Turkey Walks a Tightrope on Ukraine

Four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced his country would limit the transit of warships, including Russia’s, through the Turkish Straits in accordance with the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates civilian and military transit to the Black Sea. Minutes later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked Cavusoglu for Ankara’s “continued implementation” of the pact. The Financial Times echoed many other Western observers when it called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision “a striking move from a leader who has fostered close ties with [Vladimir] Putin,” and asked whether this represented “a recalibration of Turkey’s ties with the west.”

Curiously, Russia also welcomed the Turkish action. Two days after Ankara invoked the convention, Alexei Yerkhov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, expressed Moscow’s “appreciation” of Turkey’s “protection” of and “compliance” with it. The Kremlin does not seem to think that Ankara’s move was hostile: On March 7, Moscow not only excluded Turkey from its list of 48 states that “commit unfriendly actions against Russia,” but also agreed to have Turkey host a meeting—scheduled for Thursday—between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. The planned meeting in the Turkish resort city Antalya suggests the Kremlin still sees Turkey as a neutral party to facilitate Russian negotiations with Kyiv.

If Ankara’s implementation of the Montreux Convention was such a blow to Russia, as some Western observers argue, why did the Kremlin appear unbothered by it? The answer is that Erdoğan implemented the 1936 pact in a manner that closes the straits to almost all NATO ships for the duration of the war, a boon to Russia. The convention requires Turkey to restrict only the passage of warships that belong to belligerents, so Erdoğan effectively did Putin a favor. Yet the Biden administration is so eager to keep Erdoğan on its side that it praises half-measures. Therein lies the effectiveness of the Turkish president’s balancing act between Russia and NATO in the Ukraine war. Turkey is a NATO member, but under Erdoğan’s 20-year rule, the country has deepened energy, trade, and defense partnerships with Russia. Rather than insist that Turkey abide by NATO principles, the Biden administration has rewarded its infidelity.

The historian Howard Eissenstat explained Ankara’s latest move as part of its strategy of “noisy diplomacy,” which involves “engag[ing] in steps that underline [Turkey’s] importance while minimizing its risk.” He added, “In this crisis, Turkey has attempted to play the role of important international participant, while doing as little as possible to antagonize either NATO or Russia.”

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