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Turkey’s balancing act pays off as Ankara mediates between Ukraine and Russia

Turkey has emerged as a broker able to talk to both sides since Russia’s invasion began more than a month ago.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – The next round of talks between Ukraine and Russia will take place in Turkey this week, according to a Ukrainian negotiator. The meetings come after a TV interview given by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Russian journalists, in which he reiterated his willingness to compromise on certain key issues, such as Ukraine’s neutrality and the status of the country’s eastern regions, which are key demands of the Russian side. Moscow now says it will focus on the “liberation” of the eastern Donbass region, an apparent scaling back of its initial war aims which reportedly included regime change in Kyiv. 

Turkey has emerged as a broker able to talk to both sides since Russia’s invasion began more than a month ago. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has cultivated better relations with Russia than virtually any other Nato leader. A controversial 2019 decision to push ahead with the purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system rankled the US, which imposed sanctions and barred Turkey from receiving its F-35 fighter jets in response. Erdoğan’s domination of Turkish politics has lasted almost as long as Vladimir Putin’s reign. Their strongman styles are often spoken of in the same breath. 

Yet at the same time, Turkey has also offered enough support to Ukraine for Kyiv to trust Ankara’s mediation. Early in the war, Turkey limited access to the Black Sea to Russian warships transiting through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits. The weapons it sold to Ukraine, most notably the Bayraktar TB2 drone immortalised in an irritatingly catchy ditty which now serves as something of an unofficial Ukrainian anthem, have helped Kyiv all but halt the Russian advance. (The extent to which use of the TB2 has been hyped up for propaganda purposes is still unclear, but that Ukraine has succeeded in holding back the Russians is not.)

Turkey’s mediation has been met positively by leaders of the Western alliance. In a call earlier this month, US President Joe Biden “expressed appreciation for Turkey’s efforts to support a diplomatic resolution” to the Ukraine conflict, according to a White House readout of the discussion. 

Still, Turkey remains very much an outsider within the Nato alliance. Ankara’s insistence on retaining the S-400 air defence system remains an obstacle to better relations with the US. Turkey transferring the system to Ukraine – a solution reportedly floated by American officials – was last week publicly dismissed in an op-ed by Fahrettin Altun, Erdoğan’s communications director. Erdoğan failed in his bid to secure a bilateral meeting with Biden at last week’s Nato summit in Brussels. And that Turkey – which imports about 70 per cent of its wheat from Russia – has mostly refused to join in Western sanctions on Moscow has not gone unnoticed. 

Even so, Turkey will be hoping that its mediation can help bridge the gaps between Ukraine and Russia. One potential solution reportedly being pushed by Erdoğan’s administration is for the Donbass and Crimea to be held by Russia under a long-term lease similar to that employed by the UK when it ruled Hong Kong. If the Turkish-mediated talks were to show some movement towards a settlement acceptable to both sides, Ankara will be hoping that its role will make it an unexpected beneficiary.

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