Can Turkey’s Erdogan mediate a deal between Russia and Ukraine?

Written by on February 3, 2022

Ankara has a lot on the line. The Turkish government maintains relations with both Russia and Ukraine. A Russian invasion of Ukraine would present a tough choice.

That is why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now wants to mediate, traveling to Kyiv Thursday. When he returns home he will welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks. Could Erdogan’s diplomatic efforts avert the crisis? Perhaps hinder a Russian invasion?

Little hope of Turkish diplomatic success

Many experts say it’s a lost cause. Political scientist and Russia expert Aydin Sezer is one. In his view, it is impossible for Erdogan to act as fair mediator because Turkey is a member of NATO and thus already has a position, namely that of NATO. Moreover, he says, Moscow has ignored all of Ankara’s proposals to date.

Ragip Kutay Karaca, professor of international relations at Istanbul Aydin University, does not have much faith in Erdogan’s chances of success either. The president expressly promised Turkey’s whole-hearted support for Kyiv during the last Turkey-Ukraine summit, where he once again refused to recognize Russian claims to Crimea. Beyond that, the Turkish president likes to present himself as protecting Crimea’s Tatars, proudly reporting on mosques and housing projects for them.

Moscow is likely also angered by Turkey providing Ukraine with combat drones. Putin criticized the situation a few weeks ago, reporting that Turkish drones had been sighted in the Donbass where they were being deployed against pro-Russian forces — that is, separatists.

Furthermore, Putin accused Turkey of being too supportive of Kyiv and called on Ankara to reassess its foreign policy.

The need for Russian gas
Relations between Turkey and Russia are complicated. A NATO member, Turkey buys — despite protests from NATO and the US — Russian air defense systems to protect itself. But on Libya, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine, Turkey is in the camp opposing Russia.

The two maintain good business relations though and Turkey is also entirely dependent on Russian gas. Turkey imports nearly all of its energy from abroad. Of its annual consumption of 48.1 billion cubic meters (1.7 trillion cubic feet), Turkey buys 33.6 billion cubic meters of it from Moscow. Last week, the degree to which Turkey depends on foreign energy became glaringly apparent when a technical problem forced Iran to stop fuel deliveries. The result: Turkish industrial production was at a standstill for days.

That is why people like Mehmet Dogan, CEO of energy provider GazDay, are concerned: “Let’s take the worst case scenario,” he says as he describes what he sees happening to Turkey. “Should the conflict escalate this summer and Russia turn off the gas, prices would skyrocket. Then we would have to switch to costlier liquid gas,” he says. But if the same situation were to unfold during the winter says Dogan, “We’re done for.”

But it isn’t just energy that makes Turkey so dependent, its tourist industry also needs Russia, which sends lots of visitors. Russia is also a key sales market, especially for Turkish agricultural products.

Close business ties with Ukraine
But Ukraine, too, is becoming more important for Turkey. Burak Pehlivan, chairman of the International Turkish Ukrainian Business Association and a resident of Kyiv for the past 12 years, says that in 2020, Turkish companies were huge investors in Ukraine. Pehlivan, who offers daily reports of the state of business relations in his Telegram newsletter, says that according to his figures, Turkish-Ukrainian trade volume hit $7.5 billion (€6.6 billion) last year.

That is why Ankara is desperately trying to hinder any further escalation of the current crisis. For the country’s already hobbled economy could suffer even greater damage and torpedo President Erdogan’s plans to use low interest rates to attract foreign investors to Turkey.

Erdogan will no doubt stand in solidarity with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Still it is not his Ukraine trip that is key, but what happens when he gets home to greet the Russian president. Whether Putin is willing to give Turkey a chance to mediate and if so, at what price, remains to be seen.

DW


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