Erdoğan walks a fine line between Russia and Ukraine during Zelensky visit

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for a renewal of the ceasefire agreement in eastern Ukraine during a visit to Istanbul by his Ukrainian counterpart Volodomyr Zelensky. 

On Saturday afternoon, Zelensky and an entourage of high-ranking Ukrainian officials touched down in Istanbul for a meeting with Erdoğan. This meeting took place at a time of heightened tensions between Ukraine and Russia over a massing of Russian forces over the border and fears that Moscow may launch an offensive. 

Erdogan and Zelensky met for three hours behind closed doors at the Huber Mansion, one of the presidential residencies in the megacity. This was followed by a joint-press conference where Erdoğan reiterated his support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and called for a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict in the eastern Donbass region.

“We believe that the current crisis should be resolved on the basis of international laws and the territorial integrity of Ukraine in peaceful, diplomatic ways,” said Erdoğan. 

To do this, Erdogan called for a return to the Minsk Agreement, a ceasefire protocol agreed on in 2015 that has been undermined by frequent clashes between Kyiv’s military and Moscow-backed rebels in the Donbas.

“We hope that the escalation on the ground that we have observed in the most recent period will end soon and that the ceasefire continues,” Erdoğan continued. “We hope that the current conflict will reach a solution based on the Minsk Agreement through dialogue.”

Mentioning the Minsk protocol was something of a first for the Turkish leader. While Turkey repeatedly maintains its non-recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, something Erdoğan reiterated at the press conference, the conflict in the Donbass itself is scarcely commented on. 

Just one day before his meeting with Zelensky, Erdoğan had a phone call with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. In a readout of the call released by the Kremlin, Putin “emphasised that the 2015 Minsk Package of Measures has no alternative as a foundation for a settlement”. The Russian president placed the blame on Ukraine for failing to adhere to the agreement and accused it of “dangerous provocations”. 

The goal of not antagonising Russia floated in the background of Erdoğan’s interactions with Zelensky. Amid tensions in the Donbass, Turkey received advanced notice in compliance with the 1936 Montreux Convention that two U.S. warships would be entering the Black Sea, a move CNN reports was designed to demonstrate American support for Kyiv. Russia later announced that it would be curtailing flights to Turkey over the tourism season, officially because of a rise in COVID-19 cases, but the move was seen by some analysts as a response to Ankara allowing U.S. ships into the Black Sea. 

Commentators in the Russian press meanwhile saw Zelensky’s visit to Turkey as a trip to secure more Turkish armaments, including drones, for an attack on the Donbas separatists. Recently Ukraine completed tests for a Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drone and some Russian observers believe its use would tip the military balance in Kyiv’s favour. 

At the end of a meeting of the so-called “quadriga” between the foreign and defence ministers of both countries, the Ukrainian side affirmed Ankara’s commitment to implementing arms contracts for warships and drones from Turkey to Ukraine. However, Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defence minister, insisted before the meeting that Ankara only desired to see a peaceful solution to the conflict. 

“We are trying to keep a balance with Russia and other Black Sea coastal countries without causing a crisis," Akar said on Wednesday.

Erdoğan too made it a point to highlight that the Turkish-Ukrainian relationship should not be perceived as “an initiative against any third countries”, in an obvious message to Russia. At a time when he may be seeking to decrease tensions with neighboring countries, Erdoğan was careful to tread softly in hosting Zelensky.

Dr. Samuel Ramani, an expert on Russian foreign policy, said that Turkey has consistently opposed Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine and violations of Kyiv’s sovereignty, but Erdoğan “has largely been a spectator in the Ukraine peace process until quite recently”.

He noted that Turkish-Ukrainian ties have strengthened particularly since Zelensky took office in 2019 and that the improvements coincided with wider interactions with Russia in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus. Ramani suggests Erdoğan is looking to position Turkey as a mediator between Russia, Ukraine and NATO amid the current tensions.

“Erdoğan’s statement on Minsk highlights Turkey’s growing diplomatic ambitions in the region and Turkey’s willingness to frame itself as a force of de-escalation in the conflict,” Ramani told Ahval. 

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories, Oleksiy Reznikov, told Reuters this week that Ukraine would not hold further peace talks in Minsk once this became possible following the relaxation of COVID-19 conditions. According to Ukrainian officials, Belarus is now seen as being too firmly under Russian influence to serve as a neutral venue for ongoing negotiations with the Kremlin. 

Dr. Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), also said Turkey was sincere in wanting to see an end to the conflict while maintaining good relations with Russia and Ukraine.

“Ankara wants to see a negotiated settlement to what is going on [in the Donbass],” said Stein. “They do not want to be seen as tilting one way more than the other.”

For his part, Zelensky thanked Erdoğan for Turkey’s support and its stance on Crimea. He later tweeted after their meeting that Ukraine was “pleased to have a reliable neighbor” like Turkey and expressed hopes for continued cooperation.

Zelensky’s visit was his third to Turkey since becoming president. Each trip has ended with promises of continued Turkish support and investment in Ukraine. A large delegation of trade and foreign policy officials met on the sidelines of Erdoğan and Zelensky’s meeting to this end, and Zelensky’s office released a joint declaration on the outcome. Included were goals to conclude a bilateral free trade agreement and increase defence ties. 

Erdoğan’s call to implement the Minsk protocol was reflected in the text as well. To signal its continued support for Kyiv as well, it reemphasised Turkey’s support for the “Crimean Platform” set up by Ukraine to pressure Russia to return the peninsula and for Kyiv’s ambition to join NATO. 

Ukraine joining NATO has long been a red-line for Russia. Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, said this would only worsen the crisis while Jen Psaki, U.S. President Joe Biden’s press secretary, said Ukrainian membership in the bloc was not for Washington to decide on its own.