The Hedgehog’s Dilemma: Turkey’s Position between the West and Russia After the Invasion of Ukraine

December 14, 2022

The international system’s multipolar nature gives Turkey a stronger hand in pursuing its balancing strategy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their meeting in Sochi, Russia in August 2022. Photo by Anadolu Images


he concept of the “hedgehog’s dilemma,” or sometimes called the porcupine dilemma, is a metaphor proposed by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (d. 1860). Schopenhauer problematized the issue of how to adjust the proper distance in relationships based on the metaphor of hedgehogs approaching each other to warm up in freezing weather. According to Schopenhauer “one cold winter’s day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effect of their quills on one another, which made them again move apart.”

This cycle goes on “until they discover the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another”: at this ideal distance, they won’t freeze and won’t be harmed by one another’s quills. The “hedgehog’s dilemma” metaphor can guide us to understand and explain relationships between states and certain relationships between individuals. The metaphor’s explanatory perspective may be applied particularly in a situation where the cycle of competition and cooperation shapes relations, as is the case of Turkey and Russia.

Historically, Turkish-Russian relations appear to have been characterized by the notions of hostility and competition. In the 2000s, the relations were advancing along the line of convergence and cooperation, which was unmatched in history. It is challenging to pinpoint the precise nature of this intricate relationship considering the two countries’ competing interests in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East as well as their collaboration in the business and energy sectors.

Turkey faced a similar conundrum between the West and Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Ankara emerged as one of the major players in global politics, and turned its unique position into a strategic advantage.

Referring to Turkey’s role in the Russia-Ukraine war and consequently in the Russia-West relations, Eugene Chausovsky, a senior analyst at the New Lines Institute, uses the phrase “swing player.” The term is a sports term that highlights an athlete’s special ability to play in several positions effectively, much like a basketball player who can equally benefit his team while playing both point guard and forward.

While Turkey has maintained its security collaboration with Ukraine since the Russian invasion began, it has also intensified its energy cooperation with Russia and in the meantime, it has demonstrated its presence as a major mediator in the diplomatic traffic between Russia and Ukraine.

Particularly significant was the initiative taken by Turkey to address the global food crisis that followed the war and severely afflicted many nations throughout the world. The agreement, which was signed in Istanbul in July and hailed by UN Secretary General António Guterres as “a beacon of hope – a beacon of possibility – a beacon of relief – in a world that needs it more than ever,” strengthened Turkey’s role in this process.

In truth, this attempt, which Guterres refers to as an “unprecedented agreement,” was evidence of Ankara’s unparalleled diplomacy. With this agreement, which is considered a sign of Turkey’s growing influence, Turkey took a significant step towards a solution to the war-induced global hunger crisis, on the one hand, and, on the other, established itself as one of the essential players in the relations between Russia and the West, which have reached a breaking point.

The dynamics shaping the ties between the West and Russia are unquestionably dominated by energy. After the occupation of Ukraine, energy became one of the most important elements instrumentalized in foreign policy. Irrespective of the recent war, however, Russia has always tended to use energy as a weapon in international affairs, and Putin has never ceased to use Russia’s energy as a trump card.

Ukraine’s engagement with Western institutions, which Russia views as crossing a red line in its geopolitical conflict with the West, prompted it to play its energy card in the harshest way possible. By stopping the gas supply through Nord Stream to European nations, a new era in the continent’s energy security began.

These lines provided a unique alternative for European energy security when taken into account with Nord Stream 2, which was abandoned immediately after the Russian invasion. Currently, European nations are looking for alternatives to Russian gas. At this juncture, the geopolitical position of Ankara has taken on new significance.

Turkey acts as a bridge between nations with abundant energy sources and industrialized nations that require these sources. Therefore, one of the key elements influencing Turkey’s regional dominance is the transfer of energy. As a matter of fact, the TurkStream project, which is the result of a collaboration between Moscow and Ankara, has become one of the most obvious manifestations of this reality. At this point, Turkey is likely to take significant strides towards becoming an energy hub as the energy cooperation between Russia and Turkey continues to grow.

Turkey can preserve its privileged position by highlighting critical issues like energy, while working to adjust the “hedgehog distance” between the West and Russia. The fact that risks and opportunities go hand in hand in attempting to strike a balance between the West and Russia should not be disregarded. One must admit, nevertheless, that Ankara has done an excellent job of implementing the balancing strategy in its recent foreign policy decisions.

In fact, Turkey has adopted this balanced approach with the support of the global environment. The international system’s multipolar nature gives Turkey a stronger hand in pursuing its balancing strategy, and it is expected that Turkey will continue to act in its best interests by preserving the “hedgehog distance” between Russia and the West in the coming years.

Dr. Mevlüt Akçapa is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations in the Bursa Technical University, in Türkiye, and specialises in Russia’s foreign policy, Türkiye’s foreign policy and energy policies. Dr. Akçapa holds PhD from the Department of International Relations at Uludag University. For many years, he served as an expert in the Ministry of Trade.

Dr. Takyettin Karakaya received his bachelor's degree in economics from Istanbul University (2002). For many years, he served as an expert in the Ministry of Trade. As a YÖK 100/2000 scholar he earned his Ph.D. in spirituality and mysticism from Uludağ University (2022).