As the waters in the Black Sea heat up despite the snowfall and freezing temperatures, Erdoğan went to Kiev and reiterated his offer to act as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. When Russia disregarded this, Erdoğan offered to ‘host’ the prospective Ukrainian and Russian delegations in Turkey. In other words, his issue is not participation as a third party, but rather the proposal for a venue for future peace talks. But even this is an illusory expectation, because Putin is of the opinion that his interlocutor is NATO, not Zelensky or Ukraine. Therefore, he thinks it is more appropriate to meet with US President Biden, a meeting which it would be inappropriate for Erdoğan to attend.
A more realistic outcome of the Erdoğan – Zelenski meeting has been their agreement on the joint production of armed drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – UAVs). Last year, Turkey sold Ukraine armed drones manufactured at Erdoğan’s son-in-law’s Bayraktar factory. Russia had previously expressed its discomfort with this commercial relationship, claiming that these drones were being used against the separatist Russian region in eastern Ukraine. It seems that Ukraine will no longer import UAVs from Turkey but will produce them in its own territory with the partnership of the Bayraktar company and use them as it wishes, without Turkey holding any direct responsibility.
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have reached dangerous levels in recent months. Russia is demanding a guarantee against Ukraine’s affiliation to NATO and continues to deploy a significant part of its massive army on its western border and in Belarus. In response, the United States and NATO countries are sending weapons to Ukraine, and NATO forces in Poland and the Baltic republics are being reinforced with new troops. The American administration has warned of “enormous consequences” if Russia invades Ukraine. The two superpowers of the Cold War years seem to be facing each other again in the order of war.
Since Turkey, as a NATO member, is a party to this conflict, there is no irregularity in selling arms to Ukraine. However, Turkey has also purchased S400 missiles from Russia, the leading power of the opposing side. Some of the oil and natural gas pipelines extending from Russia to Europe pass through Turkey. Confronting Russia risks leaving the country without gas in the middle of winter. In addition, the nuclear power plants in Mersin and Sinop, which are strategic energy investments, are being built by Russia. The importance of Russia in terms of tourism revenues and foreign trade is also well-known. Under these circumstances, it would have been suicidal for Erdoğan to challenge Putin from Kiev. On the contrary, in the event of a military conflict, it is more likely that Russia will have demands regarding control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, and that Turkey will fulfill them, as in the past during the Georgian conflict.
The United States and its NATO allies will understand that today, as in the past, Turkey has to walk a fine line regarding its position vis-a-vis Russia. Erdoğan’s visit to Ukraine is a gesture that hopes to break the ice between Turkey and the Biden administration, rather than yield tangible results in the Ukraine-Russia conflict. As far as he is able to, Erdoğan has conveyed the message that he is with the USA in the Ukraine conflict.
The majority of European countries, and Germany in particular, are not as pro-conflict as the USA in the Ukraine crisis. The powerful eastern neighbour is the EU’s most important foreign trade partner, as well as being the main energy supplier. About 40% of the natural gas consumed in Europe originates from Russia. It is said that the recent visit of the Crown Prince of Qatar to to the White House last month was about precisely this issue, with the United States reviving relations with Qatar in search of an alternative gas source to Europe in case of a Russian embargo. The Qatar rapprochement is also meaningful in the context of US foreign policy shifting to a new course in the Middle East.
Aiming to focus its foreign policy on the Asia-Pacific region, the Biden administration called on its allies in the Middle East to forget their disagreements and work in harmony. The Saudi Arabia – United Arab Emirates (UAE) bloc, which put Qatar under blockade and turned against Turkey during the Trump era, has been showing signs of softening for the past year. In return for this moderation, Qatar and Turkey are expected to cut their support for the Muslim Brotherhood and take a clear anti-Iran stance in regional politics. There is an ongoing conflict in Libya between Turkey and the Saudi-UAE bloc, also involving Egypt.
As a first step towards Turkey within the framework of the concept of harmony between allies, UAE Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Zayed visited Ankara last November and was hosted at Erdoğan’s palace. In return, Erdoğan will visit the UAE in February, after which he is expected to visit Saudi Arabia. It is hoped that Turkey will stop providing support for the Muslim Brotherhood in return for the economic support it will receive from the Gulf capital, and that it will stand in the same line, especially in Libya. This will also mean a step to resolve the conflicts with Egypt. Turkish-Egyptian relations have been strained since the Islamist government was overthrown in 2013. The Sisi administration is particularly uncomfortable with Turkey’s intervention in Libya. Additionally Turkey’s marketing of armed drones to the governments or opposition forces of countries in turmoil in the African continent, such as Ethiopia, also disturbs Egypt.
Turkey’s persistent claims to gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean have brought the two countries against each other still more. As a result of the gunboat diplomacy it carried out in the Eastern Mediterranean throughout 2020, the Erdoğan administration came to the brink of military conflict with EU countries such as France and Greece as well as with Egypt. This policy appears to have been abandoned with no tangible gains.
The call for harmony between the allies also includes the difficult task of rapprochement with Israel. The UAE has taken pioneering steps in this regard recently, and Saudi Arabia is likely to follow suit. Now Turkey is about to join these countries. Israeli President Herzog’s visit to Ankara, scheduled for March will be the first presidential-level visit since 1992. Erdoğan is likely to raise the issue of Turkish participation in the Eastern Mediterranean gas projects, and Herzog will probably demand the withdrawal of Turkey’s support for Hamas. Hamas, which currently controls the Gaza Strip, is in frequent conflict with Israel. The Palestinian group is known for its Muslim Brotherhood political line and close relations with Turkey.
The steps of moderation that Erdoğan is expected to take towards Middle Eastern countries may have important consequences for ending the civil wars in Syria and Libya. By being involved in these conflicts, Turkey has so far acted as a troublemaker rather than a problem-solver.
The most recent case, which stands out as evidence of the Erdoğan government’s obstructive role in the fight against Islamic terrorism, is the elimination by US special forces of Al-Qureishi, the Islamic State’s (ISIS) Caliph, in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, within walking distance of the Turkish border. American officials did not share intelligence with Turkish authorities about the operation in advance, presumably due to their awareness of the latter’s close ties to the ISIS leadership. The previous Caliph of ISIS, Al-Baghdadi, was also killed by US troops, within walking distance of the Turkish border, in 2019. US authorities expressed their gratitude to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces after each of these operations.