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LOOKING BEYOND NATO AND THE EU: THE TURKISH-UKRAINIAN STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP

Increasing disillusionment with the West combined with a shared geopolitical outlook is driving a growing partnership between Turkey and Ukraine. After decades of fruitless negotiations and empty promises, it is clear the EU has no intention of putting Ukraine on a clear path to full membership. The same is true of NATO’s approach to the country. Disillusionment in Ukraine with European structures is not yet as strong as it is in Turkey, but it will undoubtedly continue to grow. Why are Ukrainians angry? They feel they were deceived into giving away their nuclear weapons for a worthless piece of paper – the so-called Budapest Memorandum – and that there is a lack of appreciation for their investments in defending Europe’s eastern flank from…

Taras Kuzio

July 8, 2021

RUSI

 

Increasing disillusionment with the West combined with a shared geopolitical outlook is driving a growing partnership between Turkey and Ukraine.

After decades of fruitless negotiations and empty promises, it is clear the EU has no intention of putting Ukraine on a clear path to full membership. The same is true of NATO’s approach to the country. Disillusionment in Ukraine with European structures is not yet as strong as it is in Turkey, but it will undoubtedly continue to grow.

Why are Ukrainians angry? They feel they were deceived into giving away their nuclear weapons for a worthless piece of paper – the so-called Budapest Memorandum – and that there is a lack of appreciation for their investments in defending Europe’s eastern flank from Russian military aggression. But there may be life yet for Ukraine beyond Russia/Eurasia and the EU/NATO, which could involve the appearance of a ‘Ukrainian Erdogan’ – a leader who, like the Turkish president, will more forcefully articulate an independent Ukrainian foreign policy beyond these two blocs.

Empty Promises

NATO has been making empty promises to Ukraine and Georgia since 2008 that they will be invited into a Membership Action Plan (MAP), the preparatory – but not automatic – step towards joining the military organisation. Disillusionment with NATO’s promises is already evident in Georgia, and is beginning to emerge in Ukraine. Turkey is a strong advocate of both countries’ aspirations to join NATO, which would contribute to strengthening its own national security and that of NATO’s eastern and south-eastern flanks.

The EU has adopted a far more stringent and at the same time unclear approach to defining who is part of the ‘European’ club. Turkey and Ukraine are in the same boat in the sense that the EU is unable to see them as fully-fledged European countries. And the problem is far deeper than mere suspicions about a Muslim country such as Turkey, or a more general Western ‘Orientalism’ towards countries considered to be on the fringes of Europe.

Ukrainians have always had doubts about Germany’s reliability when it comes to dealing with Russia. A decade ago, this was seen in a revealing comment by the then presidential national security adviser Volodymyr Horbulin, who said, ‘there are two Russian embassies in Kyiv; only one speaks German’. Horbulin was echoing the widespread view of Ukrainian policymakers that Germany and Russia had close national interests.

The imminent completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is deepening existing Ukrainian mistrust of Germany, as it is seen in Ukraine as tantamount to Germany unilaterally breaking EU sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and ongoing military aggression against Ukraine. Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau said the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline creates a security deficit on NATO’s eastern flank, and Germans must take responsibility for this security deficit.

Beyond that, France and Germany have always had particular difficulty in seeing Ukraine as part of Europe. As the two countries’ recent initiative to increase dialogue with Russia showed, they have always sought to cosy up to Russia irrespective of its hostile actions against its neighbours and the West.

Such mistreatment is one important reason why Turkey and Ukraine are developing a strategic partnership ‘that could challenge Russia’s standing in the Black Sea region’, as Metin Gurcan, a former Turkish military adviser, wrote in a highly detailed article for Al-Monitor. ‘Technological cooperation between the two sides has dramatically increased over the past two years, laying the ground for a techno-scientific alliance with far-reaching implications for the geopolitical balance of power in the Black Sea basin’, he added.

Growing Turkish-Ukrainian Cooperation

Ukraine is ranked second worldwide for projects undertaken by Turkish construction companies, and Turkish Airlines is the top carrier in Ukraine. Turkey and Ukraine currently have 30 joint projects to produce military equipment. Since March, Turkish and Ukrainian foreign and defence ministers have held regular meetings in a 2+2 format. A major free trade agreement will be signed in the coming months.

Turkey and Ukraine have similar geopolitical views of their neighbourhoods. Turkey is a strong supporter of the territorial integrity of states and is suspicious of countries supporting separatism. Turkey has therefore condemned the annexation of Crimea and supported the restoration of Azerbaijani territorial integrity, as witnessed in the 2020 Second Karabakh War. Turkey is supporting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Crimean Platform initiative to highlight internationally Russia’s continued illegal occupation.

Azerbaijan, Armenia and Similarities with Ukraine

Turkey and Ukraine have identical interests in Azerbaijan. Both countries supported Azerbaijan’s right to liberate its sovereign territory in Karabakh and seven surrounding districts, which had been occupied by Armenia for nearly three decades. Turkey and Ukraine support the demarcation and delimitation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border based on the republican ‘frontiers’ which existed under the Soviet Union.

Although a member of the OSCE Minsk group that seeks to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, France has always been biased in support of Armenia. At the end of 2020, both houses of the French parliament voted to recognise the ‘independence’ of Karabakh. It is therefore not surprising that Kyiv is suspicious of France’s supposed support for Ukrainian territorial integrity

in the Trilateral Minsk Group, given that it backs separatism in Azerbaijan. France should decide which it supports in international affairs – separatism or the territorial integrity of states?

Turkey and Azerbaijan support the withdrawal of Armenian military forces and Armenian proxy forces from northern Karabakh. With Russia turning a blind eye, Armenian forces and equipment continue to flow between Armenia and northern Karabakh. Article 4 of the November 2020 ceasefire agreement states, ‘the peace-making forces of the Russian Federation shall be deployed concurrently with the withdrawal of the Armenian troops’.

In eastern Ukraine, an analogous situation exists where Russia is supplying its proxies with military equipment and its officers have command and control over them. Russia incredulously denies that any of its security forces are in eastern Ukraine, while Armenia denies its security forces are in Karabakh.

Russia is facilitating the continued re-supply of military equipment and personnel from Armenia to its proxy forces in northern Karabakh by civilian trucks travelling through the Russian-monitored ‘Lachin Corridor’. On 1 March at the UN, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov warned that ‘according to credible information available to the Azerbaijani side, which is also validated by the reports of independent mass media sources, members of the Armed Forces of Armenia, wearing civilian attire, are transferred to the territory of Azerbaijan through the “Lachin Corridor” in civilian trucks, including disguised inside construction cargo, in an attempt to escape the control procedures of the Russian peacekeeping contingent’.

For the last seven years, Russia has been using a similar strategy of ‘humanitarian’ convoys to illegally supply its proxies in eastern Ukraine. Convoys of trucks illegally cross into Ukraine at night using dirt tracks, rather than paved roads, and deliver military equipment, personnel and mercenaries to the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.

A Lasting Relationship

As countries considered by the EU to be on the fringes of Europe, Turkey and Ukraine will only be offered integration and ‘enlargement-lite’ – but never membership. With respect to NATO, Turkey is a long-standing member of the Alliance, while Ukraine has been unsuccessfully seeking to join for nearly two decades. Disillusionment in Ukraine regarding NATO’s deception over inviting the country into a MAP is not yet as deep as in Georgia, but this will continue to grow. The last US president to strongly support Georgia and Ukraine’s accession to NATO – George W Bush – left office 13 years ago.

The future is always uncertain. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Turkish-Ukrainian strategic partnership will continue to expand – particularly in the military field – at the same time as disillusionment manifests itself in Ukraine, much as it has before in Turkey.

Taras Kuzio is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Ukraine.