International report

Turkey risks slipping off diplomatic tightrope as tensions between Russia and Ukraine grow

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Turkey is finding itself trapped between Russia and Ukraine. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, until now, maintained good relations with his Ukrainian and Russian counterparts. But now, analysts warn that escalating tensions between Moscow and Kyiv could mark the end of Erdogan's diplomatic balancing act. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Alberto PIZZOLI AFP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cultivated close ties with both his Ukrainian and Russian counterparts. But as Ukrainian and Russian armor continues to build upon their shared border and with it the looming threat of confrontation, Turkey is caught in the middle, warns Mustafa Aydin, professor of international relations at Istanbul'sIstanbul's Kadir Has University.

"Turkey has developed a close relationship with Russia in different localities and neighborhoods of Turkey. But Ukraine has always been, since its independence, one of Turkey's closer, let's say, friends and allies, and in recent years that has branched out into the security aspect. (So) if there's a conflict there, Turkey would be very hard positioned not to take sides," said Aydin. 

Turkey's precarious position

Turkey's precarious position is seeing Ankara turning to historic diplomatic tactics. 

"The tense situation between Ukraine and Russia forcing Turkey to take sides," said Huseyin Bagci, head of the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute. "In this case, Turkey uses classic of nineteenth-century politics to try to satisfy both sides expectation with its statements," added Bagci.

Turkey, touting its neighbors' good relations, is offering to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow, a move welcomed by Kyiv. But Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova dismissed the offer. 

Turkey and NATO

But, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov struck a more diplomatic tone saying the issue would be discussed between the two presidents.  Zaur Gasimov of Bonn University says Moscow is wary of damaging its highly prized close ties with Ankara, given Turkey Nato membership.

"For Russia, it's a priority to deepen cleavages within the NATO community," said Gasimov. "Turkey is very important for Russia, and deepening its contact with Ankara, Russia deepens cleavages within NATO. And its ability to counterbalance the US America presence and NATO in the region."

But Moscow's patience with Ankara could be wearing thin. Turkey's decision in April to let a US warship use Istanbul's Bosphorus waterway to participate in a NATO-Ukrainian naval exercise drew swift condemnation from Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition, Turkey's continued sale of military drones to Ukraine, which Kyiv used recently against Russian-backed separatist forces, drew further criticism from Moscow.  

"Russia would like to see the breakup of Turkey from NATO in this topic (Ukraine) in this conflict," said Arda Mevlutoglu, an independent defense analyst. "Therefore, the support, the existence of Turkish support to Ukraine itself would be a key concern for Russian decision-makers." 

Turkey is heavily dependent on Russian energy and cooperation in hotspots, including Syria. Ankara is thus aware that Moscow could extract a heavy price if Ankara sides with its NATO partners in a conflict over Ukraine. 

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