Will Turkey prevent Russia and Ukraine going to war?
Russia Ukraine tensions
Ukraine, which was part of the Russian empire for centuries before becoming a Soviet republic, won independence as the USSR broke up in 1991. It moved to shed its Russian imperial legacy and forge increasingly close ties with the West.
A decision by Kremlin-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to reject an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow led to mass protests that saw him removed as leader in 2014.
Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and throwing its weight behind a separatist rebellion that broke out in Ukraine’s east.
Ukraine and the West accused Russia of sending its troops and weapons to back the rebels. Moscow denied that, saying the Russians who joined the separatists were volunteers.
According to Kyiv, more than 14,000 people have died in the fighting that devastated Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.
For its part, Moscow has strongly criticised the US and its NATO allies for providing Ukraine with weapons and holding joint drills, saying that such moves encourage Ukrainian hawks to try to regain the rebel-held areas by force.
Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO are a red line, and expressed concern about plans by some NATO members to set up military training centres in Ukraine. This, he has said, would give them a military foothold in the region even without Ukraine joining NATO.
Russia does not want Ukraine in NATO – and has said as much in its list of security demands which were sent to the US last December. The demands included a halt to any NATO drills near Russia’s border.
Moscow is still waiting for a response, but many of its ultimatums have been slammed as non-starters by the West. It also wants NATO to withdraw from Eastern Europe.
At the time, Putin said Russia would seek guarantees “that would exclude any further NATO moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory”.
Putin offered the West an opportunity to engage in substantive talks on the issue, adding that Moscow would need not just verbal assurances, but “legal guarantees”.
Ukraine’s admission to the alliance would require the unanimous approval of the 30 states that make up the body.
Ukraine is not a NATO member, but it wants to be. It is considered a partner of the alliance.
Before being considered for membership, NATO says, Kyiv needs to root out scourges such as corruption. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in December rejected Russian demands to rescind a 2008 commitment to Ukraine that the country would one day become a member.
The West is accusing Russia, which has massed 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, of preparing to invade its pro-Western neighbour.
Biden claims “total unanimity” on how to deal with Russia. The Pentagon has put 8,500 US troops on standby for an Eastern European deployment and NATO said it was sending ships and jets to bolster the region’s defences.
President Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said these actions only added to an already tense atmosphere.
“The United States is escalating tensions,” he told reporters. “We are watching these US actions with great concern.”
Russia denies it has any plans to invade Ukraine and accuses the West of aggravating the situation.
It is uncertain whether war will break out between the two countries but some analysts say Russia could move in on Ukraine to claim a quick, decisive victory and increase its bargaining power in future talks about NATO’s expansion and spheres of influence.
“I think what Russia and Vladimir Putin will be really after would be to defeat the Ukrainian armed forces in the field, inflict a crushing military defeat that humiliates the Ukrainians and by extension create concern that the backing Ukraine has from its allies in the West, the US and UK, is insufficient,” said Samir Puri, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Western nations have thrown their support behind Ukraine, but some responses have been tougher than others. The US and UK have supplied weapons, while Germany plans to send a field medical facility next month but will not transfer military equipment.
There has also been much talk of sanctions aimed at punishing Moscow. Publicly, the US and European allies have promised to hit Russia financially like never before if Putin does roll his military into Ukraine. Leaders have given few details, however, arguing it is best to keep Putin guessing.
Turkey’s offer to mediate
Turkey, which has strong military ties and is a strategic partner of Ukraine, while also maintaining friendly ties with Russia in many fields, has taken this as an opportunity to mediate between the two, as a war between them would be unfavorable to the Turks, while mediation could enhance Turkey’s global image as a regional power to be reckoned with, and strengthen its position in NATO and in relation to Russia.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that his country is ready to act as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia to sustain peace in the region.
“We want peace to prevail in the region, and for this, we are ready to do our part,” he told reporters in Istanbul after Friday prayers.
The Turkish leader revealed his plan to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin either on the phone or during a possible visit to Moscow in the upcoming days, Xinhua news agency reported.
Erdogan will pay a visit to Ukraine in early February.
“Any development between Russia and Ukraine toward a border violation or an outbreak of a war would constitute a serious violation of the peace of the region,” he remarked, noting any unrest there would upset Turkey as it has good and improving relations with both countries.
Erdogan on Thursday invited the Presidents of Russia and Ukraine for talks in Istanbul to calm the tension.
Both Russia and Ukraine are open to the idea of Turkey playing a role to ease tensions between the two countries, as proposed by Ankara in November, Turkish diplomatic sources said on Thursday.
Ukraine’s envoy welcomed Turkey’s offer to act as a mediator with Russia amid ongoing tensions between Moscow and Kyiv.
“Both Ukraine and Turkey want to ensure stability and peace in our region. We’re working together to ensure this stability,” Ukrainian Ambassador Vasyl Bodnar said at a conference held by the Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM) in the Turkish capital.
Underlining that Ukraine and Turkey had achieved significant progress in terms of developing relations over the last 30 years, he said the two countries share common interests.
Referring to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s offer for his country to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, he said: “I’d like to express that we welcome Turkey’s offer of mediation, especially in this context, your president’s offer to invite both our president (Volodymyr Zelensky) and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin to Turkey, and also his role as a mediator in this matter.”
“The Ukrainian side welcomes this offer and is ready to hold these negotiations in any format. I hope Moscow will likewise consider it positively,” he added.
Turkey’s incentives and likeliness of success
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s offer to mediate between Russia and Ukraine could be seen as a laudable peace effort or grandstanding, but the growing spectre of war is a cause for real alarm for Turkey, a country among the first in line to feel the fallout of a military conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Erdogan’s mediation offer reflects Ankara’s fears of the conundrums it could find itself in should war in eastern Ukraine materialize.
Despite his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan has caused anger in Moscow — not only by displaying staunch solidarity with Kyiv, but also by backing NATO’s strategy to expand its presence in the Black Sea region, including through moves that have raised questions over Ankara’s commitment to the 1936 Montreux Convention, which is crucial for Russian interests in the Black Sea. The convention regulates maritime traffic through Turkey’s Bosporus and Dardanelles straits — the maritime link between the Mediterranean and Black seas — and imposes strict limitations on the military ships of non-littoral states, effectively restricting the access of US and NATO naval forces to the Black Sea.
But now that the war drums are beating and Washington expects Ankara to stay steadfast, Erdogan is trying to put Turkey in a neutral position, at least in appearance.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan warned on Friday that military conflict between Russia and Ukraine would amount to a “serious violation” of regional peace and unacceptable for Turkey, while repeating his offer to mediate.
Ankara has made a political choice to strike a new equilibrium between its seventy-year membership of the North Atlantic Alliance and its new strategic links with Moscow. An open confrontation between Russia and Ukraine would inevitably call into question this rebalancing policy. Ankara’s intended diplomatic role is at stake: why would Moscow accept Ankara’s mediation role if the Turkish military contributed to NATO operations in, say, the Black Sea?
Russia’s military-diplomatic strategy would also come into play. In line with its perception of a hostile encirclement by NATO, Russia had successfully used Turkey in 2019-21 to score points against NATO by selling Ankara Russian S-400 missiles, blocking any future sale of U.S.-made Patriot systems and, by virtue of the U.S. sanctions, getting rid of the planned sale and deployment of at least 100 F-35 stealth fighters.
For the Kremlin, this was a positive game changer on its southern flank, but it is now seeing Turkish-made drones used against its proxies in Donbas and could soon see Turkey associating itself to NATO sanctions and operations.
Moscow will probably tackle Ankara’s moves in a NATO context, for example by exerting pressure against an increased Turkish naval presence in the Black Sea. It will also want to continue its relationship on missile defense. And it could opt for increased cooperation in areas where the two countries are potential competitors—in Libya and sub-Saharan African countries like Mali—in order to put Turkey on an anti-Western trajectory wherever possible.
Turkey’s mediation succeeding would be important in ensuring it is taken into consideration in all NATO operations and policies. However, despite willingness from the Ukrainian side, Russia appears less willing to join such talks, as it views its demands to Ukraine and NATO as clear, but Turkey’s elaborate ties with Russia could play a key role in bringing the Russians to the negotiating table.