In recent years, Turkey has been known for shifting its position between west and east. The Ukraine war has provided Turkey with an extraordinary chance to recast its image as a constructive player in the international system in the eyes of both Western and Eastern states. All major and minor states alike have hailed its mediating role in helping Ukraine resolve a deadlock situation with Russia. Despite being a NATO member, Turkey appears to be playing an ascetic role in this war by giving arms to Ukraine while refusing to impose sanctions on Russia. This article will examine what drove Turkey to take the lead in mediating the Ukraine crisis between Ukraine and Russia, as well as how this active engagement has strengthened Turkey’s regional leadership.
There is a complex backdrop and circumstances behind Turkey’s decision to play an active role rather than just being a passive actor. The Ukraine crisis has posed a significant challenge for Turkey, which is a NATO member and shares an adjacent area with Eastern Ukraine along the Black Sea. Despite having a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan has been praised for his support for Ukraine on humanitarian grounds and NATO’s plan to expand its presence around the Black Sea. However, Turkey has a historical obligation under the Montreux Convention of 1936 not to allow any foreign warships to pass between the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. I Additionally Turkey’s continued supply of weapons to Ukraine has been critical in Moscow’s eyes. The game-changing Bayraktar TB2 drone system, manufactured in Turkey, has done significant damage to Russian progress in Ukraine’s battlefields. However, as the Ukraine crisis heats up, Washington hopes Turkey will take a more active role in the fight against Russian expansionism. Erdogan has been cautious on this topic, attempting to portray his country as a neutral party in the Ukraine conflict. Erdogan proposed a mediation role to Russia and Ukraine in January, inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky to visit Turkey and meet together to find a constructive solution to the two nations’ growing tensions. However, Russia rejected Turkey’s proposal, while Ukraine stated that it would sit for a settlement under Turkish mediation. Turkey was already in uncomfortable situation with its drone sale to Ukraine as Defense Minister Hulusi Akar was trying to defend its position that, “It is up to Ukraine to acquire and use those systems. Turkey, as an exporter, cannot be blamed over them,” he also said “One should also take into account that Ukraine is part of NATO’s Enhanced Opportunities Partners. Therefore, enhancing Ukraine’s defense capabilities constitutes one of the points of NATO’s Individual Partnership Action Plans. Turkey has contributed to boosting Ukraine’s defense capacity, bilaterally and within the NATO framework.” Turkey has also tried to assert its neutrality question by evoking that it has also bought controversial Russian S-400 air defense system previously angering Western allies, particularly the United States.
Ankara is also concerned about the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine. It will have to make difficult choices in a few areas. As the war in Ukraine spreads, maintaining navigational neutrality in the Black Sea is seen as the most important issue to be reflected in its policy undertaking. Turkey has also been dealing with tensions over its Russian gas pipeline, and market access to Russia is critical for its economic survival. Turkey’s economic capability is boosted by Russian tourists, and the country has an asymmetric dependence on Russia. These factors are likely to have discouraged Erdogan from joining the West in penalizing Russia’s economy. However, if the battle continues, this position will become vulnerable. That is why Turkey has been attempting to mediate the Ukraine crisis as the continuance and spread of the conflict in Ukraine is detrimental to Turkey’s interests, and regional instability is also a disincentive.
Turkey’s persistent efforts have resulted in an agreement between the two parties to have talks in Antalya, in southern Turkey. It was the first formal meeting between Russia and Ukraine since the Russian military incursion inside Ukraine began on February 24. The meeting was facilitated by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. The negotiations have been joined by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. It should be cleared that Turkey has been maintaining a balanced relations between these two countries even before the initiation of the conflict. It has denounced the aggression of Russia in Ukraine but opposed to put sanctions on Russia is probably the main feature of Turkish policy towards Russian in Ukraine war despite being a NATO member state. However, this Foreign Ministerial talks have earned huge hype as even Erdogan remarking that, “We especially hope that this meeting is a turning point and … an important step towards peace and stability. We are working to stop this crisis from transforming into a tragedy, I hope the meeting between the ministers will open the way to a permanent ceasefire.” Though the after meeting outcome was not that auspicious since Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s plea for ceasefire within 24 hours was declined by his Russian counterpart. Kuleba did show Ukraine’s determination against Russian rigid position. But Turking Foreign Minister has cleared that this talk was as a part of initiating further negotiation between these two countries for a better solution of the ongoing conflict. Evidently, it was the first visit of the Russian Foreign Minister’s after the start of war since he was also under travel ban by many western countries. Independent observers have marked this meeting arranged by Turkey bringing Lavrov and Kuleba together as ‘a step forward’ and culminating towards the process of using further diplomatic means in Moscow. Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has remarked on the talks extending Turkey’s role that, “But I think this is still a significant achievement for Turkish diplomats, the fact that they can get the foreign ministers of these two parties in brutal conflict to sit together around a table in a neutral location, it’s a very significant achievement.”
US envoy in Turkey has also applauded Turkish leadership role in mediating the negotiation between two conflicting parties on the eve of Turkey joining NATO for 70 years. US ambassador to Turkey Jeff Flake has urged that, “I just want to pay tribute to the Turkish government for their dogged efforts to try to find a diplomatic solution. It is a tough job, and they have continued and continue now to push for a diplomatic solution.” In fact Biden’s has acknowledged Turkey’s impressive role facilitating the negotiation process in his 45 minutes talk with Erdogan. Interestingly Erdogan has pushed Turkey’s demand to let it buy F-35 jets as it has banned after Turkey buying Russian S-400 in 2019. However, Moscow has similarly appreciated the Ankara’s efforts to bring negotiated settlement of the disputes. Surely, this initiative gas been reflected in subsequent initiation of further talks between Russian and Ukraine under Ukraine’s mediation.
It is evident that few countries have tried to play a pioneering role in mediating the Ukraine crisis but Turkey has emerged as a winner after holding the talks. In fact, French President Emanuel Macron have called many times to Vladimir Putin but it was Erdogan has been able to extend the first round Foreign Ministerial talk to second round on March 31. Erdogan has in fact briefed the delegates from both Russia and Ukraine before the main meeting at Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul. However after the meeting, Mevlut Cavusoglu has expressed that this round of talks have been more effective as consensus has been reached on few issues following the peace talks. He has also defined this meeting as the most meaningful progress since the start of negotiations. But the most concerning issues are to be addressed by the highest level delegates following the talks by Foreign Ministers and Prime Ministers.
However, Turkey’s position has been very admired by all parties involved in the negotiation process. Specially, the credibility of Turkey as a mediator has been trusted by both parties to deescalate the conflicting situation in Ukraine. Moscow has been also vocal applauding the Turkish neutral ground on offering mediation. Moscow has thanked Erdogan for not being like Western countries as they are blind in understanding the security concerns of Russia. Its denial to join in sanction programs by the Western countries has been appreciated. Turkey has also trickily framed its condemnation against Russian aggression in Ukraine unacceptable while it balanced with its refusal to sanction Russia economically for its own economic interest. At the same time, Russia has been supplying weapons to Ukraine which are used against Russia in Ukraine. Despite conflicting interests and positions, Turkey has been able to consolidate a positive image. It is probably the most valuable gain of Turkey to gain the appreciation from the both sides. Obviously, Turkish leadership has gained greater traction in brokering mediation on Ukraine conflict being impartial.
Author of this article is a MSS student in
the University of Dhaka.