Thursday, December 13, 2018

Turkey Brief: November 27 - December 12, 2018

Turkey Brief is a biweekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Turkish government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them.

Reporting Period: November 27 - December 12, 2018

Authors: Elizabeth Teoman with Paul Becker and Kieran Hatton

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unlikely to meaningfully challenge Russia’s increasing aggression in the Black Sea despite its harm to the interests of both Turkey and NATO. He is instead remaining effectively neutral in order to preserve a cooperative relationship with the Kremlin that provides him economic benefits and freedom of action in Syria. Erdogan’s effective neutrality in the Black Sea is a boon to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is currently prepared to launch a renewed ground offensive against Ukraine.

Turkey is unlikely meaningfully to contest Russia’s recent aggression in the Black Sea. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been muted in response to Russia’s illegal attack against the Ukrainian Navy in the Kerch Strait on November 25. Russia’s aggression is a threat to the sovereign rights of Turkey in the Black Sea. Erdogan has nonetheless prioritized high-level diplomatic engagement over a military response. He urged de-escalation in separate phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and U.S. President Donald Trump on November 28. He later attempted but failed to mediate the release of the Ukrainians detained by the Kremlin.[1] Erdogan also ordered small-scale military exercises to reassure his population. The Turkish Navy began a limited three-day naval drill in the Black Sea on December 11.[2] It also will hold recurring small-scale exercises in the Dardanelles Strait throughout December 2018. These maneuvers are too limited in scope and scale to deter Russia.

Erdogan is likely unwilling to jeopardize his deepening bilateral relationship with the Kremlin by counter-escalating in the Black Sea. Turkey and Russia are jointly constructing the TurkStream natural gas Pipeline under the Black Sea. TurkStream grants greater leverage to Erdogan as a key energy transit hub to Europe while diversifying the export options available to Putin. Turkey also has a vested economic interest in the continued flow of commercial shipping to Ukraine and Russia via the Kerch Strait. Turkey remains heavily dependent on trade and tourism from Russia. Turkey similarly relies upon Russia to protect its freedom of action against the Syrian Kurdish YPG in Syria as well as to uphold a delicate demilitarized zone in al Qaeda-dominated Idlib Province. Erdogan may also doubt that NATO will fully support him in a confrontation with Russia in the Black Sea. His effective neutrality in the latest crisis is a boon for Putin, who is currently prepared to launch a renewed ground offensive against Ukraine.

Erdogan nonetheless hopes to retain a growing relationship with Ukraine despite his unwillingness to confront Russia over the Kerch Strait. Erdogan has forged closer economic, diplomatic, and defense ties with Ukraine since 2014. He has repeatedly reaffirmed support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.[3] Erdogan seeks to expand his indigenous defense industry through greater technology exchange with Ukraine. He also likely supported the recent decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to grant autonomy to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church on October 11. The Russian Orthodox Church in response severed ties with Constantinople. He has also preserved a historic cultural patronage of Ukraine’s Turkic Crimean Tatars - a population resistant to Russia’s illegal occupation of the Crimean Peninsula. Erdogan actively intervened to secure the release of two leading Crimean Tatars from Russia in October 2017. His government also plans to construct a Crimean Tatar Cultural Center in Kiev by 2019. Erdogan will likely sustain these lines of effort in order to counterbalance against Russia in the Black Sea.

[1] [“Response from Peskov to Erdogan: We Are Grateful But There Is No Need,”] Sputnik, November 29, 2018, https://tr(.)
[2] [“Safety of Navigation,”] Turkish Naval Forces Office of Navigation, Hydrography, and Oceanography, December 10, 2018, http://www(.)
[3] [“Visit of Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu in Milan to Attend OSCE 25th Council of Ministers Meeting, 6-7 December 2018,”] Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 7, 2018, http://www(.)