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Erdogan takes 'great care not to cross' Putin

Roman Goncharenko
August 5, 2022

The Russian and Turkish presidents have met in Sochi. How does Recep Tayyip Erdogan manage to maintain relations with Moscow while also helping Ukraine in the war against Russia?

Erdogan and Putin shaking hands
Turkey's Erdogan was in Sochi today to meet his Russian counterpart PutinImage: MURAT KULA/TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL/AFP

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Friday in the Russian seaside resort of Sochi. Among other things, they discussed the war in Ukraine, and the resumption of grain exports across the Black Sea under an agreement Turkey helped to broker.

Shortly before the visit, DW spoke to Maryna Vorotnyuk, a leading expert on the Black Sea region at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, to ask about Ankara's mediating role, and how Erdogan was managing to maintain his political balancing act between Russia and Ukraine.

DW: Ms. Vorotnyuk, is it fair to say that the resumption of Ukrainian grain exports is primarily a success for Turkey, as the mediating nation, and for its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

Maryna Vorotnyuk: First of all, Turkey's position in relation to Ukraine and Russia is quite complex and ambiguous. Although Turkey is a member of NATO, it has always tried to position itself as a bridge between the West and Russia. Turkey has its own strategic national interests, and it is not in its interest to take an overtly pro-NATO or pro-Russian position, or a pro-Ukrainian position. The fact that it has managed to play the role of mediator between Ukraine and Russia in this grain agreement is probably evidence that Russia also sees Turkey's role as quite useful for Russian interests — and so, of course, it seeks to extract some diplomatic and political dividends from this for itself. The lifting of the blockade of Ukrainian ports is a very important event, and Turkey's role in this is really significant.

Maryna Vorotnyuk
Turkey has its own strategic interests, says Maryna VorotnyukImage: privat

What is Erdogan's secret? How does he manage to straddle both positions? On the one hand, Turkey is supplying Bayraktar drones to Ukraine, while also positioning itself as a mediator. On the other, Turkey is not imposing sanctions on Russia. On the contrary: It is helping Russia obtain sanctioned Western goods.

This position reflects Turkey's strategic culture. Turkey has its own strategic interests, and it is in these interests for it to play the role of a partner equidistant to Russia and Ukraine. This means that, for Turkey, there is no contradiction in it supplying Bayraktar drones to Ukraine; or, for example, to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which also collides in certain ways with Russian interests; or, on the other hand, in it supporting Russia's adversaries in Syria or Libya while also buying Russian S-400 air defense systems, allowing the Russian company Rosatom to build a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu in Turkey, or buying Russian gas.

So there are a number of factors that, at first glance, appear to contradict each other. But Turkey is managing to maintain this balancing act between Russia and the West. You asked what Erdogan's secret is. People often say that Erdogan and Putin have good chemistry: two authoritarian leaders, who have a specific style of leadership and are able to resolve certain conflict issues at the highest level — often, it's believed, in confidence. However, it is clear to us that this is not really a question of trust, but a certain respect for each other's interests. And this respect allows them to share spheres of influence in the region, including in the Black Sea.

Many people predicted that, sooner or later, Turkey's open support for Ukraine would cross a red line for Russia and lead to direct confrontation between Russia and Turkey. We are still not seeing any open confrontation.

Two men in green camouflage fatigues pushing a grey drone
Turkey has been supplying Bayraktar drones to Ukraine since before the start of the war with Russia, and continues to do soImage: Yulii Zozulia/Avalon/Photoshot/picture alliance

You mention a red line. Where does Russia draw this line in its cooperation with Turkey?

Turkey is taking great care not to cross these red lines. This means: yes, the supply of Bayraktars is a sore point in Russian-Turkish relations. Turkey is treading on Russia's toes in this respect. But at the same time it is doing everything it can to ensure it doesn't hurt too much, and is trying to compensate for it by making concessions in other strategic areas. For example, it is trying to respond with great caution to Russian policy in the Black Sea. Even though Turkey is an extremely important player in the Black Sea region, we still see it allowing Russia to dominate the Black Sea.

Turkey is trying to offer Russia certain dividends, in that it has not joined in in imposing sanctions, did not close its airspace to Russian planes after February 24 — thereby allowing Russian planes to fly internationally — and welcomes Russian tourists.

To what extent is Erdogan acting independently in the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine? Is he still coordinating his approach with the United States?

It's hard to say. The fact is that the Turkish-American dialogue has been overshadowed in recent years by very serious conflicts. When Joe Biden became president, there were hopes that he would try to resume the dialogue with Turkey, because he is well aware of Turkey's strategic importance. Right now, we are not seeing any significant improvement in these relations. So I wouldn't say that there is any specific day-to-day coordination as far as Russia is concerned. That doesn't seem possible to me. But of course each is taking the other's interests into account.

Two men sit in the middle of a wide table, in front of several flags
Turkey brokered an agreement between Ukraine and Russia that allows Ukraine to resume grain exports via Black Sea portsImage: Khalil Hamra/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Several rounds of talks between Russia and Ukraine have already taken place in Turkey. To what extent can Turkey cautiously try to push Ukraine in the coming weeks or months to resume negotiations with Russia — about a ceasefire, for example?

I am very pessimistic about this. To what extent can a mediator play a constructive role if the aggressor state is not willing to cease its armed activities? I think we should be clear as to the limits of Turkey's position in this regard. As for Turkey's attempts to push Ukraine into some sort of agreement: We are seeing this already. If you look at Erdogan's vocabulary, and that of other Turkish representatives, they say it is very important to make peace, then carefully try to sidestep the question of who is the main obstacle to peace. What Russia is doing now is just an attempt to buy time. It is an attempt to present itself as a trustworthy partner that cares about feeding the world, but that is in fact continuing to pursue its military objectives in Ukraine. And if Turkey is trying to present a grain agreement as a path to an accord, that seems to me to be something of an illusion, because in Russia's strategic calculations it is certainly possible for these two factors, these two policy orientations, to coexist.

Maryna Vorotnyuk is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the leading defense and security think tank in the United Kingdom. She specializes in security issues in the Black Sea region; Russian, Ukrainian, and Turkish foreign policy; and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

The interview was conducted in Russian by Roman Goncharenko.