Dimitar Bechev, author of Turkey Under Erdogan: How a Country Turned from Democracy and the West, writes about Turkey’s role as a mediator in the ongoing war in Ukraine.
On 22nd July 2022, two delegations headed by Sergey Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, and Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s transport and infrastructure minister, arrived in Istanbul. They made the journey in order to finalise a deal allowing the export of grain from the port of Odessa on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. In the presence of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Ukraine and Russia signed two parallel documents setting up a Joint Command Centre (JCC) in Istanbul.
Under the terms of the deal(s), officials from Turkey, Ukraine, Russia and the UN at the JCC are to inspect ships crossing the Bosphorus en route to Odessa to verify they carry no weapons. Both sides committed not to attack commercial ships. Ukrainians agreed to remove sea mines in the waters around Odessa, laid there to prevent an amphibious assault against the port city.
It is questionable whether the deal will hold. Kyiv suspects Russia has not abandoned plans to strangle the Ukrainian economy by cutting it off from the Black Sea – the cheapest and most efficient export route. Railways going westwards and the Ukrainian ports on the Danube are no match for Odessa or indeed the ports on the Azov Sea already taken by the Russians. All in all, Ukraine is facing a contraction of between 30-50% of GDP this year.
There are strong suspicions that the Kremlin is playing a double game – only pretending to engage diplomatically in good faith. They only grew when the Russian military struck at the port of Odessa on 23rd July, a day after the deal was finalised in Istanbul. Moscow justified it with claims military infrastructure had been targeted but this explanation failed to impress observers. In addition, the food crisis threatening much of the developing world gives Russia the opportunity to blame the West for victimising, yet again, its former colonies in its bid to fight Moscow. Most important, whether explicitly or implicitly, the Russians are demanding sanctions relief. But as the recent decisions by the EU to discontinue crude oil from Russia shows and limit consumption of natural gas, there is now appetite in the West to take a step back. In the face of fierce fighting in the Donbas and around the city of Kherson, sanctions can only be tightened.
On the positive side, both Russia and Ukraine continue to support the agreement and move towards implementation. For Russia, the deal is expected to facilitate exports of its own grain and other agricultural items via the Black Sea, with shippers finding it hard to insure cargos. For Ukraine, resuming maritime trade offers a welcome respite. It helps farmers clear the granaries as the new crop is making its way from the fields.
The agreement – provided it holds – is good news for the world. As a result of the war and the blockade, food prices are on the rise, driven up additionally by the soaring cost of fertilisers and energy. Commentators are raising alarm about the fallout on the Global South where countries rely on grain from Ukraine and Russia. Turkey is likewise affected. Soaring food prices only worsens its economic predicament. The country is buffeted by runaway inflation: 70% year-on-year, according to official data, and perhaps double the figure, according to unofficial estimates by Turkish economists.
That is why Turkey has been working hard as a mediator. The deal came after weeks of parallel negotiations, starting with a visit by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Istanbul on 7th June. Turkey is in a good position to be a go-between Moscow and Kyiv. On the one hand, it enjoys friendly ties with Ukraine. Ankara has been providing its neighbour arms, including the TB2 Bayraktar drones which have long become the stuff of legend. The government-backed firm, run by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son in law, scored yet another PR coup when it donated another of its UAVs to Kyiv recently. Furthermore, Ankara has been vociferously against the annexation of Crimea, the historic home of Crimean Tatars, a Turkic community with close kinship links to Turks. In March, Turkish authorities closed the Straits to naval ships making it impossible for Russia to reinforce its Black Sea fleet which has seen its flagman, the Moskva, sunk by the Ukrainians. On the other hand, Turkey is adamant in its refusal to join Western sanctions against Russia, starting with the closure of airspace all the way up to purchases of oil and gas. Erdoğan is sticking to business as usual, with regular phone calls between him and Putin. In the meantime, Russians have flocked to Istanbul, whether it is Kremlin-linked entrepreneurs eager to explore every loophole in the sanctions or middle-class professionals escaping the growingly repressive regime at home. Indeed, these days Russian is heard left, right and centre in some of the city’s boroughs like Kadiköy. So Turkey seeks to stay out of the conflict, as much as it is possible.
Earlier in the Ukraine war, Turkey focused on securing a ceasefire. In March, it hosted a brief meeting by Foreign Ministers Dmytro Kuleba and Sergey Lavrov on the margins of a conference in Antalya followed by a round of talks by the two countries’ negotiating teams several weeks later. However, those meetings yielded precious little. No ceasefire, let alone a blueprint for a settlement, materialised. Until 22nd July, Turkey’s sole achievement as a go-between has been the swap of prisoners between Russia and the US it facilitated – but, in all fairness, this deal is tangential to Ukraine.
Turkey is often seen as accommodating Russia but it is actually taking advantage of the war. Ankara is preparing another offensive in Syria against local Kurdish militias which have ties to both the US and Russia. With Moscow focused on Ukraine, Turkey has much greater room to manoeuvre in its own backyard south of its border. Starting from August 2016, Turkish military operations, which have carved out sizeable enclaves across northern Syria, relied on Russia’s blessing. Erdoğan would coordinate with Putin. Russia, which controls large swathes of Syrian airspace, would need to be onboard for the Kurds to be brought to heel. Now the balance of power seems to be changing. First, in February-March 2020, Turkey repelled an offensive led by the Assad regime and Russia against the enclave around Idlib. Now it looks as if Ankara is poised to present Moscow with a fait accompli.
Still, Ukraine is a serious test for Turkish foreign policy. Under Erdoğan, Turkey set about to project its influence over a vast perimeter stretching from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Balkans and from the Middle East to the Southern Caucasus, acting independently from the US and Europe and engaging Russia as well as China. Economic turbulence at home coupled with a war next door constrain Ankara, however. Add to the mix a key election in the summer 2023 which will see Erdoğan fighting tooth and nail for his survival with an opposition alliance which is picking up momentum.
Putin will be welcoming Erdoğan in Sochi on 5 August. Turkey will no doubt remain a crucial player in the Black Sea and the West will solicit its support in countering Russia. Yet it will be driven by its own goals and priorities.
About the Book
An incisive account of Erdoğan’s Turkey – showing how its troubling transformation may be short-lived
‘A sweeping attempt to capture the last 20 years of Turkey, Bechev skilfully traces the radical transformation of Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. An outstanding book from one of the best.’
–Gönül Tol, Middle East Institute