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Explainer: What's going on between Russia and Turkey amid Black Sea escalation

Ankara’s avoidance of a public confrontation with Moscow reflects its determination to maintain a balancing act between Russia and the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the Sixth Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Astana on Oct. 13, 2022.

ANKARA — Turkey's recent avoidance of a public confrontation with Russia may reflect its efforts to maintain its balancing act while working out problems behind closed doors.

The two capitals enjoyed a rosy relationship before Turkey's general elections in May. But in recent months, Ankara has taken a series of steps distancing itself from Moscow, including voicing full support for Ukraine’s NATO membership during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Istanbul in early July; releasing commanders from Ukraine’s Azov Battalion who were supposed to stay in Turkey until the end of the war under a prisoner swap deal; and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s greenlighting Swedish accession to NATO. 

The Russians hardly sat idle while all these events happened. On July 17, President Vladimir Putin announced his country’s withdrawal from the deal allowing safe shipment of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea, which had been mediated by Turkey and the United Nations last year. 

On Aug. 6, Russian forces struck Ukrainian engine manufacturer Motor Sich, which supplies Turkey's internationally famed drone giant Baykar. The company's TB2 drones have played a critical role in Ukraine's defense against the Russian forces, and speaking to Defense News, a senior Turkish diplomat described the attack “as a symbolic Russian warning … over a few Turkish initiatives.” 

Finally on Aug. 13, Russian forces raided a Ukraine-bound cargo ship that is owned by a Turkish national and was manned by Turkish crew in international waters in the Black Sea, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) off Turkey’s coast. Earlier this week, Moscow released footage of the raid.

According to Yoruk Isik, an Istanbul-based geopolitical analyst and nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, the Russian raid was “strange,” but even stranger was Ankara’s low-profile response. Breaking its silence on Thursday, the Turkish side warned Moscow against further actions that could escalate tensions in the Black Sea.  

“Russia is in serious trouble because of the war in Ukraine, but the Turkish side is not pressing its advantages,” Isik told Al-Monitor, adding that Ankara’s relative silence might relate to its efforts to convince Moscow to return to the grain deal.

Onur Isci, associate professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, explains Turkey’s approach through its efforts to maintain a balancing act between Russia and the West. 

Closer ties with the West do not mean a break with Russia, Isci told Al-Monitor, but "an unqualified compliance with Western sanctions on Russia is not a feasible plan for Turkey, nor is it possible.” 

As observers wonder whether Erdogan and Putin will meet in person this month, the two sides will likely find a common ground. The war in Ukraine has put the Russian economy into dire straits. Furthermore, both Ankara and Moscow need to scale down their commitments in Syria to focus on more pressing geopolitical issues.

Meanwhile, despite Turks’ centuries-old skepticism toward the West, the Russian image is hardly any better in Turkish minds.

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