Neither friends nor foes: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Sergey Guneev / Sputnik

When thousands of Russian troops packed up their kit and headed back to base late April – ending weeks of speculation that they might be about to invade Eastern Ukraine – there was both relief and caution around the region.

“Ukraine is always vigilant,” a mistrustful Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted on April 21, “yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence and de-escalate the situation.”

Relief was perhaps a more dominant emotion, then, in the capital of another Black Sea nation – Turkey.

During the current conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern Donbas region, Ankara has firmly supported Kiev.

Turkey also refuses to recognize Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and has championed the rights of the Tatars – the ethnic Turkic inhabitants of that Black Sea peninsula.

Indeed, on April 10 – at the start of the most recent Russian military build-up – Zelensky visited Ankara, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey strongly defended “Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky at a High Level Strategic Council Session at Huber Mansion in Istanbul, Turkey, on April 10, 2021. Photo: AFP/Turkish Presidency/Murat Cetinm/Anadolu Agency

The two leaders also agreed to continue cooperation in defense, with Ukraine a buyer of Turkey’s highly effective combat drones.

At the same time, as a member of NATO, Turkey is also part of an Atlantic alliance that has been taking a more assertive approach towards Moscow, particularly over Ukraine, since President Joe Biden took office.

Turkey is also competing with Russia for influence around the Black Sea region and the Caucasus, where Turkey’s standing was recently boosted by the victory of its close ally, Azerbaijan, over traditional Russian ally, Armenia, in the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh.

Yet, Turkey also needs good relations with Russia on a range of other regional front lines. In both Syria and Libya a precarious peace holds between the two countries, which are on opposite sides of bitter local conflicts.

For many years, Russia has also supplied Turkey with much of its natural gas, sent via Black Sea pipelines. Both countries also share a desire to change the regional and global status quo, placing them against its Western and Arab defenders.

“Turkey very much fits with Moscow’s desire to see a multipolar world order with less US influence,” John Hardie, research manager at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, told Asia Times.

Balancing these competing interests – while advancing its own – is thus a difficult and complex high-stakes business for Turkey.

Yet, it is also one with a very long pedigree.

“It’s a story that goes all the way back to Czarist Russia,” Onur Isci, assistant professor of international relations at Ankara’s Bilkent University, told Asia Times.

In this, while both Turkey and Russia have often found themselves on opposite sides, they are also nowadays united in a shared belief: “In any fight between them,” says Isci, “anybody but them wins.”

A man holds a placard that reads ‘Putin go home’ during a memorial ceremony in Independence Square in Kiev on May 18, 2019, in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the deportation of the indigenous population of the Crimea by the Soviet Union. Crimea’s Tatars commemorated 75 years since their deportation by Soviet dictator Stalin in 1944. Photo: AFP/Genya Savilov

Historical ties

Turkey’s presence on the northern shores of the Black Sea goes back centuries.

Until it was annexed by the rival Russian Empire in 1783, the Crimea and much of the surrounding territory were affiliated with the Ottoman Empire.

Its Tatar inhabitants were largely Turkic descendants of the Golden Horde, which had swept across Asia back in the 15th century.

In Soviet times, those Crimean Tatars were mostly deported on Stalin’s orders to other parts of the then-USSR. When that collapsed, many returned to their family homes in Crimea, which then became part of newly-independent Ukraine.

By then, a majority of the existing population of Crimea was ethnic Russian, however – a factor which Russian President Vladimir Putin seized on to justify another Russian invasion of the peninsula, back in 2014.

That was strongly opposed by Erdogan, with Crimean Tatars in Turkey lobbying hard for Ankara to stand up for their rights.

The Turkish leader has responded, too, condemning the Russian move and sending aid to Tatars now living in Ukraine, where many fled following the Russian invasion.

At the same time, Turkey’s relations with Ukraine have grown, with about US$5 billion in bilateral trade in 2020, and Turkish investment in Ukraine up 30% since 2014.

Zelensky’s visit to Ankara was also to attend the 9th meeting of the Turkey-Ukraine High Level Strategic Cooperation Council. That discussed doubling trade in the next 10 years, a stalled free trade agreement and efforts to increase tourism.

That sector, in particular, may need some help, too.

No sooner had Erdogan spoken out in support of Ukraine than Russia responded by slapping a ban on tourist flights to Turkey.

“Russia didn’t take too kindly to Erdogan appearing on stage with Zelensky,” says Hardie. “The next Turkish statement on Ukraine was a lot more accommodating to Russia.”

Indeed, Erdogan then spoke of Turkey’s desire “to ensure the Black Sea remains a sea of peace and cooperation.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP/Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik

Shifting sands

That shift in tone showed how delicate Turkey’s balancing act is. Yet, the equation between Russia and Turkey is not what it once was.

Turkey has become much less dependent on Russian natural gas imports in recent years, shifting supply to other countries, such as Azerbaijan.

Turkey’s economic growth and the development of an indigenous defense industry have also given it more substance as it pursues a more forward foreign and security policy under Erdogan.

“Turkish assertiveness is something Russia has to take note of,” says Hardie. “It will have to contend with this a lot more going forward.”

Indeed, while “Turkey does not have the luxury to sever any ties,” says Isci, it may be that the recent crisis shows that beneath the Black Sea’s “diaphanous curtain” – as Russian poet Alexander Pushkin once described it – a delicate balance may now be shifting.