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Turkey and Ukraine. The end of the love affair?

The Turkish-Russian rapprochement will have the biggest impact on the Black Sea region. Most probably, Turkey as the weaker actor will return to politics of avoiding open geopolitical confrontation with Russia in the area of key importance for the Kremlin. As a result, the main consequence of the improvement in Turkish-Russian relations will be a weakened cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine in the sphere of security. Paradoxically, at the same time, an intensification of economic cooperation between the two countries might follow.

September 16, 2016 - Adam Balcer - Articles and Commentary

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At the end of November 2015, a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian warplane, after it violated Turkey’s airspace during a combat mission in Syria. This led to a serious deterioration of relations between Moscow and Ankara. For a couple of months Turkey was the main advocate of the increased presence of NATO in the Black Sea basin and shifted towards closer cooperation with Ukraine. A few meetings at the highest level followed, together with joint military maneuvers and signing of important defence agreements, among others.

The Turkish-Ukrainian friendship, however, turned out to be a short-lived affair. As a result of the economic (including the embargo and sanctions), military and geopolitical pressure, including playing the Kurdish card by Russia, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wrote a letter to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at the end of June, in which he expressed regrets over the death of Russian pilots. Two weeks later, Turkey faced a failed coup d’etat. The punitive measures, in line with the rule of collective responsibility, began the period of witch hunt in Turkey. Russia’s President was the first one to call Erdoğan to offer his support and, unlike the West, he fully endorsed the actions taken against the coup organisers.

In effect, Russia was the first country visited by Erdoğan after the failed putsch. However, the rapprochement with Moscow does not mean cutting ties with the West and the formation of a new Iran-Russia-Turkey alliance as was suggested by some commentators. Through improving relations with Russia, Erdoğan is trying to leverage his position against the West. Nevertheless, from Turkey’s perspective, Russia and Iran do not constitute a real alternative for the country’s economic and security relations with the European Union and the United States, even though these have been uneasy and deteriorated over the past few years.    

At the same time, Ankara is significantly weaker than Moscow and their rapprochement will have to involve a certain change in Turkey’s foreign policy approach. The biggest shift can be expected in the Black Sea area, which has a crucial importance for Russia. For Turkey, it will mean the return to politics from before the downing of Russian jet, namely the politics of avoiding open geopolitical confrontation with Russia in this region. As a result, the change will most likely affect the relations between Turkey and Ukraine and we can expect a serious decrease in military cooperation between the two countries.

At the same time, however, the economy may prove to be an important factor in tightening the Turkish-Ukrainian relationship. Turkey’s foreign policy has a clear geo-economic focus, while the economic relations between Turkey and Ukraine are already quite developed. Clearly, Ukraine has little chances of becoming as important an economic partner of Turkey as Russia, however, it could still gain a relatively high position on Turkey’s economic agenda. Importantly, Ukraine is the biggest economy in the neighbourhood in which Turkey has a high economic stake.

According to International Monetary Fund’s projections, in years 2017-2021 Ukraine will grow in an average yearly pace of around 3.5 per cent while Russia will slightly exceed one per cent. Due to Russian sanctions, Turkish export to Russia significantly decreased in 2016, while export to Ukraine markedly increased (by almost 150 per cent according to Ukrainian statistical office). In effect, in 2016 (January to July) Turkish exports to Ukraine equalled almost 80 per cent of Turkey’s exports to Russia, with Russia’s economy (GDP PPP) is over ten times larger than Ukraine’s.

Ukrainian exports to Turkey are six times lower than Russia’s, which means that in these aspects as well they are not proportional to the size of the economy. The improvement of political relations between Turkey and Russia may result in deepening the difference in Turkish exports to both countries in favour of Russia, though Russia’s economic stagnation and a possible Ukraine’s dynamic development will likely slow down the process. Moreover, Turkey and Ukraine are advancing in the negotiations of free trade agreement; its signing can create another impulse for deepening trade ties between the two countries.

The downing of the Russian jet has also caused a dramatic decrease in the number of tourists visiting Turkey in 2016 (a 90 per cent fall during the January – July period). At the same time, a high increase – by more than a half – of Ukrainian tourists took place; according to statistics in this period there was over two and a half times more Ukrainians than Russians visiting Turkey. Such a high increase was a unique phenomenon, since at the time, Turkey faced an increase in the number of terrorist attacks, as a result of which the total number of foreign tourists visiting the country has decreased. It can be argued that even without the crisis in Turkish-Russian relations, the number of Russian tourists would drop also because of the recession in Russia – similarly as the number of tourists from Belarus and Kazakhstan. In the coming months the number of Russian tourists in Turkey will most likely increase, although the pace will depend on Russia’s economic situation and the security conditions in Turkey.

Turkey’s economic relationship with Ukraine will be influenced also by the position of Turkish business on the Ukrainian market. Turkey is one of the most important trade partners of Ukraine. In the first half of 2016, the country was on the fifth place of Ukraine’s trade partners with the stake of almost five per cent. After the Revolution of Dignity, Turkish investment in Ukraine has increased especially in the telecommunications sector, where the key position is held by Turkcell. Ukraine is also an important market for Turkish construction companies. They currently hold the eighth place in the world, right after Italy, in terms of the number of completed foreign contracts a year (over five per cent stake in the global market). The accumulated value of construction investments completed by Turkey in Ukraine adds up to over five billion USD. It gives Ukraine the position of the most important market in Europe (excluding Russia) for Turkish construction sector. In the coming years, the latter can further benefit from Ukraine’s infrastructural development, crucial for the country’s economic prosperity.

In sum, in the coming years Ukraine certainly cannot count on Turkey as a partner in the area of hard security. At the same time, the development of economic cooperation with Turkey is quite possible and can be an important factor conducive of strengthening Ukraine’s soft security.  

Adam Balcer is Project Manager Eurasia at WiseEuropa, a Polish private think thank. He also works as a National Researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and a lecturer at the Centre of East European Studies (SEW), University of Warsaw.

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