Erdogan’s mediatory role on Ukraine cannot be wished away

Turkiye has repeatedly called for peace talks to be revived, offering its services as mediator.

4 mins read
Jubilant crowds outside the Presidential Complex to celebrate President Recep Erdogan’s election victory, Ankara, May 28, 2023

Among the host of implications for international security stemming out of Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s election victory in the runoff on Sunday — be it in the Black Sea, Eastern Mediterranean, Transcaucasus, West Asia or Eurasian integration —  what stands out is his mediatory role in the Ukraine conflict. 

The international community puts China as the frontrunner in the race for peacemaking in Ukraine but don’t be surprised if Erdogan overtakes Xi Jinping to the finishing line. The Japanese government in its congratulatory message to Erdogan expressed the hope for cooperation to bring closer a peaceful solution to the Ukraine conflict and ensure security in the region.

Moscow walked the fine line during the  Turkish election campaign, which is a tacit recognition of the fact that Erdogan is a strong ruler. Russia will need to be watchful since Erdogan can also be fiercely independent and stubborn. Equally, it is wrong to assume that Turkiye’s transatlantic bridge has broken down. Erdogan is at the peak of his power and Washington is acutely conscious of it. Thus, in the Turkish-US-Russian triangle, Erdogan has the upper hand currently.  

Significantly, a high-ranking Russian diplomat in the Russian Foreign Ministry reiterated on the eve of the Turkish election that Ankara’s continued weapons supplies to Ukraine dented its credentials to be a mediator between Moscow and Kiev. 

As the diplomat put it, “Ankara has repeatedly declared its intent to secure a speedy ceasefire in Ukraine and revive the negotiating process through its mediation. Arms and military equipment supplies to the Kiev regime directly contradict such intentions and are at odds with the role of a mediator.” 

Indeed, a Turkish company, Baykar Makina, which is owned by a relative of Erdogan, has supplied the Ukrainian forces with its Bayraktar TB2 strike and reconnaissance drones in the early phases of the conflict. There was even talk that the Turkish company was setting up a factory to produce the advanced drone in Ukraine and that the detailed design phase for the plant has been completed. 

Turkiye and Ukraine last year also signed a deal to establish a second manufacturing plant in Ukraine after the two countries deepened their cooperation in the defence industry for the co-production of crucial engines for aerial vehicles and tech transfer.  Baykar’s Bayraktar TB2 drones have a proven track record of success in conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Ukraine features prominently in Baykar’s supply chain, especially with the new heavy-lifter drone, Akinci, and the unmanned fighter jet, Kizilelma, or “Golden Apple”. Both use Ukrainian engines from Motor Sich MSICH.UAX and from Ivchenko-Progress. Baykar expected to net around $1bn in export revenues last year, about 50 percent higher than in 2021 ($650m), and a further 50 percent growth is expected in 2023. Again, since August last year, Ankara has also been provided Kiev with ‘Kipri’ mine-resistant armoured vehicles to the Ukraine military. 

Yet, Moscow is far from in any threatening mood. Instead, the Russian approach is to put rings of engagement around Erdogan and make him a captive of the optics of a great friendship between the two presidents. In his congratulatory message to Erdogan, Putin called him “dear friend”

Turkiye hosted peace talks in Istanbul between the Russian and Ukrainian delegations in March last year, a month after Moscow’s special military operation began. It resulted in a deal. But Washington and London got so flustered that a massive information war was triggered by MI6 on an alleged “massacre” of civilians in Bucha near Kiev by the Russian troops. The then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson rushed to meet Zelensky with an offer that Ukraine had a far better option to take western military help and defeat Russia. 

Of course, all that is history now. But there is no question that if Zelensky changes his mind, Erdogan will step in. By the way, Turkey rejects Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The collapse of the Istanbul deal didn’t discourage Ankara from mediating a grain deal between Moscow and Kiev together with the UN last summer, which is still working. 

Turkiye has repeatedly called for peace talks to be revived, offering its services as mediator. As recently as in late March, Erdogan said peace in Ukraine could be achieved through “serious, determined mediation.” Meanwhile, Erdogan’s “special relationship” with Putin helped secure the latest extension of the grain deal. 

Erdogan advocates a “balanced approach” toward Russia, and he frequently interacts with Putin. Turkiye is the only NATO member country that refuses to impose sanctions against Russia. That said, Erdogan also keeps the line open to President Biden. On his part, Biden conveyed his greetings to Erdogan within hours of the election results on Sunday. Biden called for cooperation to meet “global challenges.” 

Washington played safe on Turkish election saying it would deal with whoever won. Clearly, Washington realises that Erdogan will be heading a strong presidency and will not be a pushover, and the US cannot afford to alienate Turkiye, as the Ukraine crisis is reaching a criticality. Turkish-American relationship has never been easy but both sides are used to keeping it in equilibrium. Without Turkey, NATO loses traction in Eastern Mediterranean, while Turkey needs the West to balance its strategic autonomy. Washington’s priority at the moment will be to dissuade Turkey from helping Russia to circumvent the sanctions.

The big question is whether Zelensky will be willing to return to the peace talks. Compared to the situation last year at the Istanbul talks, Zelensky holds a weak hand. Russia has gained the upper hand in the battlefield. Russia’s “new territories” — Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporozhye and Kherson oblasts — are new facts on the ground.  

Therefore, peace talks has become a paradigm of complex probability that is inherently multi-dimensional and, one may say, a shift in that direction on Zelensky’s part will depend on his observing, understanding, and interacting with the radical change in the ground situation as well as in the power play within his own camp. 

The factionalism in the power structure in Kiev has lately aggravated. The unexplained “disappearance” from public view of the commander-in-chief General Valery Zaluzhny for the past few weeks since April 13; the ascendance of the intelligence chief   Kyrylo Budano (who enjoys American backing); the hollowing out of the Ukrainian military which suffered a series of reverses  lately; the procrastination in launching the “counter-offensive” — all this suggests that serious disaffection is building up within the military against Zelensky’s leadership. 

Consequently, the prospects of peace talks have receded. But that will not stop Erdogan and Putin from deepening the Turkish-Russian cooperation, which is rich in content and wide-ranging. Different perceptions or viewpoints have not discouraged the two leaders who are fundamentally committed to the “win-win’ relationship. 

Therefore, if and when the climate for peace talks on Ukraine improves, Erdogan is certain to be the early bird to position himself for a mediatory role. 

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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