Can Turkey help in the Ukrainian crisis?

Turkey has offered to mediate the Ukraine crisis as tensions between NATO and Russia escalate over fears that Russia is preparing to invade eastern Ukraine. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposal, which has already sent messages between Russian and Ukrainian leaders, appears to have generated little enthusiasm in Moscow and Kiev.

Turkey has followed an inconsistent policy in the NATO-Russia feud fueled by the Ukraine crisis. On the one hand, it angered Moscow by supplying armed Bayraktar TB2 drones to Kiev and rejecting Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In addition, he has fervently supported the accession of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO even as Russian President Vladimir Putin views NATO’s expansion towards Russian borders as a red line.

On the other hand, Ankara has opposed Western sanctions against Russia. “Turkey does not believe that the sanctions will solve the problems,” insisted Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the NATO meeting in Riga on December 1. TurkStream pipeline from Russia to Turkey, inaugurated last year, shows Ankara’s desire to be part of the Russian strategy of diversifying energy routes by bypassing Ukraine.

And while Turkey supported the formation of a joint force between the Black Sea states in the 1990s, it now seems excited about US plans for a NATO naval force in the region.

Eager to get off to a good start with US President Joe Biden, Erdogan has invested heavily in the anti-Russian camp in recent months, bringing Turkey to a risky threshold that could drag the country into a possible Black Sea war. It was under these circumstances that Erdogan declared on November 29 that he was ready to arbitrate between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, stressing that Ankara wanted “peace to reign” in the region.

In remarks raising expectations, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Erdogan and Putin could discuss the mediation offer in an upcoming phone call, which finally took place on December 3. However, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria zakharova ruled out any Turkish mediation on Donbass, the region in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists reign, arguing that Russia was not a party to the “internal conflict” in Ukraine. Instead, she advised, Erdogan could try to “help encourage the Ukrainian authorities to abandon their belligerent plans for Donbass and finally start implementing the Minsk accords through direct dialogue. with representatives from Donetsk and Lugansk ”.

In the same vein, the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov suggested that Erdogan should speak to Zelensky rather than Putin, saying his mediation efforts would be welcome if he could “use his influence to encourage Kiev to start honoring its commitments” under existing agreements to put end of the conflict in the Donbass.

A similar message was palpable in the Kremlin declaration after the Erdogan-Putin call on December 3, Putin “pointed out that Kiev had continued its destructive efforts to sabotage the Minsk accords, such as the provocative activities of the Ukrainian armed forces in the conflict zone, including the use of Bayraktar attack drones. It was stressed that Kiev must abandon any attempt to put pressure on Donbass by force, ”the statement said.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged NATO to prepare a package of measures to deter a possible invasion by tens of thousands of Russian troops gathered on the Ukrainian border, including measures to strengthen military cooperation with Kiev.

Asked about Erdogan’s offer, Kuleba had previously praised “any effort it can help us end this war. Yet Zelensky argued for direct talks with Russia in a December 1 speech to parliament. “The war in Donbass has been going on for eight years. Eight years since Russia annexed Crimea. … And we have to tell the truth that we cannot stop the war without direct talks with Russia, ”he said.

Erdogan has already passed messages between Zelensky and Putin. In September, for example, Zelensky asked Erdogan for help for the release of prisoners held by Russia.

Ankara may offer mediation, but its policy of supporting Kiev has earned it Russian accusations to fuel “militarist sentiment” in Ukraine. So Erdogan’s goals and Putin’s expectations could seriously diverge. Moscow urged Ankara to refrain from taking steps that would embolden Kiev for a military solution in the Donbass, and a Turkish role to prevent Kiev from a military adventure might appeal to Putin. Still, Erdogan is unlikely to withdraw from defense deals with Ukraine, as his relentless pursuit of drone sales in conflict zones suggests. Likewise, there is no indication that Erdogan could change his view of Crimea as Ukrainian territory under Russian occupation.

Most importantly, the crisis is linked to NATO’s eastward expansion, which means that for Russia the essential negotiation must be with the Biden administration, which would weigh heavily. send weapons to Ukraine, and incidentally, with heavy goods vehicles from the European Union. To NATO’s strategy of expanding into Russia’s neighborhood, including the deployment of air defense systems in Romania and Poland, Moscow responded with military accumulations in border regions, repeated military exercises in around 30 areas, including Crimea and the Ukrainian border, and the development of hypersonic missiles.

Zelensky’s recent claim of a Russian-backed coup plot against him could probably be added to the list of Russian responses.

Putin’s red line is clearly drawn. A Ukrainian military push to regain full control of the Donbass or a NATO decision to admit Ukraine could raise the specter of escalating scenarios such as Russia sending troops to hold the Donbass, making of the region a full-fledged buffer zone between NATO and Russia, recognizing the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk and the Lugansk People’s Republic or even reproducing the scenario of Crimea by annexing the region.

Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have enabled Turkey to consolidate its role in NATO’s Black Sea strategy and forge strategic ties with Ukraine and Poland, not without increasing risks in its relations with Russia. Erdogan’s play is unlikely to make him a winner in any escalation. Conflict strategies in the Black Sea basin over the past two decades have resulted in the territorial or demographic expansion of Russia, most recently with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Previously, Georgia’s attempt backed by the West’s reclaiming its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia resulted in Moscow’s recognition of the two as independent states in 2008. And the electoral turmoil in Belarus last year removed the degree of distance that Minsk had created with Moscow in recent years. Belarus is now a threatening neighbor to Ukraine at its northern border.

In short, Putin might appreciate Erdogan’s offer of mediation if it serves to curb Turkish efforts to bolster Ukraine’s military capabilities or push Kiev to comply with the Minsk accords. The Turkish Foreign Minister met with his Ukrainian and Russian counterparts on the sidelines of the December 2 meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Stockholm with the aim of easing tensions. He notably underlined that “respect for the Minsk agreements is important.”

These agreements, however, contain provisions that allow Russia to question Turkey’s role. In October, for example, Moscow accuses Kiev for violating the Minsk accords after the Ukrainian army posted a video showing one of its Turkish supplied drones destroying a howitzer used by separatists in the Donbass. the OK in question, concluded in September 2014, shortly after a ceasefire agreement, includes a flight ban military aircraft near the contact line.

As Lavrov pointed out in Stockholm, Moscow wants to be sure that the settlement parameters described in the OSCE-led Minsk process since 2014 remain unchanged as well as a security pact which would put an end to NATO’s eastward expansion. Moscow can value the role of the OSCE, but Turkey is clearly not a major interlocutor on this issue in its eyes. The dimensions of the crisis call for a new Putin-Biden summit.

Christi C. Elwood