Why is Turkey trying to mediate the Ukraine-Russia crisis?

The NATO member is aligned with Russia on several conflicts but also sells weapons to Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia in 2021.
Erdogan talks regularly to Putin but also has defence deals with Kyiv [File: Vladimir Smirnov/Reuters]

Istanbul, Turkey – Turkey is hoping to help defuse tensions between its NATO allies and Russia over the Ukraine crisis, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expected to meet his counterparts on both sides of the conflict in the coming weeks.

Turkey was “ready to do whatever is necessary” to avoid a war, Erdogan said on Wednesday night during a televised interview.

“I hope that Russia will not make an armed attack or occupy Ukraine. Such a step will not be a wise act for Russia or the region,” he said. “There is a need for dialogue that will listen to Russia and eliminate their reasonable security concerns.”

For months, Ankara has been calling for NATO and Russia to tone down their rhetoric.

Erdogan frequently meets with and talks by phone to Putin, and on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian leader was ready to visit Turkey, although the exact timing of such a visit would depend on scheduling and concerns over the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Erdogan is already scheduled to visit Kyiv sometime in February, to meet President Voldomyr Zelenskyy.

Russia has put about 100,000 soldiers near the Ukrainian border, raising fears among NATO members that Putin is planning an attack, in particular, to take eastern portions that have a large ethnic Russian population, where in the past Moscow has attempted to exert its influence.

Moscow says it has no plan to launch such an invasion, and instead has asked NATO to keep Ukraine from joining the alliance, and to give assurances missiles and other military assets are not put near its border – demands that Washington and the alliance have turned down.

‘Legitimate concerns’

“By virtue of both geography and history, but also beyond that, more in practical terms, by virtue of economic, security, and defence interests, Turkey has a stake in what’s going on between Russia and Ukraine, or what is sort of simmering,” said Alper Coşkun, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, and former Turkish ambassador to Azerbaijan.

By making a point to reach out to both sides, Coskun said, Turkey is making sure it is understood that it has a part in the crisis.

Turkey is invested in the Ukrainian defence industry, having sold it Bayraktar TB2 drones starting in 2019, which Kyiv has deployed and used to attack pro-Russian forces in Donbas in recent months.

That use of Turkish drones drew a sharp rebuke from Moscow, with Putin telling Erdogan in a phone call in December that Ankara was involved in “provocative” and “destructive” activity.

Turkish officials have since said it should not be blamed for what Ukraine does with the drones; Ankara has signed agreements to sell more drones to Kyiv and committed to joint production.

In September, Turkish drone-maker Bayraktar signed a deal to build a TB2 production factory near the Ukrainian capital, and in December, Ukrainian officials said they would produce the long-endurance Anka drone, made by Turkish Aerospace Industries, in facilities in the country, with the engine being produced by Ukraine.

At the same time, Turkey is involved with Russia militarily in a number of conflicts. In Syria, Turkey and Russia coordinate joint military patrols and ceasefire agreements in a highly complex dance where US, Iranian, Kurdish, and Syrian government forces frequently cross paths.

In Libya, Turkey has backed a United Nations-recognised government that is at war with groups backed by Russia.

Turkey is also economically reliant on Russia, with millions of Russian tourists bringing much-needed foreign currency each year to the country, and Ankara relies heavily on natural gas from Russian suppliers.

There are also the very real implications of Turkey’s geography: under the 1936 Montreux Convention, it is duty-bound to ensure access to the Black Sea not just for Russian naval ships, but also for those that would end up on the other side in a war, including Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria.

As the second-largest army in NATO, Turkey would be on the front line in any protracted war the alliance would enter with Russia.

Balancing act

“Turkey does not want to be put in a position to choose between Russia and Ukraine, because it has a relationship with Russia in other theatres, particularly in Syria, where it relies on Russia to control the situation and prevent it from escalating,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former diplomat and director of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.

He added that Turkey also needs Ukraine, “where there is a burgeoning relationship focused on defence industries”.

So far, Turkey has walked a fine line on the issue of Russian expansion in the region.

During the 2008 Russian intervention in Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, Turkey refused to lift restrictions on the size and number of US warships it would allow through the Bosphorus to enter the Black Sea and confront Russia.

This was despite the fact that Turkey, as a fellow member of NATO, had backed programmes to train and equip Georgian armed forces by the alliance.

After 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, Turkey refused to implement US and European Union sanctions on Russia.

Since then Turkey has refused, along with its NATO allies, to recognise the Russian annexation as legal – but it has still not implemented those unilateral sanctions on Moscow over the occupation.

That contradictory policy towards Russia would have to change if a war involving NATO broke out, said Ulgen.

“If there is talk of conflict, Turkey will come under pressure also to align itself with the sanctions policy firstly, and that would [be] a major dilemma,” Ulgen said. “And the second major dilemma would be on the ongoing relationship with Ukraine, in particular, whether Turkey will continue to supply armed drones or not. And there, there is very little neutral ground, in the sense that the answer can be only ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and both would put Turkey firmly in one camp.”

While Erdogan is unlikely to influence NATO regarding Russia’s demands such as barring Ukraine from joining, Coşkun said it could play a positive role in starting a debate over what seems to be Putin’s larger concern: the problematic nature of the European security alliance near Russia’s borders.

“The fact that we’re even debating all of this right now, in this manner … is a development that [Russia] seemed to want,” Coşkun said. “So it depends on what the end goal in Putin’s mind is. If it is kinetic warfare, and to further advance its presence and domination of the Donbas, it’s very difficult to stop that.

“But if it’s more about triggering, really, an in-depth debate on Euro-Atlantic security, and how we can build an architecture where we will continue, maybe, to have our disagreements, but we can instil more stability – then that’s something that Turkey can contribute to.”

Source: Al Jazeera