Could Turkey play a mediating role in the talks between Ukraine and Russia?
The increasingly close strategic relationship between Turkey and Ukraine was underscored by the key economic and defense agreements signed earlier this month. But that is unlikely to result in a seat for Ankara in future talks between Moscow and Kyiv, analysts say.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a number of key agreements after arriving in Kyiv on February 3, including a free trade deal that has been under discussion for some 15 years. The security arrangements also included a crucial agreement for the construction of a factory in Ukraine for the production of Bayraktar military drones, which will be equipped with Ukrainian-made engines.
However, Erdogan’s proposal to hold a summit in Turkey “at the leadership level or talks at the technical level” was the most discussed aspect of the trip.
“We will decide the date now,” the official Anadolu news agency said, citing Erdogan. “We want to organize this meeting in order to bring Mr. Putin and Mr. Zelensky together at a high level. This comes from our agreement with Mr. Zelensky. I believe this will allow for a new format.
Analysts note that Erdogan has good reason to ask for intermediary status in resolving the current crisis.
“In recent years, Turkey’s relations with many neighbors have deteriorated,” said Yevgenia Gaber, senior researcher at Carleton University’s Center for Modern Turkish Studies. “But now it is understood that to implement ambitious initiatives, Turkey needs, if not friendship, at least normal working relations with neighboring countries. The most complicated are relations with the EU and they have deteriorated considerably in recent years. However, if Ankara manages to contribute to the resolution of the crisis around Ukraine, which worries the EU a lot, it should considerably improve their relations.
However, the fact remains that no meeting has yet been set – and the prospect remains unlikely.
Russia’s response to the initiative has been neutral, with Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling reporters that “the president has said he is ready to meet anyone, if necessary, but that requires an understanding of what will be the outcome, what will be discussed. There is no such understanding yet”.
Kyiv also did not confirm the possibility of such a meeting, similarly repeating that Zelensky’s position was that he was ready to meet Putin on any platform.
Maria Zolkina, an analyst at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, doubts that such a meeting is in Russia’s interest.
“Recently, the Russian Federation has hardened its position and refused to negotiate with Ukraine, which is considered a customer of the United States and is not recognized as an equal partner for dialogue,” he said. she stated. “Furthermore, any new format is an opportunity to propose new proposals and thus advance the negotiation process. Therefore, theoretically, Kiev needs such a format, and not Moscow, which rejects all compromises and insists on Kiev’s implementation of the Minsk agreements in the most unfavorable version for itself.
Ukraine’s caution is also understandable, as the opposition – in particular former President Petro Poroshenko’s party – strongly opposes talks without the participation of Western allies like in the Normandy format, where France and Germany serve as mediators.
Ukrainian experts are also critical of the idea of bilateral talks with Putin mediated by Turkey.
“The main risk for Ukraine is the candidacy of a mediator,” Zolkina said. “Yes, relations between Ukraine and Turkey have improved significantly in recent years, but it is not excluded that this will change and that it will be more profitable for Erdogan to play with the Russian Federation. Unlike the countries Westerners, Turkey’s position does not depend on international law, which is on our side, and the authoritarian character of the authorities makes any development possible.
Mikhail Gonchar, the president of the Center for Global Studies Strategy XXI, was even more critical.
“Relations between Erdogan and Putin are like a seesaw – from a sharp cooling of relations and mutual threats to a new warming and rapprochement. The key to new ties is the high volume of bilateral trade, which often exceeds the volume of trade with Ukraine. In such a situation, dependence on Erdogan can have extremely serious consequences for Ukraine,” he said.
One aspect of Erdogan’s proposal – that Turkey serve as host for further technical discussions on the situation in the Donbass – has a better chance of success. While the Minsk agreements, signed in the Belarusian capital in 2014 and 2015, are the recognized basis for a future resolution of the conflict, Ukraine’s relations with Belarus have since deteriorated sharply. Most recently this month, Belarus deployed troops to the Ukrainian border for war games with Russia.
“Obviously we won’t be going back to Minsk again,” a senior Ukrainian government source told IWPR on condition of confidentiality. “Under such circumstances, Turkey’s proposal is completely acceptable to us. Another thing is that we are in no rush to take these negotiations offline. As the past few years have shown, we can successfully conduct these discussions online and most likely will until the pandemic subsides.
Indeed, a new venue for these talks carries little risk for Ukraine.
“The likelihood of the venue owner influencing the course of negotiations is minimal,” Zolkina said. “In fact, he is only responsible for logistics. For example, Lukashenko failed to derive any personal benefits from trading platform status, except for temporarily improving relations with the EU.
She said there were various reasons why holding such talks in Turkey might be more beneficial for Ukraine than in Helsinki or Vienna, which have also been proposed as a replacement for Minsk.
“There are a lot of people involved in these negotiations who are sanctioned by the EU,” she continued. “And now, for each round of negotiations, these sanctions will have to be temporarily lifted, which discredits the idea of personal sanctions. There are no such risks in the case of Turkey, since it has not imposed any sanctions. Moreover, by accepting Erdogan’s proposal, we are doing him a favor, which can further improve relations with Turkey.
Gaber said these technical talks in Turkey could also include other topics.
“Turkey is helping the Crimean Tatars,” she explained. “It is possible that the intermediary status will allow Erdogan to raise the issue with the Russian Federation of the release of Crimean political prisoners, many of whom are Crimean Tatars.”
Soon, the Ukrainian authorities will have to respond to Ankara’s proposal. Most likely, this response will be positive, or at least partially positive.
And then the importance of Turkey for Ukraine, which is quite considerable now, will increase further, especially if Turkey’s mediation speeds up the peace talks
This publication has been prepared under the “Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project” implemented with the financial support of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.