Turkey juggles between Moscow and Kiev against the backdrop of economic interests

As the host of the talks between Moscow and Kiev, Turkey wants to play an important role in ending the war in Ukraine. Ankara has a balancing act between the two sides that has its roots in the troubled Turkish economy’s deep ties to the two countries involved in the conflict.

Turkey is at the center of the diplomatic chessboard between Ukraine and Russia. After the peace talks held in Istanbul, March 28-30On Friday, April 8, a senior Turkish official said Kiev and Moscow had still “agreed” to resume talks, despite the recent discovery of Russian abuses on the ground, particularly in the city of Boutcha.

†[Les deux pays] agree to hold talks in Turkeybut stay far from agreeing on a joint text,” said this senior official, who wishes to remain anonymous. As early as Thursday, April 7, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu assured on the occasion of a visit to Brussels that ” Russia and Ukraine seem ready to meet again in Istanbul.”

This choice of Turkey as the ground for negotiation is not due to chance. Ankara has spared the two sides even before the start of the conflict. On February 23 – the eve of the Russian invasion – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly expressed this ambivalence by declaring that he “cannot give up” neither Ukraine nor Russia.

True to this approach, Turkish diplomacy has described the February 24 invasion of Ukraine as “unacceptable” and a “serious violation of international law”. Four days later, Ankara granted Kiev’s request to recognize the conflict as a war. In accordance with the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey then closed most warships’ access to the Bosphorus and Dardanelles.

At the same time, Ankara opposed Western sanctions against Moscow: Mevlut Cavusoglu notably stated that Russian oligarchs “of course” remained welcome in Turkey and were free to do business there, in accordance with international law. Several yachts owned by Russian billionaires are also located here, such as Roman Abramovich

Thus Turkey occupies a special position, both “pro-Ukrainian” but “not honestly anti-Russian”, as summarized with France 24 Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund.

Moscow, an essential economic partner of Ankara

The “economic crisis” that Turkey has been through in recent years is “the most important in its calculations” [actuels]Also explains Howard Eissenstat, a specialist in Turkey at St. Lawrence University in New York State and at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, whom France 24 contacted.

The Turkish lira lost 47% of its value in 2021 and prices rose by more than 54% in the same time. This record inflation of the past two decades marked a new turning point for Turkey, which has been rocked by a monetary crisis since 2018.

Turkey doesn’t want to “alienate” Moscow, notes Howard Eissenstat, because it would be “extremely vulnerable” [sur le plan économique] in case of loss of Russian wheat, gas and oil”.

Russia is an essential trading partner for Ankara, supplying it with 45% of its natural gas consumption and 70% of its wheat – a particularly important import given the rise in bread prices, a major source of discontent in Turkey. Finally, Russians are also important for the Turkish tourism sector: last year it attracted 4.7 million visitors (or 19% of the total in 2021).

A “competitive cooperation” between Turkey and Russia

Ankara and Moscow also share a common past marked by several contradictions. Between the XVIand and the XXand century, Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire clashed more than a dozen times. At the start of the Cold War (1952), Kemalist Turkey – both anti-Communist and pro-Western – joined NATO and received US nuclear missiles on its territory, a source of annoyance to the Soviets until they were withdrawn after the Cuban missile. Crisis (1962).

The last diplomatic crisis between the two countries dates back to 2015, when Turkey downed a Russian plane near the Syrian border. However, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s official apologies quickly ended the sanctions imposed by Moscow in retaliation, leading to a rapid thaw in relations between the two countries.

This recent paradigm in Russian-Turkish relations can be described as “competitive cooperation” in the sense that the support Ankara and Moscow provide to rival forces abroad “does not prevent them from working together on energy and trade” , says Ozgur Unluhisarcikli . Thus, the two nations have supported opposing camps in various conflicts, be it in Syria, Libya or Nagorno-Karabakh.

In 2016, the failed coup attempt against Recep Tayyip Erdogan paved the way for deepening ties between Ankara and Moscow. The Turkish government believed that the West had not received sufficient support after this putsch attempt, and Vladimir Putin “managed to sow more doubts in the minds.” [du président turc]”, analyzes Reilly Barry, a specialist in Turkey at Harvard University, whom France 24 contacted.

The Russian president “achieved the desired effect by driving a wedge between NATO allies when Turkey bought Russia’s S-400 missile system, an important red line not to be crossed for any member state of the Atlantic Alliance,” the researcher continues. . And to add that Ankara has positioned itself by seeing Moscow “as a potential major protective power in the event that relations with Western countries do not suit its interests.”

With the war in Ukraine, Ankara’s greater proximity to Moscow could make Turkey “extremely vulnerable if it were to use the same language”. [que l’Occident] to condemn Russia,” said Reilly Barry. A threat that would also be very close: “The United States and other countries do not share a sea with Russia and are not just separated by another country [la Géorgie]†

“Long-term economic interests” in Ukraine

In addition to its proximity to Moscow, Turkey also has economic ties with Ukraine. Kiev accounts for 15% of Ankara’s wheat imports, making it the second largest supplier after Russia. Ukraine is also Turkey’s third largest source of tourism, with some 2 million people vacationing there in 2021.

In addition, Turkey’s thriving defense sector has built important ties with Ukraine before the current conflict. Among the multiple partnerships with Ankara, in 2021 Kiev built on its land a factory for the co-production of the Bayraktar TB2 combat drone – designed by the Baykar company, whose chief technology officer is the son-in-law of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This flagship of the Turkish military industry is known for its effectiveness in war zones, whether for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh or for Ukraine against Russia. Kiev has also signed contracts for the production of engines that will serve both new models of the TB2 drone and a future Turkish military helicopter.

“The long-standing economic interests” [de la Turquie en Ukraine signifient qu’elle] sees no potential advantage for Russia to take control [du pays]”explains Howard Eissenstat. This explains why Ankara “wants to support Ukraine in a soft voice,” he continues, while avoiding Russia’s alienation from him.

So far, Ankara’s balancing act allows it to maintain correct relations with both parties. Turkey hosted peace talks last week, but is also expected to soon host Russian and Ukrainian negotiators to resume those talks.

“Both countries are ready to play the game with Ankara,” concludes Howard Eissenstat. “Moscow is not complaining about Bayraktar drones, Kiev is not complaining about the lack of Turkish sanctions. Both praise Turkey because they want Ankara to be on their side as much as possible.”

Article translated from English by Jean-Luc Mounier. The original can be read here

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