Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opens Ukraine-Russia talks in Istanbul.
Photo: AFP Agency
From Topkapi Palace, the administrative seat of the powerful sultans of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, located very close to the Hagia Sophia mosque, the view of the Bosphorus is unparalleled: from the front, the Asian side of Istanbul, and from the side, the gateway to the Golden Horn. What may have gone unnoticed by many tourists in February was that these waters heralded what was soon to become a nightmare for the West: Russian warships and submarines crossed the Bosphorus en route to the Black Sea. The goal? Attack Ukraineeven from the sea.
From the Russian invasion to Ukraine The panorama was also complicated for the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan“For Turkey, a member of NATO which has carried out a delicate balancing act between Kyiv and Moscow, the war forced him to make tough decisions,” Jeffrey Mankoff, a researcher at the U.S. National Defense University, told Foreign Policy. And one could start with the decision of Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, to precisely close the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to Russian warships, a measure which involved imposing the war clauses of the Montreux Convention of 1936, which regulates maritime traffic in the Turkish Strait. “An important symbolic decision in favor of Ukraine,” an expert told the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
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But for some analysts, this would be the perfect opportunity for Erdogan (especially with the approach of the 2023 presidential elections): “The case of Turkey is interesting, because it has good relations with both parties to the conflict. This allows him to play in a space of mediation which, in a way, corresponds to Erdogan’s interest in positioning Turkey as an important and autonomous country on an international scale”, declared Angélica Alba, professor at the Department of International Relations of Turkey Javeriana University newspaper.
Something similar commented Jeffrey Mankoff: “Turkish support for Ukraine is not only about curbing the expansion of Russian power, but also about showing Washington and its other NATO allies that Turkey remains a reliable partner, with a role to play in collective defence”. says the expert.
In the same vein, this Tuesday a new round of negotiations took place between Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul; the two delegations, before the meeting, met with President Erdogan. And, it seems, the talks have made the first steps: Russia has announced that it will “drastically” reduce its military activity near kyiv and Chernigov, and has even argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin could meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky (although the announcement was met with skepticism by the United States).
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But this role of mediator does not mean that Erdogan should not act with caution, since Russia and Turkey have been rivals in different geographical areas, and you only have to go back a few years to refresh your memory.
“In the Caucasus, we have seen Turkey supporting Azerbaijan and Russia support Armenia. Not to mention the case of the war in Syria: it is very clear that the support of Russia has been important for Bashar al-Assad, because the Russian attacks somehow helped him stay in power. While Turkey has always been an opponent and had a very difficult relationship with the Syrian regime,” Alba added. A scenario that columnist Asli Aydintasbas also recalled when he Washington Post: “Turkey and Russia they are historical rivals and have fought on opposite sides of the conflicts in Libya and Syria. In fact, Erdogan’s Russian romanticism died after Russian and Syrian planes killed 34 Turkish soldiers in Idlib, Syria two years ago.”
But that’s not why Turkey is ready to cut ties with Putin. “The relations of the two countries are essential, even more so for Turkey, because there is still an energy dependence, especially in terms of gas supply from Moscow to Ankara. Added to this is the fragility of the internal situation of the Turks, especially after an economic and leadership crisis, partly after the pandemic. So any decision regarding the imposition of sanctions on Russia by Erdogan, for example, will have huge implications for Turkey’s domestic politics,” researcher Yevgeniya Gaber told the Atlantic Council.
Here are some key facts about it: Turkey is a net importer of oil and gas. The country imports about 50 billion cubic meters (billion cubic meters) of natural gas per year, according to data from the US International Trade Administration. In 2020, Russia held 33.59% of natural gas imports, the Iran 11.06% and Azerbaijan 24%. , with the remaining natural gas coming from LNG imports.
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Let’s also not forget Erdogan’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system. Indeed, as Jeffrey Mankoff explains, some voices in Turkish political and military circles would like to go further, “considering that Russia’s pursuit of a non-Western security order in Eurasia is preferable to continued dependence on the ‘NATO’, the expert said. To which Alba added that Erdogan had decided to diversify his country’s foreign policy, after the EU’s hesitation to admit Turkey into the bloc: “And not only Russia enters this diversification scenario, Ankara also sought a leadership role in the Middle East from a political perspective,” the analyst said.
But in this scenario, we should not ignore the relationship with Ukraine. In general, Turkey has supported the territorial integrity of this country. In fact, Erdogan spoke out against the annexation of Crimea and, as Council on Foreign Relations experts explain, the Turkish leader advocated for the Crimean Tatars, a Turkish ethnic group that suffered under Russian rule.
A similar explanation was given by Angélica Alba: “The end of the Cold War changed many dynamics that existed until then, including Turkey’s relations with former Soviet republics. This is interesting, because a large part of these territories are predominantly Turkic, speak Turkic languages and share various historical and cultural traits to varying degrees. And Turkey has tried to generate a kind of closeness based on this identity and, although it cannot compete with this tradition that Russia has in these territories, it has tried to open up a space”, commented the expert.
Not to mention that Ankara has supplied Ukraine with armed drones, “the crown jewel of the Turkish defense industry”, as columnist Asli Aydintasbas put it. Fact: Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones are deadly and have been used in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Now they were used by Ukrainian troops to stop the Russian advance.
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There is also cooperation in economic matters between the two countries: Turkey and Ukraine signed a free trade agreement on the eve of the Russian invasion, after a growth in bilateral trade of almost 50% during of the first nine months of 2021. agreement, according to the leaders of the two countries, will allow the annual volume of trade to rise above 10,000 million US dollars. “At the end of the day, let’s say that Turkey ends up adopting the European position, but it also has no interest in alienating Russia,” Alba commented.
What awaits Turkey in these negotiations?
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that Moscow’s announcement of a pushback could be an attempt to divert attention. “There is what Russia says and what Russia does, and we focus on the latter,” the official said. “If they somehow believe that an effort to subjugate only the eastern part of Ukraine or the southern part of Ukraine can succeed, then once again they are deeply mistaken. “, he added.
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And it is that the Kremlin announced last week that it would focus its offensive on the “liberation” of Donbass, in the east of the country. At the same time, New York Times reported that Russian mercenaries with combat experience in Syria and Libya were preparing to fight in eastern Ukraine. In fact, hours before the talks, Russian troops attacked an oil depot in western Ukraine late Monday, according to Washington Post data. And they attacked a local administration building in Mykolaiv, where at least nine people were killed, according to Zelensky.
This is essential, because, as Jeffrey Mankoff mentions, the more the conflict grows, the less Erdogan will have room for manoeuvre. In other words, as the war affects ties with both countries (and drives up energy prices), “the Turkish economy, which is already experiencing inflation above 50%, will feel the repercussions.” , CFR analysts said.
For now, Ukrainian negotiators have established that if the country adopts this position of neutrality, its security will have to be guaranteed by a group of countries, including the United States, Turkey, China and Poland, to a similar extent. to the NATO principle. , which states that “an attack on one is an attack on all”.