As the war in Ukraine is raging on, Turkey is putting in extra effort to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow. On 29 March, Russian and Ukrainian officials held another round of talks in Istanbul chaired by Erdogan’s close confidante Ibrahim Kalin. That was the second time Turkey hosted the two sides after Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Dmytro Kuleba met briefly on the margins of the Antalya Diplomatic Forum in the middle of the month. In addition, oligarch Roman Abramovich, reportedly a go-between used by Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, has set up shop in the country too.
It is not difficult to divine Erdogan’s motives to play an intermediary. On one hand, the war threatens Turkey and complicates his position at home. On the other, it spells an opportunity for him to score political points and buy international support.
Let’s first consider the fears shared by policymakers in Ankara. Since the mid-2000s, they have seen Russia gradually expanding its territorial reach and turning aggressive. First, it started with the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 and the de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Then the seizure of Crimea in 2014 made Russia the dominant power in the Black Sea, which Turkey would rather see as a condominium. The intervention in Syria brought the Russians literally in Ankara’s backyard and ruled out regime change in Damascus; the goal Erdogan pursued in the early stages of the conflict. The current conflict threatens to cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea, which disrupts the territorial buffer separating Turkey from Russia, the main reasons the two states were able to build cooperative ties in the post-Cold War era, according to the scholar Sener Akturk.
The war is also bad news for the Turkish economy. In 2021, 4.7 million and 2.5 million tourists came from Russia and Ukraine respectively, the first and the third largest group visiting Turkey. Numbers will be much lower this coming season for sure. Grain imports from the north of the Black Sea are likely to become more expensive, driving food prices up and adding to the hardship ordinary Turks have to deal with. Disruption on the energy market likewise spikes the cost of natural gas and crude oil, no matter whether Turkey imports it from Russia or elsewhere. The ailing economy is Erdogan’s Achilles heel. As elections in 2023 loom nearer, he has a good reason to root for peace.
But it is not all doom and gloom. With the talks between Russia and Ukraine continue, Turkey is reasserting itself as a diplomatic heavyweight. Following a period where Erdogan was at loggerheads with a long list of states, from the United Arab Emirates to France and from Greece to Israel, we entered a period of resets. Indeed, Turkey has patched up ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Israel, and even Greece, with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently paying a visit. A new opening with Armenia is underway too. Last but not least, the crisis is an opportunity to reengage with Europe and the US. NATO allies have recognized Turkey’s centrality in a volatile neighborhood. Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, another country blacklisted by the Saray in 2017-8, paid a visit. And most importantly, the US is reaching out. State Secretary Antony Blinken is welcoming Turkish mediation efforts. Should they yield a ceasefire, Erdogan will certainly make political mileage.
Turkey clearly has leverage and credibility. It has retained ties to both Moscow and Kyiv. Supplying arms to the Ukrainians, closing the Straits as mandated by the 1936 Montreux Convention, and offering all kinds of rhetorical support while not joining the Western sanctions or closing its air space to the Russian Federation. As Galip Dalay puts it, “Turkey is basically trying to be pro-Ukrainian without being aggressively anti-Russia.” That’s not the whole story, however. Along with Dubai, Istanbul has turned into a safe haven for Russians seeking refuge from the economic meltdown and Kremlin’s repressions. As it was during the Second World War, the metropolis by the Bosphorus has become a neutral ground where diplomats, spooks, émigré politicians, and anyone in between can mingle. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu openly invited Russian oligarchs to move in, following Abramovich’s example. Now former President Dmitry Medvedev’s superyacht is docked at Atakoy.
What are Turkey’s chances to pull it off? The meeting in Istanbul gives some grounds for cautious optimism. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu declared the military will scale down operations around Kyiv and Chernihiv. Chief Negotiator Vladimir Medinski said the discussion with the Ukraine envoy Mikhailo Podolyak was productive and hinted to a follow-up meeting at the level of foreign ministers and possibly a summit between Putin and Zelensky to work out the details of a treaty. No doubt, the Turkish leadership is happy.
That is a bridge too far, to be sure. Further progress depends on calculations by the Kremlin and the Ukrainian authorities. Having seen its push against Kyiv frustrated, Moscow is recalibrating and scaling down its campaign to focus on the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine. They might be prepared to talk in earnest rather than pretend as in earlier rounds if diplomacy could deliver more than brute force. It seems that the Ukrainian side is tentatively interested in a deal too. They have touted the idea of military neutrality enshrined in a treaty with Russia, co-signed by other powers, including Turkey. Such a putative settlement would involve a commitment not to seek membership in NATO but still keep the door open to joining the European Union, in line with a formal application Kyiv submitted to the 27-strong bloc.
At the same time, formidable obstacles remain in place. The Ukrainians are unlikely to yield to the Russian demand for demilitarization, since their armed forces are the only real security guarantee they have. Turkish diplomats or other would-be mediators have to work out a formula where demilitarization is limited to certain weapons systems (e.g., missiles that can hit Russian territory). But the real sticking point is the status of Crimea and the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which Russia recognized as independent at the outset of the war. Turkey would be struggling to come up with a flexible formula that leaves enough ambiguity to keep both Ukraine and Russia happy. In addition, we should not forget the issue of Russian troops in other parts of Ukraine. Will Turkey be able to cut a deal on their withdrawal, which is what Kyiv will be expecting? Even if there is a ceasefire, Russia has an incentive to keep the captured terrain as a political bargaining chip.
Turkey’s response to the war has thus far has been driven by pragmatic concerns. Its mediation initiative should be welcomed by the West as well as by Moscow and Kyiv. Still, the odds of success are at best mixed.