- Norberto Paredes @norbertparedes
- BBC News World
Hours after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Turkish Foreign Ministry called it “unacceptable” and a “serious violation of international law”.
After speaking with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the Russian invasion as a “hard blow to regional peace and stability”.
Turkey’s stance came as a surprise to some, as Ankara and Moscow have been key strategic allies in the South Caucasus region for more than a decade.
The two regimes supported each other maintain an anti-American and anti-European policy, support regimes like that of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and forge ever-deeper trade ties.
Today, Russia is one of Turkey’s main trading partners, its main supplier of natural gas and the source of most tourists who flock to the bustling Turkish resorts of the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.
The apparent friendship between Putin and Erdogan has seen many ups and downs. He overcame the opposition of visions in the wars in Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria, where Turkey shot down a Russian fighter.
It even surpassed the assassination of a Russian ambassador in Ankara.
Ter Minassian Taline, a historian at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) in Paris, describes it as a “pragmatic” friendship.
“There is a lot of ambiguity in relations between Russia and Turkey. Putin and Erdogan understand each other very well and understand each other’s problems. They are friends, but at the same time enemies,” the Soviet and Middle Eastern studies specialist told BBC Mundo.
“It’s actually a pragmatic friendship where everyone looks out for their interests,” he continues.
Minassian Talin explains that Turkey’s position in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is complicated because Ankara also maintains a deep relationship with Kyivespecially in the military field.
This relationship has recently enabled Ukraine to defend its cities against Russian bombardment with dozens of Turkish-made drones purchased by the Ukrainian government.
Videos have been shared on social media in recent weeks showing Bayraktar TB2 drones destroying Russian tanks, armored vehicles and missile defense systems.
Turkey began selling these artifacts to Ukraine in 2019, and kyiv had previously used them to fight pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbass region.
The drones are produced by the defense company Baykar, which belongs to the family of Erdogan’s son-in-law.
“Putin is probably furious that the Ukrainians are using military drones produced by Turkey,” Ter Minassian Taline wonders.
Kyiv has also supported Turkish foreign policy on numerous occasions.
Although he did not send arms, Ukraine supported diplomatically Azerbaijan and Turkey during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020.
But in the current conflict, Turkey has decided to play a mediating role, according to Dimitar Bechev, an expert on Russia and Eastern Europe at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
Erdoğan wants facilitate dialogue between Zelensky and the Kremlin. He was offering it even before the war started, when he visited kyiv in February,” he said in an interview with BBC Mundo.
“The question is whether Ankara can really succeed in this role,” he adds.
In early March, Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov of Russia and Dimitro Kuleba of Ukraine held meetings in the Turkish resort town of Antalyain the south-west of the country, in the presence of the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu.
But the discussions did not lead to concrete results.
A point of view”
Despite this, Turkey’s role as mediator continued.
Last weekend, the Turkish government assured that Kyiv and Moscow had made progress in negotiations to stop the war and that both sides were “close to agreement“.
Cavusoglu reiterated that Turkey was in contact with the negotiating teams of the two countries, but refused to divulge details of the talks because, he said, “we are playing an honest role of mediator and facilitator”.
Erdogan has repeatedly said that Turkey will not abandon its relations with Russia or Ukraine and underlined the advantageous position that Ankara occupies by being able to talk to both parties.
Turkey did not sanction Russia nor has it closed its airspace to Russian aircraft like the rest of the NATO countries.
However, he suspended the passage of Russian warships through the Turkish strait that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, imposing the war clauses of the Montreux Convention of 1936 which regulates maritime traffic in the Turkish strait.
For the Erdogan government, Ukraine is geopolitically important because for many years it functioned as a “cushion state” between Russia and Turkey, two major regional powers.
“But Ukraine’s role as a buffer state ended after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. However, Turkey knows that Kyiv is an important ally for counterbalance Russia in the region“, explains Bechev, an expert at the University of Oxford.
Bechev describes the relationship between Erdogan and Putin as a “marriage of convenience”.
“they need each other in various aspects and compete with each other in others, but it is important to note that they have learned to do business together,” he explains.
Some analysts doubt that the strong alliance shown by Erdogan and Putin in the past will resume one day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Beyond the supposed friendship between Erdogan and Putin, there are the interests of both countries,” insists Bechev.
Bechev believes that Moscow and Ankara will continue to have overlapping interestsbut the Turkish government’s “fear” of the Kremlin will persist.
“It will never be a friendship again, but Ankara cannot afford to cut all ties with Russia and that is why it has not adhered to the sanctions,” he explains.
Meanwhile, Turkey has re-emerged in recent weeks as a haven for thousands of Russians who reject war and seek to rebuild their lives in another country.
According to the famous Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, about 14,000 Russians fled to Turkeywhere they do not need a visa to travel, since the start of the so-called “Putin war”.
A recurring dilemma
Inalco expert Ter Minassian Taline believes it is important to highlight the “ambiguity” Turkey has shown in the current crisis and believes it suits him.
The Erdogan government refrained from voting against or in favor of suspending Russia’s seat in the Council of Europe, but at the same time supported a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the “aggression against Ukraine“.
More than half a century ago, after the end of World War II, Turkish leaders decided to join the West because they feared Stalin’s Russia and wanted “to be on the right side of history “.
This is why former President Mustafa İsmet İnönü encouraged Turkey’s entry into transatlantic institutionslike NATO.
Today, Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be facing the same dilemma. And, for many, his “ambiguity” shows that he has once again chosen the West, but without antagonizing the Kremlin too much.
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