Türkiye's balancing role a driving force for Russia, Ukraine to find common ground

Experts see Türkiye 'strong and crucial' NATO ally, term criticism on its mediating role 'double standard'.

Türkiye's balancing role a driving force for Russia, Ukraine to find common ground

Türkiye has been the glue between Russia and Ukraine, ensuring dialogue between the two countries despite the ongoing war that began in February.

Thanks to Ankara's mediatory role, in March the two sides sat at the negotiation table in the Turkish resort city of Antalya, the first high-level talks since the beginning of Russia's "special military operation."

Soon after, Russian and Ukrainian delegations met for a new round of two-day peace talks in Istanbul.

In July, Türkiye brokered a grain export deal due to which blockaded Ukrainian ports have returned to function, a move being termed crucial for global food security.

Meanwhile, Ankara is also working with the Moscow for grain shipments from Russian ports.

Türkiye did not take part in the sanctions imposed on Russia by European countries and the US, repeatedly saying it does not intend to join the sanctions in order to leave an open channel of dialogue with Moscow, as well as not to damage its own economy.

The country was also among the first to condemn the Russian war in Ukraine, cooperating with Kyiv military, while urging Moscow to implement a cease-fire, and it has also been the Kyiv-demanded guarantor for the peace process.

Ankara adopted a similar stance by condemning Russia's annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 along with the US, European Union and the UN General Assembly.

Condemnation

In a statement on Feb. 24, the Turkish Foreign Ministry called Russia's actions in Ukraine "unacceptable" and a "violation of international law."

"This attack, beyond destroying the Minsk agreements, is a grave violation of international law and poses a serious threat to the security of our region and the world," it said.

The country also voiced solidarity with Ukraine by saying: "Our support for the political unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine will continue."

"Türkiye is against the changing of borders by use of arms. We call on the Russian Federation to immediately stop this unjust and unlawful act," it added.

Just two days before the war started, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had condemned Russia's recognition of breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk, saying it is "unacceptable" since it is a violation of Ukraine's political unity and territorial integrity.

Calls for cease-fire

On March 1, Türkiye’s defense minister told his Russian counterpart over phone that there is an "urgent need for an immediate cease-fire" in Ukraine.

Hulusi Akar told Sergey Shoygu that a cease-fire is needed to improve the humanitarian situation there, including evacuations.

Later in the day, Erdogan reiterated Türkiye's call for a truce, saying: "Our call on both Russia and Ukraine is for them to cease their fire as soon as possible."

He called on both Moscow and Kyiv to "make a good contribution to world peace."

On March 8-9, Akar held a meeting with both his Russian counterpart Shoygu and Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov, underlining the importance of declaring a permanent cease-fire at the earliest.

He said Türkiye is ready to do its part in establishing peace, and the interactions later led to the first high-level talks in Antalya.

High-level meeting in Antalya

Türkiye made headlines worldwide on March 10 for hosting the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers in Antalya.

The high-level tripartite meeting, which was held on the sidelines of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum, lasted for more than an hour as the war entered its 15th day.

Although the sides failed to reach an agreement on a cease-fire, they agreed to continue negotiations over the conflict.

Istanbul hosts new round of peace talks

About two weeks later on March 29, the delegations from Russia and Ukraine held fresh rounds of peace talks in Istanbul.

The two days of peace talks were held at the Dolmabahce Presidential Office.

Ahead of the talks, Erdogan reiterated his call for a cease-fire, saying: "We believe that a just peace will have no losers, and a prolonged conflict is not in anyone’s interest."

Before the peace talks, David Arakhamia and Vladimir Medinsky, heads of the Ukrainian and Russian delegations, held a one-on-one meeting.

At the end of the negotiations, Ukraine called for eight countries, including Türkiye, to be guarantors in a possible peace deal, while Russia announced that it would significantly decrease military activities in the direction of the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv and Chernihiv to increase trust for future negotiations.

Istanbul peace process results in grain deal

On July 22, Türkiye, the UN, Russia and Ukraine signed a deal in Istanbul to reopen three Ukrainian ports for the export of Ukrainian grain stuck for months due to the war.

To oversee the grain exports, the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul was officially launched on July 27 to enable safe transportation by merchant ships of commercial foodstuffs and fertilizers. It consists of representatives from the three countries and the UN.

The deal came after a general agreement between the parties on a UN-led plan in Istanbul on July 13 to form a coordination center to carry out joint inspections at the entrance and exit of the harbors and to ensure the safety of the routes.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said "on the day the agreement was signed, there was a 5% decrease in global grain prices."

The agreement has been welcomed by all major NATO members, including the US and France, as well as the UK, Sweden and Norway.

Loaded with corn, the first ship to leave Ukraine under the historic deal – the Sierra Leone-flagged dry cargo ship Razoni – departed on Aug. 1 from the port of Odesa for Lebanon.

So far, 10 ships carrying 305,000 tons of cargo have sailed from Ukrainian ports to Lebanon, Ireland, the UK, Türkiye, Italy and China.

Turkish president's Russia visit

Last week, Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Friday underlined the need for full implementation of the Istanbul deal, including exports of Russia's grain and fertilizers after a four-hour meeting in the Russian city of Sochi.

They reaffirmed their readiness to advance bilateral relations despite the current regional and global challenges "on the basis of mutual respect."

They agreed to boost the bilateral trade volume and to take concrete steps to strengthen cooperation in the areas of energy, trade and the economy.

Erdogan's visit attracted criticism from some quarters, with accusations that Türkiye cares more about its relations with Russia than it should.

Türkiye 'crucial ally' with transactional policies

Commenting on the supposed disapprovals, Matt Bryza, a former US envoy and senior researcher at the Atlantic Council, said the US and NATO should embrace Türkiye's transactional policies while being a "crucial and strong" ally.

"I think that it would probably be wise and it's essential that Washington and the rest of our NATO allies figure out how to embrace Türkiye, as Türkiye does what the United States itself does, which is often pursues its own national interests, even if some members of NATO may disagree," Bryza told Anadolu Agency. "So we have to find a way in Washington to bring Türkiye fully into a strategic mindset of Washington as a key partner."

Noting that it is still far too common in NATO that everybody needs to follow, in theory, the same approach to an adversary like Russia, he added that "some of them, like Germany or France, maybe are eager to soften tensions with Russia, just as Türkiye happens to do."

Calling the grain deal reached "Türkiye's success," he said the main NATO allies and the European Union recognized that the West, the transatlantic family, needed a member of its community that could broker an agreement like this, so that's very positive.

"So you'll see that in recent days, many or several European officials – usually unnamed as in the Financial Times' article of yesterday – expressing concern that Türkiye is going to give President Putin a way out of the economic squeeze," he said, noting that this attitude has a background from the times when Türkiye decided to buy S-400 missile defense systems from Russia.

He was referring to a story published by the FT on Saturday where the British newspaper cited six Western officials, who spoke to the paper on the condition of anonymity. They expressed that they were concerned about the pledge made by the Turkish and Russian leaders to expand their cooperation in trade and energy after the Sochi meeting.

"Washington is ready to think the worst or think bad things about Türkiye vis-a-vis Russia," he added.

He underlined that Türkiye also won "a great deal of respect and good feeling" from the rest of NATO for its clear condemnation of the Russian war, as well as its clear and repeated condemnation of Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Bryza pointed out that many people throughout NATO admire that Ankara has been "a staunch supporter" of NATO enlargement, meaning that both Ukraine and Georgia should eventually become members.

"I think they're trying to process whether or not a country can be a strong NATO ally, even if it is pursuing a transactional foreign policy," he said. "So the transactional is meaning sometimes doing something good for itself by working with Russia, sometimes doing something good for itself by working with Ukraine."

Criticism on Erdogan's visit 'understates impact’ of Turkish support

Richard Outzen, the former senior adviser for Syrian engagement at the State Department, praised Türkiye's balancing position between Kyiv and Moscow, saying criticism against the country "reflect a bit of a double standard."

"Türkiye faced several dilemmas at the outset of Putin's war against Ukraine, and in my view has crafted an effective ... balancing position to manage them," Outzen told Anadolu Agency.

"Such criticism both understates the impact of Turkish support – especially in the early stages of the Russian invasion while the West equivocated – and undervalues Turkish restraint as a way to keep the door open to a negotiated peace," he added.

Although some in the Western press have expressed disappointment that Türkiye has not abandoned this approach for something more clearly confrontational with Moscow, he said: "The Turkish combination of military support to Ukraine (drones, armored vehicles, ammunition, enforcing the Montreux Convention to restrict Russian naval movements) with proactive diplomacy to seek a cease-fire and grain exports has balanced these concerns."

Asked if the same critical voices would press for military support to Türkiye in the event of a direct Russian-Turkish military clash, or economic support if a Russian trade cutoff damaged the Turkish economy, he said "the criticisms reflect a bit of a double standard."

Explaining the dilemmas Türkiye faced at the outset of the Russian war, he said the first one was a commitment to Ukraine's security.

"Ankara has partnered with Kyiv militarily for years and continues to do so -- drones, naval construction, engine research and military training exchanges," he said. "This is not only a matter of business but of strategy. Ukrainian independence prevents Russian domination of the Black Sea and mitigates Russia's military advantage over Türkiye."

As a second dilemma, he said Türkiye "wants the Russian war to end in failure – with Russians ultimately out of Crimea as well as Donbas and other occupied areas." But "it does not want this to entail catastrophic defeat or regime instability."

"For Russia remains an important trade partner and a partner Türkiye understands and can conduct stable transactional arrangements within the conflict zones previously discussed," he said.

Hüseyin Demir

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