Wherever you go in Istanbul, Atatürk is rarely far away. Portraits of the man who founded the Turkish Republic hang in the Grand Bazaar and in apartment building foyers. His face is etched on everything from street signs to café mugs.
With his vision of Turkey as a liberal, secular state, Atatürk set his nation on the path to western alignment and, ultimately, Nato. When he died in 1938, Winston Churchill said his ‘death is not only a loss for the country, but for Europe is the greatest loss’.
Yet in recent years, Turkey’s position as a western ally has all but disintegrated. Nato was forced to apologise in 2017 when the alliance used ‘Atatürk’ and ‘Erdoğan’, the name of the current president, as enemy targets in a battlefield simulation exercise. A senior adviser in Ankara concluded that ‘the time has come for us to reconsider our membership’.
Turkey has long been torn between its place among western powers and its strong ties with Russia. Many believed that if forced to choose, Erdoğan would back the Kremlin. After all, the country seems to be turning against liberal democracy: hundreds of critics and journalists have been imprisoned by a judicial system that few believe is either free or fair.
That growing disillusionment with Nato came to a head last year when Ankara agreed to purchase Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft systems – the same ones being used to shoot down Ukrainian planes right now – despite strong objections from Washington. That decision violates the ban on Moscow-made weapons in Nato. The Pentagon warned that the launchers could interfere with its warplanes and Turkey was soon booted out of a scheme to buy American F-35 jets. 'We buy our own weapons,’ Erdoğan insisted, accusing the US of holding back its best equipment and forcing him to turn eastwards.
Now, faced with a choice between Russia and a western-backed Ukraine, Turkey has thrown its lot in squarely with the latter. For all the cosying up with the Russians over the past decade, Ankara is led by the same geopolitical concerns that caused conflict between the two nations for at least the last 500 years: control of the Black Sea. This explains why Turkey has championed Ukraine’s continued claim over Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. And it explains why, when Russia backed Turkey’s neighbour Armenia in its 2020 conflict with Azerbaijan, Ankara backed the Azeris in an attempt to limit Russian power.
The relationship between Russia and Turkey is complicated: partnering in their attempts to destabilise the West while backing opposite sides in regional disputes. Ukraine and before it Armenia reveal that Turkey’s regional interests trump Erdoğan’s desire to weaken the West.
For now, Turkey is proving one of Nato’s biggest assets. Ankara has sent multiple shipments of its sophisticated Bayraktar attack drone to Kiev, effectively handing over the capability to destroy Russian armour from the air. In the Armenian conflict, the unmanned aerial vehicle swung the fighting in favour of Turkey’s close ally, Azerbaijan, and was responsible for devastating Armenia’s armed forces.
Turkey is again sharing its technology in an effort to shift the needle. The drone has taken on such a fearsome reputation among Ukrainian fighters that it has its own hit song, attracting over a million views on YouTube before it was taken down. 'They wanted to conquer us by force, but we took offence at these orcs – now Russian bandits are being turned into ghosts by Bayraktar,’ the lyrics go, set to clips of long convoys being obliterated by missiles from above.
While Turkey is leading the way in arming Ukraine, providing weapons that other members like the US and UK simply don’t have, it is also in a unique position to help bring about a diplomatic end to the crisis. Erdoğan has called on both sides to ‘achieve a ceasefire, open humanitarian corridors and sign a peace agreement’.
Turkey’s strategic position means it can apply pressure on Russia in other ways. When the fighting started, Ankara announced it was cutting off access to and from the Black Sea – and therefore the coastlines of Russia and Ukraine – to warships from both sides. Under the terms of the Montreux Convention, signed during Atatürk’s final years in office, Turkey has the right to control the strategic Bosporus and Dardanelle Straits, giving it the ability to stop navies moving in from the Mediterranean.
In practice, this means Russia cannot relocate its navies to support the invasion of southern Ukraine. Given the Kremlin’s insistence that interference in the war will be seen as a hostile act, this could put the two nations on a collision course. For the first time in a long while, Turkey is not only inside the tent with Nato but is leading the response.
Just outside Istanbul lies Gallipoli where, as an infantry officer, Atatürk led Ottoman soldiers against the British Empire during world war one. Tens of thousands of British soldiers died in a blunder widely blamed on Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. Back then, Churchill and Atatürk found themselves on different sides of the conflict. The nation that Atatürk founded brought their two sides together. Inscribed on the Anzac memorial are the following words: ‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us.’
With another bloody war raging in the heart of Europe, it seems that the spirit of unity between Turkey and the West might one day prevail.