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Why Turkey's Erdogan is trying to cast himself as the main mediator between Russia and Ukraine

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By Samuele Damilano  & Sergio Cantone
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.   -   Copyright  AP Photo

Since the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been casting himself as the only one able to act as a mediator between the two warring countries — reflecting the country's bid to secure more diplomatic heft in non-Western capitals. 

Erdogan's peacemaking efforts saw Ankara host two Russo-Ukrainian meetings in March. He first welcomed foreign ministers on 10 March and then delegations from both countries on 29 March before images of the massacre in Bucha made it even more difficult to find a compromise. 

A month later, Erdogan further bolstered his diplomatic credentials by coordinating a prisoner swap between the US and Russia.

Since then Turkish officials have met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a visit to Kyiv with Erdogan later expressing his willingness to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to pursue an agreement.

Erdogan's bid to cast himself as a big diplomatic player, and peacemaker in the conflict opposing Russia and Ukraine, can partly be explained by the deep economic ties linking Ankara to Moscow and by Turkey's stalled EU membership bid. 

The ties that bind

According to a January survey by Metropoll, Turkish citizens appeared split between whether their country's foreign policy should focus on the West or look East. Just under 39.5% of respondents opted for closer ties with Russia and China and 37.5% preferred the EU and US. 

Erdogan has accordingly been toeing the line, condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine while also sending barbs at NATO, arguing for instance that "the outbreak of the conflict is due to years of expansionism that did not respect the agreements after the fall of the Berlin Wall".

As for relations with Kyiv, a substantial community of ethnic Tatars, of Turkish origin — particularly in Crimea — binds the two countries. This goes to explain why a member of the Azov battalion, identifying as Muslim and of Tatar origin, appealed directly to the Turkish president to evacuate the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol on May 5.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walk ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 3, 2022.Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

"We are constantly bombed from the sky, from the sea and from the ground. Please carry out the procedures to evacuate people, including military personnel, from the territory of Azovstal. Put an end to this nightmare," he said then.

There are also economic and military ties between Ankara and Kyiv. Turkey was the main foreign investor in Ukraine in 2020 and relations were further strengthened in 2021 in both trade and the military sector. 

Under an agreement between the two countries, ratified by Ukraine's parliament, Ankara pledged to provide $18.5 million to Kyiv to help it meet its military needs. The deal also saw Turkey vow to provide "guarantees of security and peace" in the strategic Black Sea region.

"The two countries can be called friends," Léo Péria-Peigné, a researcher at the IFRI think tank, told Euronews. "Between 2019 and the outbreak of war, Zelenskyy and Erdoğan saw each other at least six times."

NATO: Love to hate you?

Additionally, despite being a NATO member, Turkish officials have at times adopted provocative positions on the transatlantic alliance or even carried out outright acts of defiance. 

The decision to purchase Russian-made S-400 missile system saw Ankara expelled from the F-35 development programme back in 2017. It also led to US sanctions on the defence sector on the basis of the Countering America Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (Caatsa) of 2017, which penalises countries that purchase defence weapons from Russia.

Yet, in September 2021, Erdoğan expressed his willingness to buy a second tranche of S-400 missiles.

"For Russia, this was a key move to further bind a NATO member that plays a key role in the Middle East," Marc Pierini, former EU ambassador to Turkey and researcher at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, told Euronews.

Ankara began talks with Moscow only three weeks after the failed coup in 2016, for which Erdoğan even suspected NATO involvement. It is probably also for this reason, Pierini argued, that he decided to turn to Moscow.

AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin speak during their meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, Dec. 3, 2012.AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service

"Turkey has become a prisoner of economic ties with Russia, with which at the same time, belonging to NATO, it does not share geopolitical ambitions. It is a very peculiar situation," Selim Kuneralp, former Turkish ambassador to the EU, stressed.

"Although one must always keep in mind that Russia, victorious or not, will still need Turkey, through which gas pipelines to Europe pass, and where it exports a lot and is building a nuclear power plant," he also flagged to Euronews.

Economic relations with Russia have been structured over the years according to what experts call "asymmetrical interdependence", meaning it is unbalanced and in favour of the Kremlin.

Russia supplies a third of Turkey's gas imports while Rosatom, a state company, is developing Turkey's first nuclear power plant expected to produce around 10% of the country's electricity from 2025. Russia is also Turkey's third-largest trading partner.

Black Sea, straits and the Montreaux Convention

Also linking the two countries is their geographical location and, above all, the importance that the Black Sea area plays for both.

The Black Sea and the straits that cross it have for various reasons been at the centre of Erdoğan's strategic decisions in recent years. All the more so in the course of the Russian invasion, seen by the Turkish leader as a threat to economic stability and at the same time as an opportunity to strengthen his geopolitical prestige.

Turkey is granted control of the area by the Montreaux Convention, signed in 1936 by Turkey, France, Greece, Romania, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. Its purpose is to regulate the passage of commercial and warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. The convention stipulates that in the course of a conflict Turkey may prohibit the passage through the straits of military vessels of belligerent countries. 

"At first Erdogan stalled, when he then realised the seriousness of the conflict he decided to close the straits," Pierini explained. "It is a decision that, on the other hand, benefits both NATO and Russia, the latter being more penalised as an invading country that, especially in the first part of the conflict, needed more supplies". 

Both the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Russian ambassador to Turkey welcomed the application of Article 19 of the Montreaux Convention.

In the event of a prolongation of the conflict, Ankara could in any case benefit from the eventual isolation of Russia — the leading naval power in the Black Sea — in order to maintain relations with other trading partners and impose itself in the area.

"The area is very important as it constitutes a source of energy discovered relatively recently," Péria-Peigné specified. "For more than a year, the Turkish president has been trying to diversify the sources of energy supply, sometimes even clashing with the European Union, particularly Greece."

It is no coincidence, moreover, that the area in which Russian military operations are concentrated, not only in the current invasion but also in the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea, is the one that overlooks the Black Sea: in other words, an energy resource and a fundamental embankment to NATO expansionism, which Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined in 2004. 

Turkey, however, has always frowned upon NATO's military presence in the Black Sea, refusing, for example, to participate in the creation of a limited maritime coordination proposed by Romania. 

Turkey wants peace

At the same time, Ankara is worried about Russia's expansionism in the region. So to what extent will Turkey be able to play the role of mediator, and not openly side with NATO?

"Erdoğan has not yet drawn a red line beyond which he would not tolerate the Russian initiative," Kuneralp said.

"I honestly do not see the scope for mediation now, but peace is certainly in Ankara's interest because it has very strong economic and diplomatic ties with Moscow," he added 

The energy sector is not the only one benefitting from the good relations between the two countries, Kuneralp added. The building sector also has strong ties to Russia. 

"Unlike European countries and the United States, Turkey has many companies that have obtained licences to build in Russia. Companies that inevitably suffer from the sanctions imposed by other western countries," he pointed out. 

These are not pressing too hard for Ankara to join the increasingly heavy sanctions imposed on Russia. 

Not least because the domestic economy is far from experiencing its best period. The Turkish lira has lost even more value against the dollar since the outbreak of the war, exacerbating a trend that has driven the inflation rate up to 61% last March. 

There are elections in a year's time and, Kuneralp explained, the focus of Turkish citizens' concerns is not foreign policy but economic stability.

Péria-Peigné, on the other hand, takes a different view: "I think that the mediator role that Erdoğan is playing is precisely to tone down the foreign policy interventionism of recent years, to present himself to his voters as a more neutral and moderate figure."

On one thing, however, all those questioned agree: Turkey also wants peace. The problem is that now neither Ukraine, NATO nor Russia seem willing to make an effort to end the war.