014. Turkey’s political actions should be tailored to allow Ukraine to become a recognized actor in the regional political scene, strong to such a degree that external western balancing in the Black Sea would not be needed. This can be achieved by Turkey sharing with Ukraine its own experience in effective governance. Turkey also has to support Ukrainian army by improving its standards and maximizing military technology transfer. To support Ukrainian economy, Turkey needs to make direct investments into Ukrainian regions. By helping Ukraine getting stronger, the US military interest will be kept at bay by not causing them to search for ways to enter into the Black Sea and, in the meantime, discourage Russia from biting pieces out of Ukraine. In turn, this will keep Turkish area of influence in the Black Sea secured and solid.

Reformulating General Hastings L. Ismay, the first NATO Secretary General, in the case of the Black Sea, Turkey needs to keep Americans out, Ukrainians in and Russians down.