The Turkish Factor in the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict

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Sergiu CEBAN
Turkiye’s active involvement in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, predetermined by its interdependence with the two warring countries, could play a major role in its development and completion
Russia continues to face powerful sanctions pressure from dozens of countries that condemn its invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin has practically no open allies, with the exception of unrecognized state entities, as well as Syria and partly Belarus. However, there are countries that have taken an ambiguous position. They observe the development of the Ukrainian crisis and try to take advantage of it. Turkiye is among them, acting as pragmatically and far-sighted as possible. Back in February, Ankara condemned the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, but did not join any sanctions against Russia. Moreover, Turkiye has become one of the links for the Russian economy with the outside world.  In addition, from the very beginning, the Turkish authorities tried to assume the main mediating functions and become a key platform for the peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv. Despite the fact that the March round in Istanbul did not end with the signing of a cease-fire agreement, the Turkish leadership still has hope for success and continues to look for ways to restart negotiations on its territory. No doubt Ankara has enough reasons to be extremely concerned about the ongoing events. Fighting in the Black Sea region directly affects its security, so Turkiye, which advocates the balance of power in the area, is not interested in an absolute victory or defeat of any of the warring parties. Turkiye is particularly concerned about the risk of the Black Sea basin becoming an arena of confrontation between Russia and NATO. That is partly why the Turks have promptly “blocked” the Black Sea, to neutralize the threats of an expanding armed conflict in the sea. Ankara’s active involvement in the Ukrainian conflict can be explained by a significant interdependence with the two warring countries. Despite the well-known clichés about Turkish products, Turkiye itself is no less dependent on Russia and Ukraine for food supplies. Last year, of the total volume of imported grain, Turkish consumers bought about 65% of Russian and 13% of Ukrainian wheat. Russian energy resources are no less important to Turkiye, as well as energy investments, in particular, the construction of the large Akkuyu nuclear power plant. At the same time, Turkiye has equally close ties with Ukraine. Last year, Ankara, with a $4 billion portfolio, became the largest foreign investor in the Ukrainian economy. Before the outbreak of hostilities, the countries had set a common goal of reaching a mutual turnover of $10 billion a year. In addition, they have established cooperation in the military-industrial sphere, and even during the active phase of the armed conflict the Turkish authorities supply Kyiv with certain types of weapons, including the famous combat drones Bayraktar TV2. The grain supplies disruptions and food crisis risks caused by the protracted conflict between Russia and Ukraine have attracted the attention of the world’s most countries, including Turkiye, and have been the subject of extensive international discussion. The Secretary General of the United Nations stated the need to find ways to remove grain from Ukraine as soon as possible and offered his mediatory assistance. As expected, Ankara joined the solution of this problem and supported the proposal to create a quadripartite mechanism (Russia, Ukraine, Turkiye and the United Nations) to organize the grain bulkers' exit from Ukrainian sea ports. Despite the fact that the “grain truce” has not yet taken shape, Ankara is determined to bring Moscow and Kyiv to a compromise. If this succeeds, it will be an important success for Turkiye’s leadership, which will add points to Turkish diplomacy and may even open the way to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. We must admit that, unlike other influential Western players trying to bring the warring sides’ positions closer together, Ankara so far has the best chance of stopping the bloodshed, at least in certain regions. This has already happened after the Istanbul round, when Moscow withdrew some of its forces from Ukraine’s northern regions. By becoming actively involved in the Russia-Ukraine settlement, the Turkish leadership probably wants to achieve several objectives. First of all, to strengthen its international position and expand its ability to solve global problems. It has long been known that Ankara, cherishing the dream of creating a “neo-Ottoman empire”, claims to be an influential (trans)regional power capable of conducting an ambitious foreign policy to satisfy its national interests. In this issue, the positions of Russia and Turkiye are most similar, as both countries are seeking to restructure the existing system of international institutions and increase the number of countries participating in global decision-making. Turkiye’s own role in the Ukraine conflict fits well with the well-known Turkish concept of proactive foreign policy. In addition, the Turkish authorities’ mediation initiative is an obvious challenge to the Western-centered system of international relations and a desire to demonstrate its absolute failure and ineffectiveness on the example of the Ukrainian crisis, which requires completely different methods. The refusal to join Western sanctions is another indicator that the Turkish authorities do not agree with the vicious practice of financial and economic repression and pressure, applied in circumvention of UN procedures, that Ankara itself risks being subject to in the near future. For Moldova, the Turkish factor is also important in the case of a transfer of armed conflict to Ukraine’s other regions, especially those bordering our country. The Odessa region and Bugeac with the Gagauz population are of Turkiye’s national interests, so with all the nuances, the Odessa region will not be an easy walk for the Russian ride. Therefore, in developing its plans, Moscow will have to take into account the opinion of Ankara, which is somehow interested in preserving the territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova.