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

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As host of the talks between Moscow and Kyiv, Turkey intends to play a major role in ending the war in Ukraine. Ankara has a balancing act between the two sides that has its roots in the deep ties of the troubled Turkish economy with the two countries engaged in the conflict.

Turkey is at the center of the diplomatic chessboard between Ukraine and Russia. After the peace talks held in Istanbul from March 28-30, a senior Turkish official said on Friday (April 8) that kyiv and Moscow were still “agreeing” to resume talks despite the recent discovery of Russian abuses committed on the ground, particularly in the town of Boutcha.

“[Les deux pays] agree to hold talks in Turkey, but remain far from agreeing on a common text”, this high-level official, wishing to remain anonymous, told journalists. Already, on Thursday April 7, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu assured during a visit to Brussels that “Russia and Ukraine seem ready to meet again in Istanbul”.

This choice of Turkey as a negotiating ground owes nothing to chance. Ankara spared the two parties 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 kyiv’s request to recognize the conflict as a war. In accordance with the Montreux Convention of 1936, Turkey then closed access, for most warships, to the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits.

At the same time, Ankara opposed Western sanctions against Moscow: Mevlut Cavusoglu notably declared that the Russian oligarchs remained “of course” welcome in Turkey and free to do business there, in compliance with international law. This is also where several yachts owned by Russian billionaires such as Roman Abramovich have found refuge.

Thus, Turkey occupies a singular position, both “pro-Ukrainian” but “not frankly 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 experiencing in recent years is “what matters most to it in its calculations [actuels]“, explains also Howard Eissenstat, specialist in Turkey at St. Lawrence University in New York State and at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, contacted by France 24.

The Turkish lira lost 47% of its value in 2021, and prices soared more than 54% in the same time. This record inflation over the past twenty years marked a new turning point for Turkey, shaken since 2018 by a monetary crisis.

Turkey does not want “to alienate” Moscow, notes Howard Eissenstat, because it would find itself “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: 4.7 million visitors (or 19% of the total in 2021) went there last year.

A “competitive cooperation” between Turkey and Russia

Ankara and Moscow also share a common past marked by several antagonisms. 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 hosted American nuclear missiles on its soil, a source of annoyance for the Soviets until that they be withdrawn after the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).

The last diplomatic crisis between the two countries dates back to 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian plane near the Syrian border. However, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s official apologies quickly put an end to the sanctions decided 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 provided by Ankara and Moscow to rival forces abroad “does not prevent them from cooperating in the fields of energy and trade,” says Ozgur Unluhisarcikli. The two nations have thus supported opposing camps in several conflicts, whether 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 felt that it had not been sufficiently supported by the West after this putsch attempt, and Vladimir Putin “succeeded in sowing more doubt in the minds [du président turc]“, analyzes Reilly Barry, specialist in Turkey at Harvard University, contacted by France 24.

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

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

“Longstanding economic interests” in Ukraine

Beyond this proximity to Moscow, Turkey also has economic ties with Ukraine. Kyiv accounts for 15% of Ankara’s wheat imports, making it its second largest supplier after Russia. Ukraine is also Turkey’s third largest source of tourism: some 2 million people came there on vacation in 2021.

Moreover, Turkey’s thriving defense sector established important ties with Ukraine before the current conflict. Among the multiple partnerships with Ankara, kyiv built on its soil in 2021 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 renowned for its effectiveness in war zones, whether for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh or now for Ukraine against Russia. kyiv has also signed contracts for the manufacture 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 benefit to Russia taking control [du pays]“, explains Howard Eissenstat. This explains why Ankara “wishes to support Ukraine in a low voice”, he continues, while wanting to avoid alienating Russia.

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

“Both countries are willing to play the game with Ankara,” concludes Howard Eissenstat. “Moscow doesn’t complain about Bayraktar drones, kyiv doesn’t complain 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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