In light of the Russian-Ukrainian war and growing geopolitical tensions, Russian propaganda is becoming increasingly active in many countries, including Türkiye. At the same time, Türkiye, as a country with significant military and economic potential, finds itself in a unique position between Russia and the West.
How Russian propaganda is affecting the perception of the situation by Turkish society and how Turkish society, in turn, is influencing the country’s foreign policy – read in our conversation with Yevgeniya Gaber, who is a Ukrainian foreign policy expert, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Türkiye and at the Center in Modern Turkish Studies, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University.
How active is Russian propaganda in Türkiye?
“It is essential to understand that there is Russian propaganda, and there is an internal context that creates a favorable environment for it. This includes widespread anti-American and anti-Western sentiments in the country. Additionally, nationalist and Eurasianist views are popular in Türkiye, which are three different directions that sometimes intersect but are based on other political platforms.
Eurasianist Turkish views advocate for Türkiye’s withdrawal from NATO, the end of the pro-Western unipolar world, and a transition to a multipolar system with different poles of power such as Russia, Iran, Türkiye, China, and others. There are also marginal Eurasianists directly linked to Alexander Dugin and Russian Eurasianism. They became particularly active after the attempted coup in Türkiye in 2016. There are less toxic Eurasianists who do not directly advocate for a withdrawal from NATO or openly support Putin’s regime but still argue for a revision of the world order.
There are also nationalist conservative forces and mainstream rhetoric, including the current government, which is based on the idea that the US should not dictate global rules and that the European Union sometimes shows double standards towards different countries. All of this creates a favorable environment for the successful dissemination of Russian propaganda, and some of its narratives exist simply because they are part of Türkiye’s domestic discourse.
The second part concerns Russian propaganda itself, which is also present in the country. In particular, the media holding «Sputnik» with over a million subscribers and «RT» are active in Türkiye. «Rossotrudnichestvo» (the Russian agency run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, – author’s note) operates in Ankara, where it has a large office and centers of culture and cultural cooperation are opening. There are many centers of Russian culture and influence through which Russian propaganda is spread.
In addition to pro-Russian Turkish commentators and Russian propagandists, there are also local anti-Western and anti-American commentators who do not necessarily support Russia. They may consider it a threat and may not trust Russia but they trust the West even less. Often these are former military personnel, Eurasianists who criticize and accuse NATO and the US of everything. Thus, they perceive even the Russian aggression in Ukraine as a war provoked by the US and NATO. They may also consider Ukrainians as puppets in the hands of the West. So, many Russian narratives are present here.”
How does Turkish society view the Russian-Ukrainian war?
“Research and public opinion polls in Türkiye show that at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, many people held both Russia and Ukraine responsible. For example, even in September 2022 social polls showed that 46% thought both Ukraine and Russia shared responsibility for the war. Now the majority of Turks sympathize with Ukraine, but when it comes to assigning blame, they often point to the United States and NATO as responsible for or benefiting from the war, and then to Russia. Interestingly, Türkiye itself is a member of NATO, but Turks often separate NATO and their own country when they talk about security.
Most of the Turks express their sympathy for Ukraine, but rather because they believe Ukraine was so naive as to trust the West, and to a lesser extent because of the Russian war crimes and atrocities in the occupied territories. There is a widespread point of view, that the West set up Ukraine and used it to weaken Russia. Accordingly, quite often Ukraine is perceived as a puppet of the West without strong statehood.
Due to insufficient knowledge about Ukraine in Türkiye, Russian narratives often appear, such as the claim that the Tomos (more detailed about this you can read here, – author’s note) provoked Russian aggression through the church schism, even though Turks usually have no idea what the Tomos is.
Recently, the chief foreign policy advisor to the President of Türkiye said that the most constructive solution to this war would be supporting peace negotiations and dialogue with Russia, even if that might take years. The West, led by the US, is viewed as bellicose and pursuing its own agenda, such as selling weapons and weakening Russia through Ukraine. Therefore, the West is portrayed as the party that wants to continue this conflict.
Because of the centralized form of governance in Türkiye and the majority of media being under government control, such narratives are widely spread. Most ordinary people believe in this, and therefore, Ukraine is often perceived as a victim of great power competition, “big geopolitical games”, especially in the context of anti-Western sentiments and the absence of criticism towards Russia on Turkish television and media.
It is important to understand that the moral component and the genocidal character of the war in Ukraine are not highlighted on Turkish television and media. The mainstream channels rarely mention Russia’s rape, torture, child abduction, and war crimes. Instead, the conflict is presented as a geopolitical clash between the collective West and Russia, without focusing on Russia’s terror against the Ukrainian civil population.
This information policy is largely shaped by Türkiye’s domestic context. The country actively cooperates with Russia in economic, energy, and other areas, and it is important not to undermine these relations, in particular by emphasizing the Russian crimes in Ukraine.
As a result, the general mood of the population, of course with some exceptions, is going along the lines: war is bad, peace is needed, Russia will not give up and nuclear powers cannot be defeated, so the continuation of the war only prolongs the suffering of the Ukrainian people. This is the prevailing opinion, although there are people who are vocal in their support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russia, and who advocate for stepping up military supplies to Ukraine. Besides, despite close cooperation, Türkiye has a long history of enmity with Russia and the two countries take opposing sides in many regional conflicts now. So, there is also an understanding that a strong Ukraine is, in a way, strengthening Türkiye’s own position vis-à-vis Russia.”
Does public opinion in Türkiye influence foreign policy?
“Two points are important to understand. First, Türkiye is a highly centralized presidential republic, meaning that all powers are concentrated in the hands of the president, including foreign policy. There is no prime minister, and parliament has limited powers in foreign policy making. Public opinion has never been a determining factor in the foreign policy realm, and under the current system, it has even less influence on shaping foreign policy.
The second point is that Ukraine is not a top priority on Türkiye’s domestic agenda. Foreign policy in general is traditionally not important to Turkish voters, who are focused on domestic issues. For Turkish society, more important issues are Syria and the situation with Syrian refugees, which have an impact on their daily life. To a certain extent, Greece or the Mediterranean occasionally become part of the domestic nationalistic rhetoric. But the war in Ukraine, although geographically close, is not a priority for Turkish citizens. Ukraine is mainly viewed in the context of Turkish-Russian relations, NATO, and regional security, but it does not affect the quality of life as soon as Türkiye has not joined sanctions.
Even if public opinion were to shape policy regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war, Turkish society overwhelmingly supports the government’s policy of balancing, non-participation in sanctions, and the need to maintain dialogue with Russia, the West, and Ukraine simultaneously. Experts and politicians across the spectrum, including pro-Western and liberal circles, also agree on the need to adhere to a policy of a delicate balancing act with Ukraine and Russia. This is also the view shared by the opposition. Türkiye has its own national interests, and they demand de-confliction and cooperation with Russia.”
Addition: how Türkiye helps Ukraine
As for Turkish military supplies for Ukraine, in November 2018, a contract was signed for Bayraktar TB2 drones, with the first deliveries in March 2019. Two Ada-class corvettes were also ordered by the Ukrainian Navy in December 2020. In November 2021, Ukrainian Mi-8 helicopters were modernized by Türkiye to include laser guidance capabilities and armed with Cirit and UMTAS air-to-surface missiles.
Since then, several other military equipment and gear have been delivered or are set to be delivered. These include 30+ Bayraktar TB2 drones to be delivered from March 2022 onwards, with half donated by Baykar Tech and the other half sold at half the price. Additionally, 24 Mini-Bayraktars were delivered in March 2022, all donated by Baykar Tech.
Other equipment set to be delivered includes Sungur IIR-guided MANPADS for Bayraktar TB2, ground-based and airborne electronic warfare equipment delivered in the summer of 2022, 200 BMC Kirpi mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles to be delivered from August 2022, heavy machine guns for use against loitering munitions, 100,000 155mm artillery rounds to be delivered, MAM-L and MAM-C guided bombs for Bayraktar TB2 delivered from March 2022 onwards, helmets and flak vests, and generators delivered in November 2022.
In terms of military commitments for Ukraine after 24 February 2022, Türkiye has committed 0.061bn €, ranking 24th globally. It accounts for 0.009% of the country’s GDP. There is no data available on financial and humanitarian aid from Türkiye since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion. At the same time, the country has consistently supported all of Ukraine’s resolutions condemning Russia since the full-scale war, according to the UN Watch resolution database.
It is also worth noting, during the full-scale Russian aggression, Türkiye has offered its mediation in peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. Türkiye also has become one of the guarantors of the grain corridor‘s operation. Besides, President Recep Erdogan played a key role in the prisoner exchange, including providing shelter for the released commanders of the Azov Battalion held in Russian captivity.
At the same time, Türkiye has actively developed economic ties with Russia, increasing its imports of Russian oil by nearly 50% since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ankara is also planning to host a Russian gas hub and is jointly building a nuclear power plant with Russia. Additionally, Türkiye plays an important role in substituting Western goods on the Russian market.
About Turkish influence in the Black Sea region, you can also read in our articles Black Sea: Andrii Klymenko about oil embargo, grain deal, and “shadow fleet” and Three Russian fakes about the grain deal.