Turkey has found itself in a precarious position as its offers to mediate a potential conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the Donbas region have failed to gain any traction.
The United States has been warning its NATO allies that Russia has massed up to 175,000 soldiers along Ukraine’s borders in what it fears is a preparation for a military offensive in early 2022. Russia has denied this, but President Vladimir Putin has warned that NATO cooperation with Ukraine and its military activities along Russian borders were encroaching on “red lines” that he has promised to enforce.
For Turkey, war breaking out to its north is not an outcome it would like to see, given its robust ties to Ukraine and Russia. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has offered Turkey’s mediation to defuse the crisis and has reached out to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to express his concerns about a possible conflict.
“Whether it is as a mediator or speaking to them about the issue, by holding these talks with Ukraine and Mr. Putin, God willing, we want to play a part in the solution of this,” Erdoğan told broadcaster NTV on November 29.
Russia was quick to reject Erdoğan’s offer with the Kremlin’s press secretary Dmitriy Peskov suggesting he “use his influence” on Ukraine instead to encourage compliance with the 2015 Minsk Agreement that froze the current conflict.
Why Erdoğan has been so anxious to see a de-escalation in the Donbas, a conflict in which Turkey has limited direct interests at stake has to do with the difficult balancing act the Turkish president has attempted to strike between Moscow and Kyiv.
In recent years, Turkey has become a significant supplier of military equipment and funds to Ukraine. To date, Ankara has agreed to provide modern warships to the Ukrainian navy as well as armed drones and contracts for joint military-industrial projects. Turkey has also become Ukraine’s largest investor despite the COVID-19 pandemic interfering in global trade.
With Russia, Turkey has seen a relationship that has been described as “cooperative competition.” Relations between Erdoğan and Putin may be warm. Still, both have clashed throughout 2020 in the Middle East, North Africa and the South Caucasus in duels echoing the legacy of historical competition between the two. Russia remains Turkey’s largest energy supplier, and Ankara has gone ahead with its acquisition of the S-400 missile system, even at the cost of rupturing relations with the United States.
Turkish officials have justified the value of their mediation to the belligerents by touting the good relations Ankara has with each of them. Paradoxically, that factor may be preventing Turkey from carving out any diplomatic role for itself in the Donbas.
Dr. Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst on Turkish-Russian relations and Russia’s foreign policy, expressed scepticism that Russia would indeed go through with an invasion of Ukraine because of the political, military and economic consequences it would entail. However, if Russia does launch a military offensive as feared, Has said Turkey would find itself under serious Russian pressure.
“If the West is right that Russia will really invade Ukraine, the pressure will absolutely increase,” Has told Ahval News. “Moscow would probably use many of the hot and problematic issues in Turkish-Russian relations to cut off Turkish support for Ukraine.”
This would not scenario would not be a particularly new one for Turkey to endure. During the last crisis over the Donbas in April, Russia singled out Turkey for criticism over its military exports to Ukraine, which it alleged fed “militarist tendencies” in Kyiv. In the past, Russia has similarly escalated with Turkey in Syria’s Idlib province to secure political concessions, playing on Erdoğan’s fear of new refugees crossing his borders.
“Idlib is the Sword of Damocles over Turkey’s own security,” said Has.
Turkish drone sales to Ukraine have also been a notable sore point. After Ukrainian forces used a Turkish-supplied Bayraktar TB2 drone to destroy a separatist artillery position on October 26, Moscow again accused Turkey of “destabilising” the status quo in the Donbas.
Having seen its proxies crumble before Turkey’s drones in the past, Russia has been seething at their sale to Ukraine. This frustration has risen to the highest levels, with Putin directly pointing to Ukraine’s use of the TB2 as part of a series of “provocative activities” in the conflict zone in his last call with Erdoğan.
The fact Putin raised the topic of the Bayraktars is a sign of how much Russia is “feeling anger” over their use by the Ukrainian military, said Has.
Beyond military matters, Turkish involvement in Ukraine is fundamentally different from their previous bouts of competition. Putin has been clear about the personal importance of keeping Ukraine closer to him, a position shared by other members of the Russian elite.
In a speech made before Russian diplomats last month, Putin warned about the potential of Ukraine hosting NATO facilities or weapon systems on its territory that could threaten Russia directly in the future. This, Putin warned, could necessitate the deployment of more advanced Russian systems, including hypersonic missiles, to deter what he sees as NATO aggression.
Iliya Kusa, an international affairs analyst at the Ukrainian Institute of the Future, explained that this heightened threat perception makes the Kremlin recalcitrant to see Turkey get involved further in Ukraine.
“Moscow doesn’t want Turkey to get involved in matters which are related to Russian national security, political stability and their sphere of influence,” Kusa said to Ahval.
To emphasise Russia’s intolerance of Turkey’s incursions into the former Soviet Union, Kusa pointed to last year’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In that conflict, which placed the two on opposite sides, Kusa said Russia was “not very happy” about “being forced to get into agreement with Turkey” in that conflict, referring to the final agreement brokered in Moscow.
Instead, Kusa said Russia might prefer to keep the current diplomatic forums like the Normandy Format with France and Germany intact or engage in direct negotiations with the United States over Ukraine than create another diplomatic platform with Turkey. Russia’s Foreign Ministry itself also cited the existence of multiple formats as part of its refusal to accept Erdoğan’s mediation offer.
In Ukraine, too, there was scepticism about Turkey’s offer to mediate, according to Kusa.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba was appreciative of the offer, and in a recent poll, 46% of Ukrainians said that they supported Turkey’s involvement in a final settlement on Donbas. But he noted that the reaction from other professional Ukrainian observers was mostly “mixed”.
Kusa explained this mistrust as relating to a combination of factors, the prime one being doubts about Turkey’s reliability as a partner despite robust trade and military supplies. Erdoğan’s attempts to balance relations with Russia and Ukraine have not gone unnoticed in Kyiv.
“Not many people [in Ukraine] see Turkey as an honest and reliable mediator because of this special relationship with Russia,” he explained.
Ultimately, what Turkey’s failure to secure buy-in from either Russia or Ukraine for a diplomatic role may reveal are the steep limits it faces in achieving anything if permitted one.
Domestically, Zelensky has progressively adopted a more hawkish posture towards Russia by targeting pro-Russian media outlets, oligarchs and more openly pursuing membership in NATO. This is on top of the concerns felt by Putin and Russia in the domestic sphere. Turkey, Kusa says, cannot overcome these domestic forces regardless of the state of its relations with both sides.
“There is no understanding in Ukraine that Turkey can change these [domestic factors],” Kusa added.
“Turkey is not seen as a mediator that can make any changes.”