Turkey Pulse

Turkey’s complex balancing act between Russia and Ukraine

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Article Summary
President Erdogan’s desire to mediate between Moscow and Kiev is confounded by Turkish policies in Crimea and Russian separatism in eastern Ukraine.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to convince Russia and Ukraine to resolve their differences diplomatically — following their recent naval skirmish in the Kerch Strait — has given pro-government circles in Turkey the impression that Ankara is poised to play a mediation role in this crisis.

Erdogan also encouraged this impression prior to departing for the G-20 summit in Argentina on Nov. 29. He told reporters that he had discussed the matter with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and added that they would explore this possibility further with Putin during the G-20 summit.

If this mediation were to come about it would enhance Erdogan’s image at a time when the race for crucial local elections in March is heating up. Nothing would contribute to his image more than a major international success in bringing Russia and Ukraine together.

Erdogan’s generally negative international image improved relatively in September after he mediated a cease-fire settlement for Syria’s Idlib province, and prevented an attack on the region by Russian and Syrian forces. UN officials lauded Erdogan for preventing a bloodbath.

Any possibility that Ankara could play a mediating role between Moscow and Kiev was, however, stillborn due to a combination of factors.

Although it may not appear so at first glance, Turkey has in fact already taken sides in the dispute between its two Black Sea neighbors. Ankara is officially opposed to Moscow’s “illegal annexation” of the Crimea in 2014, which it continues to refuse to accept.

Ankara also supports the Crimean Tatars, with whom it shares ties of kinship and religion, and has spoken out against Moscow’s efforts to criminalize Tatar leaders who are also opposed to Russian annexation of the peninsula.

Ankara has also been officially supportive of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, which in this case means opposing ethnic Russian separatism in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

During an official visit to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in October 2017 Erdogan was emphatic that Turkey would remain committed to supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity.

“We have not recognized the illegal annexation of the Crimea and will not do so,” Erdogan told a press conference in Kiev.

“We will keep this topic alive on the international agenda. We believe in the importance of diplomatic and legal steps to overcome the illegal situation in the Crimea and will work in coordination with Ukraine on this subject,” he added.

He also referred to the situation in the Donbass region. “We believe this problem can only be solved within international law and on the basis of Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” Erdogan said.

These remain Turkey’s official positions today, which the Ukrainian side also likes to emphasize in order to strengthen its hand against Russia.

During his visit to Turkey in early November, Poroshenko said Ukrainians felt “the reliable presence of our Turkish partners during Ukraine’s most difficult moments, during attacks by Russia.”

Such statements undoubtedly raise eyebrows on the Russian side, where nationalist sentiments run high when it comes to the questions of eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. These issues remain non-negotiable for Russia.

Ankara has, nevertheless, preferred to remain low-key on the Russian-Ukrainian dispute, only mentioning its official position on occasions when the subject can’t be avoided, and ensuring at such times that what it says doesn’t antagonize Moscow in a manner that would undermine Turkish-Russian ties.

Turkey is increasingly dependent on Russia for a host of reasons, starting with its desire to counterbalance its deteriorating ties with the West, and the situation in Syria, not to mention the growing cooperation between the two countries in the energy and military industry fields.

Ankara’s cautious stance was revealed again during the recent face-off at the mouth of the Sea of Azov. In a relatively innocuous statement the Turkish Foreign Ministry appeared to be criticizing Russia by calling on “unhindered passage into the Azov Sea” to be maintained.

Nevertheless, it went on to call on both sides to refrain from endangering regional peace and stability, to respect international law, and to act using common sense and restraint to avoid increasing tensions.

A day after this statement Erdogan told his parliamentary group in Ankara on Nov. 27 that Turkey wanted to see this dispute resolved by peaceful means, and the Black Sea turned into “a sea of peace.”

“At a time when the world is grappling with serious political, economic and military threats, we would be happy to see Russia and Ukraine side by side, rather than facing each other,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan held separate phone conversations with Poroshenko and Putin on the same day, calling on the two countries to overcome their difference by diplomatic means.

News of these conversations was picked up enthusiastically by pro-government circles in Turkey as a sign that Ankara would be mediating between Moscow and Kiev. By that time, though, Moscow had already put a damper on this expectation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Paris — just as Erdogan was addressing his parliamentary group — that Moscow did not need mediation in this crisis, and referred to the situation in the Kerch Strait as a “practical matter.” 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov repeated this position a day after Erdogan’s phone conversations with Putin and Poroshenko.

“We are thankful to everyone who is willing to help defuse the situation provoked by Ukraine, but we do not think there is a need for any mediation,” Peskov told Turkish reporters in Moscow. 

What compounds Ankara’s difficult position in the Russian-Ukrainian dispute is the fact that the Turkish-Russian relationship is increasingly taking on a strategic appearance. This was highlighted once again during the recent groundbreaking ceremony for the TurkStream project, which will carry Russian natural gas to Europe through Turkey.

This also provided an example of how Ankara has to engage in diplomatic contortions to maintain good ties with Moscow and Kiev.

The Russian side may be unhappy about Ankara’s stance on Crimea and Donbass. The Ukrainian side, however, is perhaps unhappier because of projects such as TurkStream, which are designed to circumvent Ukraine.

Turkey may laud the “strategic ties” it is developing with Ukraine in key areas such as military industry, construction and tourism. But it has not held back from entering projects with Russia that will ultimately weaken Ukraine’s hand against Moscow.

“Turkey’s heart may lie with Ukraine, but its head lies with Russia,” according to a Western diplomat based in Ankara.

“Moscow seems prepared to let Ankara’s statements favoring Ukraine go by, because it is concerned with Turkey’s actions more than its word. Turkey’s actions indicate that its interests with Russia will trump its interests in Ukraine if matters come to a head,” the diplomat told Al-Monitor on background because of his sensitive position.

Retired Ambassador Selim Kuneralp is among those who say the latest crisis in the dispute between Ukraine and Russia has revealed Ankara’s growing dependence on Moscow again.

“Turkey has effectively surrendered to Russia because of its dispute with the West,” Kuneralp told Al-Monitor. “It is unable to raise its voice against Russia too much because of this, and only issues statements that Moscow does not take seriously,” he added.

Kuneralp indicated that the TurkStream project, which is contrary to Ukraine’s interests, shows the degree to which Ankara in prepared to accept Russia’s policies, despite the fact that Moscow is rarely supportive of issues that Turkey is sensitive about.

Kuneralp pointed to the enthusiastic “high-five” Putin gave Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G-20 summit in Argentina, when Western leaders were in line with Turkey on the need to increase pressure on Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi murder.

Moscow’s support in Libya for the faction opposed by Ankara, its traditional position favoring the Greek Cypriots, and even its support for the Assad regime in Syria are all examples of the lack of Russian support on subjects of close interest to Turkey, according to Kuneralp.

“We have surrendered to Russia but are gaining little in return” Kuneralp said, indicating that the only way out of this morass ultimately is for Ankara is to return to its traditional Western orientation and the values this entails.

Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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