The mediator role Turkey is attempting to play in the recent crisis between Ukraine and Russia can be considered a demonstration of Turkey’s Janus-faced geostrategic relations with the West and Russia.
The current crisis leaves President Erdogan balancing his country’s relations with Russia and Ukraine along with his country’s duties as a NATO member while also protecting Turkey’s recently battered economy.
Turkey’s Janus-faced relations with the West and Russia
With Turkey’s NATO membership recently under challenge, owing in part to its decision to purchase the Russian-made S-400 air-defense system, Turkish President Erdogan faces a difficult balancing role in demonstrating diplomatic support for Ukraine while not jeopardizing his complex long-term relations with Russia.
Turkey’s decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 air-defense system in 2017 resulted in the US sanctions and a schism within NATO, which the allies are still attempting to mend. While his government’s officials kept negotiating potential arms deals with the US, Erdogan threatened to buy more weapons from Russia.
However, in recent months, Erdogan has made efforts to repair ties with the US as well as repair its strained relations with regional rivals Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel.
Erdogan’s visit to Kyiv
An independent Ukraine, preventing Russia from completely dominating the region, is viewed as a strategically important bulwark in Ankara.
On February 3rd, as EU leaders increased their outreach to Kremlin to allay fears that Moscow would invade Ukraine, Erdogan paid a visit to Kyiv to mediate the crisis with Russia.
During the visit, Turkey and Ukraine signed a free trade agreement and finalized a deal for Ukraine to manufacture Turkish armed drones, demonstrating the two countries’ cooperation amid the tension as Russia continues to mass troops on Ukraine’s borders.
Erdogan declared during the visit that Turkey would continue to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including Crimea. He once again offered to facilitate a meeting between Russia and Ukraine in Ankara, saying, “Turkey is ready to do everything to end this crisis between two countries.”
NATO was among the ones who kept a close eye on the visit to ensure that Erdogan did not break ranks over the Alliance’s unequivocal rejection of Putin’s demands for NATO to close its borders.
However, whilst Turkey attempts to back Ukraine, one must recall that the Turkish economy is heavily reliant on Russian gas and tourists, and Russia is currently constructing Turkey’s first nuclear reactor. Another important fact is that Turkish troops in Syria can only operate as long as Russia, which has air superiority there, tolerates their presence. Turkey’s tumultuous relations with Moscow in Libya and Syria show that the two countries are frequently at odds but unwilling to see relations deteriorate.
Turkey’s Stance as a NATO member
While there are ultra-nationalist hardliners in Turkey against NATO, leaders of NATO and Turkey frequently confirmed their commitments publicly. Unlike political turmoil, military relations between Turkey and NATO seem to be on track. What most analysts agree is that there is no shrinkage of Turkish military contribution to NATO. Turkey (still) provides contributions to the NATO and EU-led military operations.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his decision to recognize two separatist areas in eastern Ukraine as independent, NATO member and Black Sea neighbor Turkey reacted quickly but stopped short of declaring any punitive actions.
Turkey now is in an odd bind: it has good relations with both Ukraine and Russia, but it also opposes sanctions in principle, even as the West prepares to impose them on Moscow.
Turkey denounced Russia’s recognition of Ukraine’s separatists as an unacceptable violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and urged all parties to follow international law.
On the other hand, Erdogan understands that any step too far against Moscow would mean to risk upsetting important Russian energy supplies, trade, and tourism. “Sanctions against Russia are useless. You only postpone the problems,” Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin states.
Turkey, meanwhile, is a Black Sea country. “Therefore, many precautionary packages have to be created. We have already taken these measures and will continue to do so,” Erdogan said.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar emphasizes Ankara’s adherence to the 1936 Montreux Convention, which strictly limits NATO forces’ access to the Black Sea via the Bosphorus. The convention regulates maritime traffic through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits in Turkey, which connect the Mediterranean and Black seas. In the event of a conflict, its status is not debatable. During the conflict in Georgia, Turkey refused to allow US warships into the Black Sea as part of the US deterrence strategy.
Hope for Turkish diplomatic success?
Turkey can hardly act as a fair mediator because Turkey is a NATO member and thus already has a position, namely that of NATO.
But it also has close economic and military ties with Russia. Furthermore, the two countries are on opposing sides in Syria and Libya, as well as in the South Caucasus conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Erdogan’s decision to provide weapons and diplomatic support to Ukraine was a public rebuke to Moscow and added to the mix of cooperation and conflict between Turkey and Russia, long-time rivals for supremacy in the Black Sea region.
It is true that Erdogan wants to play a mediator role in the recent crisis. He expressed his support for his Ukrainian counterpart during his visit to Kyiv. Furthermore, regarding a potential U.N. Security Council meeting with the participation of Germany and Turkey voiced by Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, Erdoğan said Turkey would surely join the summit. “I have already expressed my intention. That’s how it should be. Mr. Zelenskyy’s proposal is a positive one,” Erdoğan said.
Under all these circumstances, it remains dubious whether Putin is willing to give Turkey a chance to play a mediator role, and if so, and more importantly, at what cost.