KYIV, Ukraine—A teenager was recently panhandling by the side of the road in Borodyanka, a commuter town outside the Ukrainian capital, just a few blocks from the charred apartment buildings destroyed by Russian forces in the early stages of their invasion one year ago. “We’re collecting for a people’s Bayraktar” read his banner, and it depicted the Turkish-made armored drone, which was key to the Ukrainian military’s initial resistance. Thanks in part to those same Turkish drones, one year later, the Russians are gone—at least from this part of Ukraine.
Turkey, for its part, is now voting; last weekend, across the Black Sea, Turks went to the polls in presidential and parliamentary elections widely described as the last chance to save the country’s democracy. The incumbent strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan narrowly beat his challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu, though neither reached the 50 percent threshold required to avoid a runoff vote to be held on May 28.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Ukrainian society had hardly noticed. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was away in Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom this week to secure further support for the country’s self-defense; a counteroffensive against Russian forces is awaited with trepidation. Ukraine’s ambivalence about Turkey’s election speaks volumes about its relationship with Turkey, a country whose support is appreciated but is hardly regarded as an explicit or essential cheerleader for Ukraine’s cause compared with the Baltic States, Poland, or the United States.
Turkey’s support is acknowledged in Ukraine. On the one hand, Turkey has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the rights of the Crimean Tatars—the indigenous community of the peninsula that Russia illegally annexed in 2014, who have religious and cultural ties to Turkey. As a report released by the Council of Europe last month details, the Tatars continue to face widespread discrimination under Russian rule. Turkey provided Bayraktars and played a key role negotiating a deal—which nearly expired last week—that has allowed Ukraine to export some of its grain.
But there are other policies that do not go down so well in Kyiv; Ankara has obstructed Finland and Sweden’s admission to NATO and dragged its heels on implementing EU and U.S. sanctions on Russia. Turkey continues to buy more than 40 percent of its gas from Moscow; its new Akkuyu nuclear power plant was constructed by Russia’s state nuclear energy company. Turkey has welcomed Russian business with open arms; one recent study by a Turkish think tank states that Russians established 670 percent more firms in Turkey in 2022 than they did the previous year.
Turkey’s teetering economy and rampant inflation, rather than foreign policy, took center stage in Sunday’s election. So did the erosion of checks and balances that has come to characterize domestic policy under Erdogan, with Kilicaroglu and his allies in the “Table of Six” coalition vowing to bring more transparency and accountability to Turkish politics and to release political prisoners.
The economy, above anything else, also looms large in Ukrainian analysts’ willingness to tolerate some of the less popular steps Turkey’s leadership has made in regard to Russia. “For Ukrainians, Turkey is a strategic partner which can help on many important issues, but it’s also a strategic partner for Russia. What it isn’t is a clear ally,” said the Crimean Tatar journalist Osman Pashayev. “Turkey’s departure from democracy is known in Ukraine, but Erdogan has tried hard to equally distance himself from Moscow and Kyiv. Ukraine will work closely with any Turkish government, however democratic or nondemocratic,” he continued.
Whether this month sees a victory by Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu, there will be no “tectonic shifts” on Ukraine, wrote the Kyiv-based analyst Iliya Kusa; while Kilicdaroglu may return to “Euro-Atlantic optimism” and avoid more extravagant anti-Western rhetoric, both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu will continue selling Kyiv arms and trading with Moscow.
Given Kilicdaroglu’s hopes for a reset with the EU and United States, Ukrainian observers hope for a slight change in Turkey’s adherence to the sanctions regime under a change of leadership. “I think there will be more attempts to tackle the issue of Turkey being a hub for bypassing European sanctions, but not that Turkey will join such sanctions itself given the current state of the Turkish economy,” explained Yevgeniya Gaber, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Ukrainian diplomat in Turkey. “That means tackling the export of goods, especially dual-use goods of non-Turkish origin, to Russia via Turkey.” It would be a signal that Turkey is playing ball, but one the country could better afford.
Other observers in Kyiv are even more sanguine about Turkey’s approach to sanctions. “Of course we’d like Turkey to implement sanctions, but what it has already done has been positive for us, such as the early decision to prevent additional Russian warships entering the Black Sea. Turkey’s position toward Ukraine has been clear, principled and pro-Ukrainian,” said Eskender Bariev, the director of the Kyiv-based Crimean Tatar Resource Centre, suggesting that this position is even more impressive in light of the country’s economic woes and economic ties to Russia.
Bariev attributes some of Turkey’s tangible successes in wartime diplomacy to Erdogan’s personal involvement in negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin—an image Erdogan is keen to burnish. These include Russia’s release of the Ukrainian soldiers captured at Azovstal in the besieged city of Mariupol. Here too, Ukrainian observers see changes on the cards: “If the opposition pursue their road map and bring back a parliamentary system and autonomous institutions and everything no longer depends on the mood and will of one person, then the political system will be very different indeed,” Pashayev said.
What Does Turkey’s Election Mean for the World?
Erdogan’s strong first-round showing could mean five more years of headaches for Washington and NATO.
The opposition’s commitment to transparency, accountability, and the greater institutionalization of foreign relations could radically change what Gaber called this “strong leadership diplomacy.” “Although Ukraine is grateful for Turkey’s efforts in everything, such an approach is not what brings Turkey closer to EU or NATO partners. The role of the personality of the president in such relations will be reconsidered,” she predicted.
And what if the personality of another president is not to Moscow’s liking? Erdogan at least is a known quality to Moscow. What will become of the personal ties if he loses? In this case, Gaber said, Russia will simply have to deal with Kilicdaroglu. “Although Russia would prefer Erdogan’s candidacy, it still needs Turkey to sell gas; it needs Turkey as a window to Europe and the civilized world.”
Turkey is also a fertile ground for pro-Russian narratives, suggested Yuliia Tarasiuk, an international relations lecturer at the Mechnikov National University in Odesa who has conducted research on the issue since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. “We can’t really influence Turkish public opinion, but Russia can; these pro-Russian narratives are already very similar to the anti-Western rhetoric of Turkish Eurasianists and some nationalists.” The first-round election results, which saw a better than expected showing for nationalist parties, have prompted several experts to call Turkish nationalism the true kingmaker in years to come.
In sum, what Tarasiuk calls the “traditional dualism” of Turkish society on foreign-policy issues has Ukrainians ambivalent toward the country’s wartime role. Several analysts in Kyiv told Foreign Policy that Turkey’s decision to flaunt its military aid to Ukraine comparatively less than Western partners, so as not to further antagonize Russia, has impacted Ukrainian society’s perception of Ankara’s assistance. In the International Republican Institute’s Center for Insights poll conducted in February, only 1 percent of Ukrainians named Turkey as a country that had provided the most support to assisting the country in resisting the invasion—including when respondents could choose more than one country. That number has not risen nor fallen since April 2022, when Turkey’s Bayraktars were at the height of their fame in Ukraine.
Furthermore, an October 2022 poll by Rating Group, a Ukrainian research agency, found that 39 percent of Ukrainians described Turkey as “neutral” rather than an ally or enemy—the largest such rating for neutrality among any of the NATO member states given as options. (Viktor Orban’s Hungary, in contrast, was seen overwhelmingly as an enemy.)
Thus, for the Ukrainian public, there may be less patience for the raw pragmatism of statements such as those made by Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, who spoke earlier this month of a need for an “honorable way out” for both sides in the war. And while these declarations of the need for diplomacy can and have gotten both sides talking, “they don’t have a detailed plan or what the requirements for both sides should be,” says Tarasiuk.
“We have shelling of civilians every day and a genocidal type war against our population. Then Ukrainians hear the rhetoric of the Turkish leadership about a ‘need to move from the U.S.-led world order,’ about the West’s fault for protracting the conflict, of course this not seen in any positive way in Ukraine, because we don’t see any fair interests of Russia which need defending in the context of a full-scale invasion,” Gaber concluded. She clarified that for the Ukrainian elite, however, it is important not to have any preferences in this race; an urgent national interest demands a similar pragmatism of Ukraine.
While Ukrainian state officials were naturally reluctant to comment on an ongoing election, they did stress Turkey’s constructive role in Ukraine’s self-defense.
In any case, and elections aside, “of course Ukraine is interested in a smooth relationship between NATO, Turkey and western allies”, said Emine Dzhaparova, Ukraine’s First Deputy Foreign Minister in an interview with Foreign Policy at the ministry in Kyiv, reiterating that Turkey is a strategic partner for Ukraine, which ultimately aims for NATO membership itself.
“I feel that the Ukrainian view of Turkey is generally positive due to this military cooperation which we have. It’s very viral. We have cases where songs have been made about Bayraktar, puppets have been named after Bayraktar, some even named children after Bayraktar,” reflected Dzhaparova. Russia’s full-scale invasion has revealed to Ukrainian society who the country’s friends and partners really are.