Ukraine crisis: Why Turkey is silent as NATO operations ramp up

Turkey has the potential to wield influence with Russia as a member state of NATO, but why has it largely remained silent on the crisis in Ukraine as the alliance ramps up its military operations in eastern Europe?

Turkey a NATO member state, but also has close economic relations with Russia

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara on Tuesday. Experts say Turkey is keeping its distance from the Ukraine crisis due to its economic relationship with Russia. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

NATO is hunkering down in central and eastern Europe for its mission to reassure allies, just as Ukraine sees a major escalation this week of the rebellion when forces backing Russia opened fire on police in the east.

The violence prompted the ever-vigilant U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to call the troops to arms, saying these events are a "wake-up call" to NATO allies — because the West believes Russia is fomenting the unrest and stirring up the rebels in Ukraine.

But one ally is curiously keeping its distance — Turkey, a NATO member state since 1952 and Russia's neighbour across the Black Sea with the potential to wield much influence with Moscow.

In fact, Turkey recently agreed to increase its energy supply from Russia, while other countries are talking about scaling back.

Turkey bound by domestic issues

To be fair, Turkey has echoed the prevailing Western sentiment, calling for a diplomatic solution to the crisis and for Ukraine's territorial integrity to be respected — but that was before the Crimean referendum, which directly impacted the Tatar minority (ethnically related to the Turks).

The indigenous Tatars, which make up 12 per cent of the population in Crimea, have a history of strained relations with ethnic Russians in the region. They were expelled from Crimea by Joseph Stalin after the Second World War and only began to return in the 1980s. 

They fiercely opposed the annexation of Crimea, fearing a return of Russian rule. The Tatars boycotted the referendum, which ultimately resulted in the Crimean peninsula being parcelled off to Moscow.

Since then, Turkey has kept tight-lipped, largely due to domestic reasons, according to experts.

"We’ve seen the Turkish government be very quiet on this because Russia's a very important trade partner,” said Bessma Momani, an associate professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. 

I think people are underestimating the importance of the NATO alliance.-  David Carment, fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute

Russia is Turkey's main import source —about $26 billion worth in 2012, with natural gas alone accounting for about $12 billion of the total. Russia also supplies nearly 60 per cent of Turkey's energy demand. Last week, Turkey agreed to bring in more Russian gas through its Blue Stream pipeline, which enters via the Black Sea. 

Turkey, already fraught with domestic woes, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's​ failed Twitter ban to silence a corruption scandal that spawned a rash of violent protests, has enough on its plate, with the presidential election looming in August. Any disruption of energy supplies or cost at the behest of the West could have serious political implications.

“They basically don’t want to rock the boat that way,” Momani said. 

'Great potential to be a leader,' expert says

David Carment, a fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, agreed that Turkey benefits from Russian economic prosperity and thus would be more cautious than other countries. 

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      Carment added that Turkish and Russian relations have a complex history, and the two countries are linked ethnically, with people from Turkey living across Russia. Thus, Turkey has a bigger strategy beyond the Tatar community, which is why it didn't look solely at the Crimean situation to react.

      "It has great potential to be a leader," he said, even if Ankara's "not stepping up in the way we expected them to."

      For one, Turkey commands a very powerful military, which has the ability to block the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. There has already been some tension between the nations in recent weeks over U.S. warships in the sea.

      As well, Turkey still has a strong military commitment to the West, Carment said.

      "I think people are underestimating the importance of the NATO alliance," he said. 

      Principle of collective security doesn't apply

      It's not a question of ambivalence, because if the territorial integrity of any member state were to be threatened, Ankara would get involved, Carment said 

      As it happens, central and eastern Europe region is seeing an increased NATO presence, with troops and equipment deployed from the U.S. and Britain — and now Canada — taking formation in the Baltic states and participating in military exercises in preparation for the chance that the Russian bear decides to make a swipe. 

      However, the likelihood of Russia entering a NATO state, he added, is slim to none, even as it conducts military drills on its western border.

      Despite NATO's preparations, Momani said, Turkey will not be compelled to get involved in the Ukrainian conflict because the principle of collective security doesn't apply. Ukraine is not a NATO member state.

      So don't count on Turkey to resolve the Ukrainian crisis. 

      At least it won't, while the U.S., and in some ways Canada, is dominating the rhetoric and pushing Turkey and other regional players to the margins.

      America just needs to "butt out," Carment said, so that Turkey could fix the problem and engage Russia in the solution.

      "Let the regional players resolve it."


      • An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Tatars were allowed to return to the Crimean peninsula in the 1960s. In fact, they began returning in the 1980s, as the Soviet Union collapsed.
        May 01, 2014 3:18 PM ET

      With files from Reuters