Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has posited a future Ukraine as a sort of “big Israel” — security-focused, unbound by liberal European sensitivities, yet still democratic and fully backed by the West — and acknowledged the need for a hard-nosed strategy amid the certainty of long-term threat. Israel seems a natural analogue, given Israel’s military excellence and affinities between the two countries (including a large number of dual citizens as well as the coincidence of Jewish presidents and defense ministers in both).
But given Ukraine’s different neighborhood and history, though, there is a more realistic model than Israel: Turkey.
Turkey began shoring up its geopolitical hedging options over a decade ago by broadening its network of diplomatic representations overseas, then increasing foreign aid, trade, and educational and cultural outreach. This campaign extended to Africa, Southern and Eastern Europe, Central and South Asia, and other “in-between” areas that were neither part of the core West nor cozy with revisionist powers such as China, Russia and Iran. Expanded ties opened the door to defense industrial cooperation — highlighted by the development and export of drones such as the Bayraktar TB2, which has been used to dramatic effect by Ukraine in fending off Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invading army.
Arms projects brought in their wake access agreements, military training relationships and, in some cases, political and military-technical coordination in hot conflicts. Kyiv badly needs the sort of diversified and reliable relationships that Ankara built into its own network.
The Turkish power projection network has, over the past decade, greatly affected events in numerous regional conflicts. The outcomes of wars and escalatory episodes in Syria, Iraq, Libya, the Caucasus, Ukraine, the Persian Gulf and eastern Mediterranean have all been greatly swayed by Turkish hard power. While the exercise of such power has discomfited the West in some cases, it has served common interests in others. It has undermined Russian and Iranian interests far more directly than it has those of the U.S. or NATO. As the Turkish saying goes, “dost kara günde belli olur” (the true friend becomes clear on the dark day). When Turkey’s allies — Syrian opposition groups, the Government of National Accord in Libya, Azerbaijan, Qatar and Ukraine — have squared off with well-armed enemies, the Turks redoubled their commitments.
The Turkish model of power projection frees members from a potential veto on arms deals and military operations by arbiters of the West. Yet it also shields them from the naked aggression of revanchist powers such as Russia, Iran or China. Importantly, Turkey does not dominate or run this self-protection network so much as it mediates it. There are no ideological litmus tests for members of the network. Some NATO countries are in it because of defense cooperation agreements: Albania, Poland and the United Kingdom. An increasing number of African countries are, too: Libya, Tunisia, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Turkey has developed close military-to-military ties with Pakistan and Malaysia, as well. Ukraine is certainly in and provides great reciprocal value to Turkey as a provider of military technology and co-producer of drones, for instance. Other countries in the network, such as Qatar and Azerbaijan, provide reciprocal protection in terms of energy and finance rather than military affairs. The Organization of Turkic States — an Istanbul-based grouping that includes Turkey, Azerbaijan and several Central Asian states with increasing economic, cultural and in some cases security ties — forms a part of the mosaic as well. The utility to Ukraine of convergence with Turkey’s hedging network is clear: It provides a ready-made set of economic and security partners that value Ukrainian sovereignty while sidestepping the NATO-Russia rivalry used to justify the current war.
Observers of Turkey’s “drone diplomacy” to date have underappreciated the bonds of trust and nonmilitary cooperation that have grown within this network, above and beyond arms sales. What we see now is a movement to consolidate relationships initiated or deepened by drone sales into something broader, not exactly a bloc but a condominium of countries seeking to avoid domination by neighbors or by regional hegemons.
In an era of Great Power competition, this is a bloc of the marginalized — countries that pool resources as a sort of hedging strategy. It is neither fully Western nor anti-Western, but it has more affinity with NATO and the European Union than with explicitly anti-Western actors such as China, North Korea, Russia, Iran or the Bolivarian states.
If the emerging era of multipolarity will feature Europe, the United States, China, India, Japan and Russia as strategic competitors, it will also feature the Turkish-mediated hedging network as strategic balancers, a sort of power-between-the-Great-Powers. Turkish foreign policy analyst Omer Ozkizilcik has described Turkey’s approach to conflict diplomacy as being rooted in three pillars: hard power, avoiding zero-sum games and the application of realpolitik to forge compromise solutions. These classic balancing principles can succeed largely because of the hedging network assembled over time to operationalize them.
Africa’s role in this network has made the continent more strategically interesting than at any point since the Cold War. Turkish diplomats, businesses and military trainers have built Turkey into a novel element of Africa’s economic, diplomatic and security dynamics. Turkey’s trade with Africa has more than sextupled over the past two decades, while diplomatic representation has more than tripled. Sierra Leonean Foreign Minister David Francis said recently in Turkey that because of Turkey’s development of networks in Africa, for the first time “Africa has a champion from outside the continent.” This contrasts with China’s mercantilist approach, the disaster/terrorism-centric approach of Europe and the general apathy of the United States toward Africa.
While Ukraine is a member of the Turkish-mediated hedging network, and likely to become more influential within that network, it is also an interesting laboratory for how the hedging network intersects with U.S. and Western interests. Turkey has maintained economic and diplomatic ties with Russia throughout the war, declining to join Western-imposed sanctions and hosting negotiating teams from both Kyiv and Moscow. It has also hosted admittedly failed peace talks between both sides. Yet Ankara has quietly and not-so-quietly supported Ukraine throughout the war militarily (steady resupplies of Bayraktar TB2 drones and other military equipment); diplomatically (closing the Bosporus Strait to Russian naval vessels under the authority of the Montreux Convention); and rhetorically (condemning the invasion and unambiguously supporting Ukrainian sovereignty). Turkey was selling Bayraktars for several years before the current war, while Western capitals clung to belief that lethal defensive systems for Ukraine would be a provocative escalation and negatively affect the prospects for a settlement to the 2014 conflict. The Turkish drone’s immortalization in patriotic Ukrainian war songs — and indeed in the naming of Ukrainian zoo animals and police dogs Bayraktar — neatly illustrates the practical, political and popular impact of the hedging network. The network helps its members defend against external aggression and put down armed insurgencies at home; it also reassures leaders and people that they do not stand alone, whatever the West may do.
Washington doesn’t have a playbook to respond to this sort of thing. The U.S.-led liberal international order knew how to deal with pliant, usually small and security-dependent friends. It also had an answer for rogues and villains dedicated to overthrow capitalism, Western primacy, democracy, NATO and the free world. It has little experience of or aptitude for countries in between. That is, allied or semi-aligned countries with independent strategic sensibilities and a prickly response to perceived meddling along their borders or against their interests (see de Gaulle’s France). Lack of familiarity breeds a certain degree of frustration, not least of all in Congress.
As a result, Washington is missing a huge opportunity for leverage and convergence with the global hedging network and its key facilitator. Turkey has reached out to Washington through discrete channels to find roadmaps or strategic compromises in Syria, Libya, the Caucasus and the eastern Mediterranean, but it has found remarkably little room for compromise on the American side.
Even the manifestly beneficial-to-U.S.-interests role Turkey adopted in Afghanistan and Ukraine has not been sufficient to blunt the suspicion, if not outright hostility, to Turkey in Washington’s commentariat, nor to end the de facto embargo on Western arms sales to Ankara. With Turkey producing an increasingly high percentage of its own military equipment, and with its expulsion from NATO’s F-35 fighter jet program owing to its purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems, the recent proposal for Turkey to purchase F-16 fighter aircraft and upgrades was perhaps a final opportunity for a high-profile, mutually profitable security project. Yet the opposition of Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has stalled and likely killed the proposed sale.
There is near-zero trust between the security establishments in Washington and Ankara, although there is still substantial overlap of interests in a number of regions.
The strategic mechanism announced by Presidents Joe Biden and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last year seems to be a consultative procedure to manage, not solve, problems and promises little in the way of new initiatives or compromise steps on the U.S. side. Many of the countries in the Turkish-led hedging network share a similar experience of U.S. leadership, unfortunately, so the hedging isn’t directed only at revisionist powers but also at the Americans themselves. With a little bit of vision and creative diplomacy, Washington could perhaps help the hedging network help itself and thereby create local balancing coalitions against the Russians, Chinese, Iranians or radical insurgents in broad swaths of Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Instead, the network has emerged independent of, and to a degree in reaction against, U.S. leadership.
The experience of Ukraine, reflected in Zelenskyy’s prediction, should make it clear that an armed, semi-aligned movement is probably a good thing for the new era of Great Power strategic competition, even if the U.S. cannot control it or perhaps even recognize it. This network, mediated at present by Turkey but with a flexible and non-hierarchical nature, can help stabilize countries the West doesn’t care enough about to intervene in, balance pragmatically against anti-Western powers in areas where direct Western intervention might spark Great Power wars, and reduce the need for direct Western security subsidy of allies and semi-aligned partners. The network entails exercise of diplomatic, and sometimes military, power independently of the leading Western powers and their aspirational order, but in ways not antithetical to Western interests.
In the case of Ukraine, it is the only viable option to subordination and incorporation into either NATO (which it wants, but Brussels and Washington do not) or the Russian orbit (which would end Ukraine’s sovereignty). Ukraine is unlikely to be the last geopolitical case of a crisis involving a would-be hegemon assaulting a country sympathetic to the West but outside its security guarantees.
The lesson of Ukraine and Turkey, then, or rather the hedging network both now belong to, is that Great Powers in a multipolar international system should encourage the “in-between” powers to organize themselves in areas deemed peripheral rather than core to the West. By raising the costs of external aggression and encouraging internal stability, the network may decrease the level of mischief in such areas during the coming decades.