Exclusively for SouthFront by J.Hawk
Recent months saw the emergence of a seemingly unlikely alliance between Ukraine and Turkey, Black Sea countries whose leaders suddenly decided they had a lot in common. That “something” is, of course, Russia.
The similarities between the two leaders do not stop there. Both seek to impose authoritarian rule o their respective countries. Both have promoted the most virulent brand of nationalism imaginable, and have aligned themselves with political forces favoring territorial expansion: Ukrainian nationalists want to expand Ukraine’s territory in all four directions, while Turkish Pan-Turks and Neo-Ottomans pine for the lost glories of the Ottoman Empire. Each of the two leaders has made a brisk fortune, for himself and for his family, out of his country’s misfortunes which were to a great extend caused by their own policies. They both are staking their bets on a policy of blackmail of Western countries. While Erdogan is successfully flooding the EU with Middle Eastern refugees (and in the process is enriching himself by taking a cut of the smuggling proceeds), Poroshenko is constantly if less successfully raising the specter of “Russian expansionism” and the prospect of Ukraine returning to Russia’s orbit should the EU fail to continue to subsidize his kleptocracy.
Last but certainly not least, the two leaders are not as smart as they think they are, which leads them to underestimate other national leaders’ abilities, and they are utterly mistrustful and untrustworthy themselves. Their careers have been built on skillfully betraying former political allies as soon as such allies ceased being advantageous. This, incidentally, is arguably the one point of criticism that could be fairly leveled at the Kremlin, namely that they have underestimated the treachery and opportunism of both of these leaders whose “stabs in the back” have forced the Kremlin to react in a hasty and forced manner and to run unnecessary risks that could have been avoided had they appreciated whom they were dealing with. The Kremlin likely knew Poroshenko was the main figure behind the 2014 Maidan, but did not act more energetically to shore up the Yanukovych government against an effort to topple him by one of the other founders of the Party of Regions, and it may well be that Poroshenko falsely assured the Kremlin that nothing would change once he assumed office. Once in office, Poroshenko escalated the war on the Donbass which not only inflicted further damage on the Russia-Ukraine relations but threatened to endanger the entire regional security situation. The Kremlin likewise knew that Erdogan was playing a very dangerous game in Syria for many years, yet somehow assumed there was no reason to fear the Turkish military. That miscalculation had cost at least two Russian lives and brought the world to a brink of a Russia-NATO military confrontation.
However, that last quality also means the two countries’ alliance has few chances of success. They really have no choice–it is not only their desire to score political points by pursuing an aggressive policy against Russia, but also the fact that such policies have been ineffective and, moreover, resulted in their international isolation, that forces them to seek out each other as allies. But unlike the original Germany–Italy “axis” (which also included several minor powers, just as the current Ukraine-Turkey “axis” does), this axis does not have a dominant member capable of exercising leadership over the entire alliance. In practical terms it meant that Mussolini had to abide by Hitler’s will. In this case, both Poroshenko and Erdogan would prefer to be the Hitler of the relationship, even though in actuality we are simply looking at a pair of Mussolinis whose own careers could easily meet a very similar end.
Instead, true to form and in keeping with their earlier political careers, both Erdogan and Poroshenko are trying extract maximum possible benefit from the cooperation for minimum contributions of their own. We are highly unlikely to see genuine military cooperation out of the deal, and very little chance of the two sides’ armed forces conducting even peacetime exercises, let alone actual joint combat operations. Military-technical cooperation is also unlikely to amount to much. The recent agreement for Turkey to provide Ukraine with $800 million of non-lethal military equipment, such as uniforms and individual equipment but no actual weapons, supposedly free of charge, is unlikely to be as altruistic as it is being made to look. Ukraine does have something that Turkey needs–Soviet-era military technologies which are still superior to anything Turkey can come up with on its own or to what NATO is willing to sell Turkey. In return for giving it away, Ukraine’s leaders will get a sizable amount of equipment from a NATO member state which can then be safely resold on the international market, now that Ukraine’s own stores of military goods are beginning to run dry, thanks mostly to corruption and less so to combat operations.
While the Kremlin has underestimated the threat to its interests these leaders have posed, its current policy toward their respective countries is both realistic and effective. Russia does not need to defeat either Turkey or Ukraine. It only needs to target the two leaders’ “Achilles’ heel”, which is their constant need for spoils to provide to their nationalist and even fascist supporters. Russia’s economic sanctions against the two countries, and also the very effective anti-oil smuggling campaign in Syria, have done just that. The frantic accusations leveled at Moscow, alleging it is breaking the ceasefire in both Syria and in Novorossia, are an indication that the strategy is working. Erdogan and Poroshenko right now are quite likely playing one of the last remaining cards they still hold. It turns out to be the same card: shelling of territory supposedly covered by the “ceasefire”, with the Ukrainian military shelling the Donbass yet again, and the Turkish military continuing to bombard Kurdish areas of Syria. In both cases, this action is supposed to provoke an international response consisting of more pressure on Russia and, even better, more money for Turkey and Ukraine.
But it doesn’t seem to be working anymore. Erdogan and Poroshenko have fallen victim to their own “cleverness” by failing to deliver on their earlier promises, so that nobody in the West regards them as trustworthy partners. For that reason the West has acted restrain both Turkish and Ukrainian military aggressiveness because its leaders likely realize by now what aims Erdogan and Poroshenko are pursuing. Just as NATO pointedly told Turkey it would be on its own in any conflict with Russia, the West has turned off Ukraine’s financing out of concern that any new injections of cash would be used to finance a new military campaign. Considering the difficulty it has had managing these two unruly leaders, the West may even be looking for replacements who are more easily pliable.