Turkey tries to stay neutral as Russia’s war drags on
Turkey has shown itself adept at maintaining its neutrality regarding the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. While Ankara has condemned Russia’s “special military operation”, it has also refused to follow the lead of its NATO allies in backing US sanctions against Moscow. According to local experts, his reasons for doing so are both economic and political and reflect Turkey’s varied approach to its relations with Russia.
“Turkey is a neighbor of the two countries, with which it maintains intense economic relations”, Halil Akinci, who served as Turkey’s ambassador to Russia from 2008 to 2010, told The Epoch Times.
“It is therefore in Ankara’s interest to remain on good terms with both of them.”
Neutrality, he added, also left Turkey in an ideal position to mediate – thereby raising its international profile – “since we are the only ones acceptable to both sides”.
Conviction without sanctions
When the Russian operation began on February 24, Turkish officials condemned it as “unacceptable” and a “violation of international law”. However, they were quick to point out that Ankara – unlike its NATO allies – has no intention of applying US-led sanctions against Russia.
Professor Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, political analyst and head of the Ankara Center for Crisis and Politics, an independent think tank, said Turkey had “reasonable grounds” for refusing to back sanctions.
“Turkey is positioning itself as a mediator by keeping communication channels open with Russia,” Erol told The Epoch Times. He went on to say that Ankara and Moscow were closely engaged on a wide range of issues based on the principles of “cooperation and competition”.
Akinci, when asked if Turkey was under pressure from NATO to take a tougher line against Russia, said no one could reasonably expect Ankara to apply sanctions, especially given the current economic realities.
“Because of its massive trade dependence on Russia, Turkey is unable to do so. [i.e., enforce sanctions],” he said. “Like the rest of the world, Turkey simply cannot ignore Russia’s vast natural resources.”
Indeed, it is estimated that 45% of Turkey’s natural gas imports currently come from Russia, as well as more than 75% of its imported wheat. This represents a dire situation for a country that has seen its currency lose more than 80% of its value year-on-year, sending the prices of many staples, including bread, skyrocketing.
At the same time, Turkey maintains important trade relations with Ukraine, which still supplies 10-15% of its total wheat imports. Ankara and Kyiv also cooperate in the field of defense industries, including the joint manufacture of aerial drones.
“Constructive” mediation efforts
Turkish neutrality may be economically expedient, but it has also served to raise the profile of the country by positioning it as the ideal mediator – a role it has assumed with flying colors. On March 10, Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers met in the Turkish resort town of Antalya; and on March 29, delegations from both countries met in Istanbul. Although hailed by all parties as “constructive”, the talks did not produce any tangible breakthrough.
Russia, for its part, which seems to have the upper hand militarily, demands guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO. It also demands recognition by Kyiv of Russian sovereignty over Crimea (annexed by Russia in 2014) and recognition of two Russian-speaking territories in Ukraine’s Donbass region (Donetsk and Luhasnk) as independent republics.
Based on recent signals from both sides, Erol thinks it is likely that Ukraine “will first renounce NATO membership, and Moscow will accept Ukraine’s membership of the European Union in return”. The main sticking point, according to him, is the Donbass region. “Russia demands recognition of the so-called republics, but the Kyiv administration and the international community don’t seem to accept it,” he said.
Because it involves major powers like Russia and NATO, the conflict could become a long-simmering “proxy war” and last “months or even years”, Erol warned, citing past entanglements of Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
Akinci agreed that reaching a negotiated settlement “could take a long time.” He added, however, that if the military equation were to change significantly on the ground, “[diplomatic] positions could also change.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has extended an open invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy to meet in Istanbul for further talks. “I wholeheartedly believe that a peaceful solution can be found through dialogue,” he said on April 18. Three days later, Russian forces reportedly captured the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
Links with Russia: “not in black and white”
Historical rivals, the Ottoman (i.e. Turkish) and Russian empires fought at least a dozen major conflicts over four centuries, culminating in World War I. But today Turkey, despite its 70-year membership in NATO, is keen to remain on good terms with Russia, with which it shares an important maritime border in the Black Sea.
That being said, the two have implacable differences when it comes to foreign policy, especially in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. In Syria, for example, Turkey supports anti-Assad armed groups, while Russia supports the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The two countries also back diametrically opposed forces in war-torn Libya.
Related: Libya Could Hit Full Oil Production Within Days
Relations between Turkey and Russia hit rock bottom in late 2015, when a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Sukhoi fighter near the tense Turkish-Syrian border. But relations quickly recovered the following year, especially after a failed coup attempt against Erdogan’s government, for which Ankara blamed Fetullah Gulen, a US-based Turkish-Muslim preacher who claims have an international audience.
Washington’s refusal to extradite Gülen to Turkey then led to a breakdown in US-Turkish relations and a concomitant improvement in Ankara’s relations with Moscow.
“Because Gulen resides in the United States, Turkey implicitly accused Washington of supporting the coup attempt,” Dr. Ilhan Uzgel, a prominent Turkish political analyst, told The Epoch Times.
“This, in turn, led [Erdogan’s] the ruling Justice and Development party to ally with nationalist and eurasist elements favoring closer ties with Russia, China and Iran,” added Uzgel, a former professor of international relations.
“This combination of external and internal factors made Ankara lean towards Moscow.”
In 2017, Turkey went so far as to announce the purchase of an advanced S-400 missile defense system from Russia. The move infuriated Turkey’s NATO allies and ultimately resulted in the imposition of US sanctions limited to Turkey itself.
Explaining Ankara’s eclectic approach to Moscow, Akinci pointed out that, at least when it comes to the Middle East, Turkey’s differences with the United States “are actually deeper” than those with Russia. .
“For example, our American allies have nurtured and continue to support an organization opposed to Turkey’s territorial integrity,” he added. he said.
He was referring here to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Syrian branch that the United States supported in its war against Assad, but which Ankara considers a terrorist group. “In this case, US policy actually poses a greater danger to Turkey than anything the Russians do,” Akinci said.
He added: “Every state has its differences with Russia and every state has common interests with Russia. In some areas, the United States and Russia get along quite well; in others they do not. Geopolitics is never black and white.
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