In late October 2021, the Russian Federation started mobilizing tens of thousands of soldiers and military equipment on the Ukraine border. The situation became even more tense once the Russian Federation sent troops and military equipment to Belarus for joint military exercises. At the same time, Moscow demanded security guarantees from the United States and warned Washington that Ukraine was a red line for the security of the Russian Federation. This has led NATO and Kiev leaders to fear a possible invasion of Ukraine. On January 21st, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva to ease the situations. Following the talks, both states have decided to continue negotiations, and the Russian side expects the United States to provide in writing this week the security guarantees asked by the Russian Federation.
While representatives of the United States and the Russian Federation were negotiating in Geneva, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his desire to mediate the conflict between Kiev and Moscow, citing Turkey’s good relations with both states.
Turkey’s relations with the Russian Federation and Ukraine
After 1991, Turkey sought to strengthen its relations with the Russian Federation but also with Ukraine, and currently maintains very good relations with both of them. Turkey has raised bilateral relations with the Russian Federation (2010) and with Ukraine (2011) to the level of strategic partnership. These agreements have laid the foundations for the Turkey-Russia and Turkey-Ukraine High-Level Cooperation Council, which holds annual meetings. Turkey seeks to strengthen economic, military and diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation and Ukraine.
In the economic field, the Russian Federation is an important partner for Turkey. According to the Turkish National Institute of Statistics, in 2021 the volume of economic exchanges between the two states amounted to about $ 30 billion. In 2021, the Russian Federation ranked second in the list of countries from which Turkey imported the most goods. Data for the same year show that the Russian Federation ranked 10th in the top of the most important markets for Turkish products. As for Ukraine, in 2021, the volume of economic exchanges between Ankara and Kiev was about $ 6.6 billion, an increase of 50% from the previous year. In 2021, Turkey was Ukraine’s fifth largest economic partner and largest foreign investor.
In the defence field, Ankara cooperates with both Moscow and Kiev. Turkey bought the S-400 anti-aircraft system from the Russian Federation and last year announced that it wants to buy another one. Turkey has also shown interest in Russian Su-35 fighter jets. As for Ukraine, cooperation is much closer in this area. In recent years, the two states have signed agreements for technology transfer and cooperation in 30 projects in the military industry. Ukraine will supply engines for some helicopters and missiles produced by Turkey, and also for the drones made by Turkish company Bayraktar. Prior to these agreements, Turkey sold dozens of TB2 drones to Ukraine.
At diplomatic level, Turkey has tried to maintain good relations with both Russia and Ukraine. In recent years, there has been intense activity in Turkish diplomacy with Moscow and Kiev. During 2019-2021, Erdoğan paid seven official visits to the Russian Federation to meet with Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, in the last three years, his Russian counterpart has made two official visits to Ankara. These visits are related to the dossiers in which the two states cooperate (Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh). Despite divergent views on the above-mentioned issues, and the fact that Turkey does not recognize the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, the two states have tried to focus on finding mutually acceptable solutions. In order not to damage relations with the Russian Federation, Ankara has not imposed sanctions on Moscow for the illegal annexation of Crimea. Good relations between the two states and personal diplomacy helped Erdoğan negotiate in 2017 with Vladimir Putin the release of two Ukrainians belonging to the Tatar minority, detained by Russian authorities in Crimea. On that occasion, the then Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, thanked the Turkish leader for his help.
Following the Skripal scandal in March 2018, when a former Russian intelligence officer was poisoned in the UK, several Western states expelled Russian diplomats in protest. Turkey was one of six NATO member states, along with Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia, which did not expel any Russian diplomats. This is due to the economic and energy importance of Moscow for Ankara. Despite the competition between the two states in the Black Sea region, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Africa, they are pursuing a collaboration based on a win-win strategy.
Regarding the relations with Kiev, Turkey has repeatedly stated that it respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and that it will never recognize the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. Ankara also supports Kiev’s accession to the EU and NATO. Cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine is also strengthened by the 2 + 2 format, which has been working since 2020, and which provides for annual meetings between the foreign and defence ministers of the two states. Regarding the high-level visits, between 2019-2021, Erdogan had five official meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the next one will take place in February in Kiev. Ankara’s good relations with the Russian Federation and Ukraine could be noticed during the summer of 2021, when Moscow and Kiev sent air support to help extinguish the forest fires in Turkey. At the same time, in November 2021 the Ukrainian President declared that at the proposal of the Turkish president, he offered Erdoğan a list of 450 Ukrainian prisoners, in order to negotiate their release with Vladimir Putin.
Turkey’s desire to mediate relations between Ukraine and Russia
In November 2021, Turkey’s President expressed his desire to mediate the crisis between Russia and Ukraine in order to ensure peace and stability in the region. The Russian Federation rejected the proposal, but Ukraine welcomed the initiative, saying that any effort to resolve the conflict and liberate Ukrainian territories is welcome.
On January 19, two days before the meeting between Blinken and Lavrov, Ibrahim Kalın, the presidential administration spokesman, reiterated Turkey’s proposal to mediate a settlement between Moscow and Kiev. Kalın said that Turkey is ready to get involved in easing the situation between Russia and Ukraine and avoiding conflict in the region. He added that President Erdoğan is in contact with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also claimed that Erdogan had invited the two leaders to Turkey for talks.
Russia’s reaction came immediately through Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. During a press conference in Moscow, he stated that any effort that could help resolve the situation in Ukraine is welcome. Also, Peskov added that if Turkey can influence Ukraine to comply with the Minsk agreements, then this initiative is welcome. On the other hand, Ukraine has also shown its willingness to participate in the negotiations.
During a press conference on 20th January, the Turkish president said he hopes to bring the Ukrainian and Russian Presidents face to face as soon as possible to end tensions in the region. Erdoğan underlined that he wanted to avoid conflict and peace to prevail in the region. The Kremlin’s spokesman denied there was such a plan. He added that no bilateral meeting or telephone talks between Putin and Erdogan were scheduled. Sources in the Turkish Foreign Ministry said on condition of anonymity that in order to resolve the crisis, Turkey is considering hosting the next trilateral meeting of the Minsk Group – Ukraine – Russia in Istanbul, as well as with the attendance of representatives of separatist groups in Donbas. On 21th January, Erdogan reaffirmed his desire to mediate between Kiev and Moscow.
“Turkey has peaceful relations with Russia, as they have never been in bilateral history. They have a political, military, economic and cultural basis, and relations between Russia and Turkey continue to develop in this context. We also have good political, military, economic and cultural relations with Ukraine. We cannot allow these developments to turn into negative ones between Russia and Ukraine.”
By doing so, Turkey wants to help resolve the crisis in order to avoid a war and maintain a stable and predictable climate in the Black Sea region. A possible conflict would significantly affect Ankara’s interests, given that, as we have shown above, Ukraine is an important economic and military partner of Turkey. For the time being, Turkey’s attention is focused on the events in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Caucasus, and a possible conflict in the Black Sea region would cause even more problems for the Turkish administration. Turkey’s initiative to mediate the crisis between Russia and Ukraine is part of Ankara’s foreign policy strategy, which aims to get involved in resolving regional issues. This gives Turkey the opportunity to be present at the negotiating table and to be able to influence the outcome of the talks in its own interest too. Turkey’s attempt to get involved in the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine helps consolidate its boost of image and promotion of soft power. Ankara’s desire to mediate the crisis between Moscow and Kiev may help strengthen relations with the two states. Ukraine is open to mediation by Turkey, relying on the influence that Ankara can have on Moscow. On the other hand, despite Peskov’s openness for Ankara’s proposal, Russia is not interested in Turkey’s mediation. Its involvement in resolving Russia-Ukraine issues would increase Ankara’s role and influence in the Black Sea region. As we noticed in the 2020 peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia refused to allow Turkey to participate in the Moscow talks and was irritated by Ankara’s insistence on sending peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh. This is due to the fact that the Russian Federation wants to limit Ankara’s influence in the ex-Soviet space. Nonetheless, Turkey’s initiative falls into the background at the present time, given that Moscow’s most important goal is to obtain security guarantees following the negotiations with the United States.