Turkey’s delicate balancing act: Mediating between the West, Russia, and Ukraine

  • Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco
    Researcher - The Strategic Studies Department
Foreign Policy & International Relations

Turkey’s delicate balancing act: Mediating between the West, Russia, and Ukraine

While the conflict rages on and signs of its long-term impacts on the international system are gradually taking shape, Russia’s war in Ukraine has irreversibly changed the geopolitical map of Europe and triggered major consequences globally. With most Western countries lining up to support Kyiv against Moscow’s aggression, it is inevitable that the conflict’s fallout has spilled over the regional context and assumed an international dimension. As the war’s shockwaves reverberate from the Middle East to South-East Asia, there is little that countries can do to isolate themselves from the dramatic military escalation wreaking havoc in Eastern Europe.

Though gruesome war scenes and mounting political polarization make it challenging to think about heading toward a post-conflict phase, it is of paramount importance to develop a viable mediation track capable of elaborating a political solution. Promoting mediation efforts and preventing the conflict from turning into an endless war of attrition – with countries freezing on irreconcilable positions or, even worse, scaling up tensions by resorting to tactical nuclear weapons – is an imperative for all countries with an interest in preserving the stability of the international order.

With EU member states – even those known to have amicable diplomatic relations with Moscow like Italy and Germany – closing ranks behind NATO and the U.S. and significantly scaling up their military support to Kyiv,[1] the chances of having a Western-brokered mediation track are dwindling. This may open up a window of opportunity for new players to initiate mediation efforts in the Ukrainian quagmire. Turkey stands out among those candidates with a vested interest in preventing the armed conflict from spiralling out of control while at the same time preserving working diplomatic relations with both Kyiv and Moscow. However, no matter how hard a third party tries to broker a ceasefire and no matter how strong the bilateral ties, the prospect of any substantial change ultimately rests in the hands of the conflicting parties. To this purpose, Ankara may resort to an array of tools to nudge the warring parties toward a de-escalation phase.

  1. Deciphering Turkey’s relations with its neighbours

Turkey’s roller-coaster ties with the West

Turkey has long been a critical bulwark for NATO and a natural partner for the EU. Second only to Washington, Ankara features as a major contributor to the Atlantic Alliance in both financial resources and manpower. However, over the past years, Turkey has increasingly come under fire, on the one hand, from its Western NATO allies for its warm diplomatic ties and security convergences with Russia and, on the other hand, from its EU partners for the country’s deteriorating socio-political environment. The mounting military proximity between Ankara and Moscow, and the Turkish government’s authoritarian drift, are at the heart of the split between Turkey and the West.

U.S.-Turkey bilateral relations have been navigating in turbulent waters for quite some time now. The downward spiral in relations was accelerated in the wake of Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system in July 2019.[2] Though Turkey framed the US$2.5 billion deal as a critical step to boost the country’s long-range air defense, its Atlantic allies saw it as a spear pointed directly at the Alliance’s strategic solidarity. Lamenting that integrating S-400 batteries with NATO systems would expose the stealth capabilities of the F-35 fifth-generation strike-fighter aircraft to high risk of espionage by the Russian intelligence, Washington has interpreted the Turkish outreach to Russian arms supply as a significant blow to NATO’s military capabilities and combat readiness.[3]

Alarmed that Russia might turn these cracks in NATO’s defense integrity in its favour in a conflict scenario, the Trump administration put on hold Ankara’s order for over 100 F-35 jets and cut out Turkish defense companies from the production of F-35 components.[4] Parallelly, Capitol Hill doubled down on this retaliation approach vis-à-vis Turkey by implementing an informal obstruction policy targeting Turkish imports of U.S. weapon systems. With members of both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee on a war footing, vetoing any major American arms sale to Turkey, bilateral relations got progressively sour.[5]

Ultimately, in October 2020, simmering tensions between the U.S. and Turkey came to a boil when Ankara test-fired the S-400 air defense system and knocked down a F-16 jet – a well-known fighter aircraft in the arsenal of NATO forces.[6] Bilateral ties rapidly deteriorated to the point that, two months later, the Trump administration resorted to the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to pressure President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan into making a foreign policy U-turn.[7] The CAATSA sanctions imposed asset freezes and visa restrictions on the president of the Turkish defense procurement agency (SSB) along with three other high-ranking officials. Among other things, CAATSA sanctions include (1) the prohibition of U.S. financial institutions to provide loans or credit benefitting SSB and totalling more than $10 million in any 12-month period; (2) a ban on U.S. Export-Import Bank assistance; (3) a requirement for the U.S. to oppose loans by international financial institutions that benefit SSB; and, most importantly (4) a ban on the issuance of export licenses and authorizations to the SSB.[8] With the Turkish defense industries interdicted by U.S. military export networks, Ankara has looked at minimizing damages by diversifying its procurement practices and strengthening home-grown capabilities. However, alternative equipment that provide the same quality and interoperability with NATO systems guaranteed by the U.S. armaments are not easy to find on the market. Thus, the licensing ban is particularly severe as it weakens the production capacity of Turkish defense industries, which may lead to a gradual decrease in the country’s military export activities in the long-term.[9]

While U.S.-Turkey bilateral ties were at a low ebb, Brussels was having its diplomatic freeze with Ankara. Indeed, after a short-lived spring in the wake of the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement on the Syrian refugee crisis, ties between Brussels and Ankara entered a phase of gradual deterioration. With mutual discomfort becoming more visible over time, a myriad of disputes dominated the political dialogue between the two sides. From Turkey’s territorial disputes with Greece to squabbles over the sovereignty of the energy-rich parts of the Eastern Mediterranean sea, to the EU’s condemnation of Turkey’s poor human rights track-record, relations between Ankara and Brussels were on a dangerous downward spiral.

Ultimately, temperatures reached boiling point in the second half of 2020 after a French navy’s show of force in response to a border violation by a Turkish research vessel in Greek territorial waters.[10] Several Turkish officials and entities involved in gas exploration activities off the Greek and Cypriot coasts were hit with sanctions by the European Council for their provocative actions.[11]

Following a spike in tensions, diplomatic relations between Turkey and its NATO allies and EU partners experienced a gradual, lukewarm rapprochement in 2021. With bilateral ties sailing toward warm waters and countries toning down their inflammatory rhetoric, an opportunity to reengage in productive dialogues opened up. While mending frayed ties and rebuilding mutual confidence requires time and energy, both parties have made several symbolic gestures signalling that they have the political goodwill to cast aside past stand-offs and jointly work on the new positive momentum.[12] Though the future of Turkey-West relations remains vulnerable to periodic setbacks, the acknowledgement of common concerns has recurrently persuaded parties to mend bilateral ties and nurture constructive cooperation.

Russia-Turkey relations: A marriage of convenience

Ankara-Moscow bilateral relations and mutual perceptions lay on a centuries-long legacy of rivalling geopolitical ambitions and forced coexistence – between the Ottoman and Tzarist Empires previously and then subsequently between the Kemalist Republic and the Soviet Union. Despite the regime change in Russia in the 1990s and the major political developments in Turkey in the 2000s, Russian and Turkish strategic interests have rarely been in sync.

More recently, Turkey-Russia bilateral ties entered a downward spiral after Russia launched a military intervention in the Syrian civil war to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015. After an initial reluctance to enter the fray of the Syrian civil war and a timid attempt to mediate between President al-Assad and the opposition groups, Turkey reversed its cautious approach in favour of a revisionist, interventionist posture. By championing the overthrow of the al-Assad regime and actively supporting Islamist-inspired armed resistance formations, Turkey’s strategic interests entered into a direct collision with Russia’s vision for the Levant.[13]

Tensions significantly flared up two months later when a Turkish F-16 fighter jet downed a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M attack aircraft for violating Turkey’s airspace.[14] The episode triggered Moscow’s wrath and was followed by military and economic retaliatory measures. Russia bolstered its military build-up in Syria by deploying the guided-missile cruiser Moskva[15] off the coast of Latakia as well as  S-400 mobile surface-to-air missile systems to the Khmeimim airbase.[16] It also imposed severe economic sanctions on Turkey, estimated to have caused the country a loss of US$10 billion in trade and tourism revenues.[17] With President Putin playing hardball and hitting Turkey where it hurts, President Erdoğan carefully threaded a rapprochement policy to mend fences with his homologue.

Despite the killing of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, by an off-duty Turkish policeman in late 2016, the two countries managed to mend bridges. Since 2015, on-and-off episodes of armed confrontations have continued to shake relations between Ankara and Moscow, such as the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in the Syrian province of Idlib in February 2020 by airstrikes that Turkish media attributed to the Russian air-force.[18]

In addition to Syria, Turkey and Russia have been at loggerheads in other conflict theatres too – such as in Libya and the Caucasus – where, despite their conflicting agendas, they managed to settle into an uneasy cohabitation. The geopolitical engagement between the two countries in tension-ridden zones points to Turkey and Russia’s capacity to manage overt frictions and tone down tensions when they approach the brink of the abyss.

Ankara's energy vulnerability is partly the reason for Turkey’s rapprochement policy with Russia. Indeed, with Russia accounting for “45% of its natural gas demand, 17% of oil and 40% of its gasoline,”[19] Turkey’s energy mix is heavily dependent on Moscow’s export of fossil fuels. The high exposure to Russia’s retaliatory measures in the energy market has translated into Turkey’s imperative of keeping amicable relations with this uncomfortable neighbour. Consequently, the rationale underpinning Turkey’s appeasement policy with Russia rests on both energy- and security-driven concerns.

What is telling is that Turkey heavily relies on Russia even in its push to diversify the energy mix and reduce dependency on imported energy resources. Indeed, the Russian nuclear energy champion Rosatom has secured a US$20 billion-worth deal granting to the Russian state-owned company construction licenses for all the four reactors at the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, located in the Mersin Province.[20] With a total annual capacity of 35 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), the plant is expected to satisfy nearly 10% of Turkey’s domestic electricity needs and significantly boost the carbon-free energy component in the national energy infrastructure.[21]

A significant component of the Turkey-Russia entente is built on extracting mutual benefits from economic cooperation. Even though Turkey does not factor among Russia’s top-tier import partners, Moscow is Turkey’s top import source and plays a critical role in many of its sectors, from tourism to agriculture and heavy industry. Since the visa liberalization between the two countries in 2011, Turkey has become one of the most popular destinations for Russian tourists; almost one out of five tourists visiting Turkey in 2021 held a Russian passport.[22] With around 4.7 million visitors in 2021, Russia was a primary contributor to a sector that generated US$25 billion in revenues that year[23] – a breath of fresh air for the cash-strapped Turkish economy.

Although recent projections predict visitor numbers reaching pre-pandemic levels, it seems that tourist hot-spots in Turkey will be impacted differently depending on the location. For example, while the city of Bodrum on the Aegean coast is expected to experience a record inflow of holidaymakers, the iconic resort city of Antalya is likely to suffer significant downturns due to the Ukraine-Russia war. Since Russian and Ukrainian tourists make up the bulk of Antalya’s vacationers, the tourist hub is likely to lose about two-thirds of its total visitors in 2022.[24]

Despite the underlying mistrust and ideological incompatibility between Turkey and Russia, the two countries have recurrently downplayed inherent contradictions and compartmentalised relations to secure mutual benefits. Ultimately, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his counterpart Vladimir Putin have preserved functional bilateral ties while pursuing geopolitical balancing policies.[25] Benefitting from a realpolitik-based foreign policy approach, the two leaders have bolstered their leadership and strengthened their grip on power.

Turkey and Ukraine: Partners of choice?

Being two middle-size powers sharing their backyard with a former super-power seeking to restore its geopolitical might in a post-Cold War multipolar, global order, it is not surprising that Turkey and Ukraine have historically looked at each other with sympathy. However, particularly after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, concerns about Russia’s mounting military presence in the Black Sea basin have drawn Turkey and Ukraine closer together. Indeed, under pressure from revanchist Russian ambitions, the two countries have softly combined forces to prevent Moscow from significantly altering the regional balance of power.

Burdened by material constraints but strongly motivated to boost their strategic self-reliance, Turkey and Ukraine have inaugurated many partnerships and joint initiatives to nurture the growth of their national defense industries. With Turkey seeking to diversify its arms provision partners – especially after the 2020 U.S. ban on export licensing – and Ukraine racing to build a state-of-the-art defense sector, Ankara-Kyiv military cooperation has recorded an unprecedented acceleration during the last years.

Ankara-Kyiv bilateral ties took off when Baykar Makina, a leading Turkish defense company, and Ukrspetsproekt, the Ukrainian state-run armament agency, inked a US$69 million-worth deal for the purchase of six Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones in 2018. Among other things, the contract also included the provision of three ground data terminals and 200 high precision missiles.[26]

Military bonds between the two countries reached a new high during President Erdoğan’s official visit to Ukraine on February 3, 2020. Aside from reiterating Turkey’s support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Ankara penned with Kyiv a finance cooperation deal establishing a US$33 million assistance funding package to sustain the Ukrainian army’s quest for strategic autonomy.[27]

Later that year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reciprocated the visit by flying to Istanbul. On October 16, 2020, the two countries signed a military cooperation agreement which included, among other things, contracts for the provision of Turkish-made Ada-class corvettes to Ukraine, a partnership between the Turkish Aerospace Industries and Ukraine's defense firm Motor Sich, and for the provision of Ukrainian-made engines for Turkey’s T129 Atak helicopters and gas turbine engines for its I-class frigates, manufactured by Ukraine’s Zorya-Mashproekt [28]

During the last two years, Ukraine-Turkey defense cooperation has made massive leaps forward in establishing what Metin Gürcan, a Turkish security analyst, dubbed a “techno-scientific alliance.”[29] Indeed, common strategic interests and a mounting know-how exchange had a “trust-boosting effect”[30] that cemented bilateral ties between the two countries.

A defense sector cooperation agreement inked between President Erdoğan and President Zelensky on February 2, 2022, coronated these synergies. Signed on the 30th anniversary of Ukraine-Turkey diplomatic ties, the deal is expected to significantly scale up the integration between the Turkish and Ukrainian defense industries through the co-production of the Bayraktar TB2 drones, which will be equipped with Motor Sich-made engines.[31] The fact that, after having purchased more than 50 Turkish-made UAV systems during the last three years, Kyiv has evolved from being a loyal customer to a trusted collaborator is telling of the strategic bonds tying together Ukraine and Turkey.

While driven by converging national security interests, the relationship between Kyiv and Ankara goes far beyond cooperation in the military and defense sectors. Indeed, the Ukraine-Turkey trade turnover has recorded a positive trend, increasing from $4 billion to $7 billion between 2018 and 2021, with Ukrainian grain and metal totalling 70% of the country’s exports to Turkey.[32] Aside from raw materials trade, the tourism sector has also experienced remarkable growth, with Ukraine contributing more and more to the rapid expansion of the Turkish hospitality sector. Facilitated by the lifting of visa restrictions, it is estimated that around 1.5 million Ukrainian tourists chose Turkey as their holiday destination in 2019.[33] Economic ties between the countries are also expected to receive a further boost following the Free Trade Agreement penned by Turkey and Ukraine on February 2, 2022.[34] The market liberalization deal is bound to accelerate trade exchange, intensify commercial integration, and pave the way for more entrepreneurial opportunities between the two economies.

In addition to common national security interests and successful commercial relationships, the cultural affinity between Turkey and the Crimean Tatars has also contributed to drawing the two countries closer on the people-to-people dimension.[35] Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Crimean Tatars have suffered forced evictions and widespread persecution due to their Turkic ethnic origins and Ottoman-era heritage.[36] Given these strong cultural bonds, it is not surprising that Turkey has taken into high consideration the plight of Crimean Tatars. In this regard, during the 9th meeting of the Turkey-Ukraine High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council held in Istanbul on April 10, 2021, high-profile Turkish and Ukrainian state officials signed a deal commissioning the Turkish government-backed housing agency TOKI for the construction of 500 housing units. The houses – which will be built in Kyiv, Mykolaiv, and Kherson – are meant for Crimean Tatars who fled the Black Sea peninsula in the wake of the 2014 Russian takeover.[37]

The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu reiterated Turkey’s solidarity with Ukraine and confirmed the country’s steadfast opposition to the Russian annexation of Crimea on August 23, 2021, on the occasion of the first Crimean Platform Summit,[38] a Ukraine-led diplomatic initiative uniting representatives from 46 countries. Symbolically held on the 30th anniversary of Ukrainian independence, the two-day summit is meant to build pressure on Russia by the international community and keep the Crimean reunification issue in the spotlight.[39]

  1. Mastering the art of (im)partiality

Though having amicable ties with the contenders is a facilitating condition, having cordial diplomatic relations with a country is neither a critical prerequisite nor a strong enough driver to persuade a contender to seek a political compromise. On the contrary, what matters most is the rationale underpinning the mediation endeavor. For a third-party, the decision to engage in a mediation effort is primarily the result of a cost-benefit consideration where resources at one’s disposal, the exposure to risks, and potential gains are carefully pondered. If the trade-off is positive, it makes sense for the third-party to enter the fray.[40]

What is telling, as affirmed by Jacob Bercovitch, Professor of International Relations at the Canterbury University in New Zealand and leading expert on international mediation, is that “mediators may be impartial, or better still perceived as impartial, but they certainly can not be neutral.”[41] Indeed, it is unlikely for a third-party to engage in a costly and risky mediation endeavor just to appease tensions running between contenders. It does so because it has reasonable expectations that by guiding the negotiation process, it can craft a post-conflict conflict environment more in tune with its strategic interests.[42]

An actor’s push for mediation stems from various external factors as well as strategic interests. Since mediation is a versatile, flexible tool, it might be used to secure many goals, from increasing a country’s political influence to extracting material gains, defending national sovereignty, or upholding territorial integrity. Ultimately, mediation emerges as a critical instrument in the foreign policy toolkit of states eager to boost their international standing without resorting to the use of military power.[43]

The degree of success of a mediator does not rest on its supposed impartiality, but is measured on its capacity to chart creative solutions, deliver acceptable outcomes to conflicting parties, and uphold its interests. The success – or failure – of a mediation process lies in the interplay of many variables on which the third-party exercises only residual influence. Aside from its effective mediation skills, a mediator’s capacity to inform the outcome of a negotiation process is limited by (1) the willingness of contenders to settle, (2) the legitimacy they accord to it and (3) unpredictable factors that might facilitate or disrupt the entire process.[44]

Even though mediation generally falls within the realm of foreign policy, it also extends to the dynamics of domestic power politics. The use of foreign policy as an instrument in domestic power politics is not a new endeavor for Ankara. Indeed, as Philip Robins, Oxford University Reader in Politics and International Relations and expert in Turkish political affairs, maintains, “in Turkey, foreign policy is not simply and exclusively about external relations. It also impacts the internal domain.”[45] Consequently, it comes as no surprise that Turkey’s bid for the role of ‘mediator-in-chief’ stems from a plurality of reasons encompassing exogenous and endogenous factors.

From a foreign politics perspective, Turkey envisages its mediation efforts in the Ukraine-Russia war as an opportunity to boost its global stance. Indeed, with Turkey walking a fine line with the West and gradually mending fences with major players in the Middle East,[46] Ankara has a vested interest in presenting itself as a great regional power that has the leverage to tilt the balance of power in the event of an international crisis.

The idea of presenting itself as a central state reflects the national role conception[47] of the Turkish leadership, which is a recurrent pattern in the political discourse of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the party led by President Erdoğan.[48] Thus, taking on the role of ‘mediator-in-chief’ and being a key player in the brokering of a peace deal as the world holds its breath fits perfectly with Turkey’s current agenda, which will ultimately serve to boost its diplomatic credentials and status among its NATO allies and EU partners.[49]

Surrounded by a tension-ridden regional environment littered with flash points prone to armed escalation, Ankara is particularly vested in preventing the regional order from falling into complete disarray. Indeed, with the Turkish economy having plummeted to historic lows over the past two years, a war between Ankara’s two critical economic partners does not bode well for the country’s economic recovery. Protracted economic distress and spiralling inflation rates have prompted Turkey to actively seek a political settlement. Given the country’s flagging growth, compartmentalizing the fallout on the economy and stabilizing the regional order are critical goals for Turkey.

In terms of domestic politics, President Erdoğan is keen on running for the title of ‘mediator-in-chief’ for several reasons. On the one hand, casting Turkey as a powerful country on the international stage responds to the need to build political consensus for the AKP ahead of the 2023 presidential election. When popular consensus for President Erdoğan’s leadership is faltering, the narrative of Turkey being an “all-winning country” caters to a nativist domestic audience while garnering public praise from constituents. On the other hand, monopolizing the public debate on the Ukraine-Russia war helps President Erdoğan divert attention from significant problems straining the country, such as the staggering economic outlook and the authoritarian drift. This dodge policy allows the AKP to cope with domestic criticisms and pump up its political credentials ahead of elections.[50]

  1. Turkey’s mediation: Assets and spoilers

The primary driver of the Turkish bid for mediation rests on the benefits that Ankara might reap from being a successful peace-broker. However, before irremediably exposing itself on the international stage, Turkey needs to carefully weigh the assets and spoilers that will influence its chances of brokering a meaningful peace deal.


  • Special relations pay their dividends

Undoubtedly, the special relationship that bonds Turkey to NATO, Ukraine, and Russia casts Ankara on a preferential lane for taking the lead in the mediation endeavor. Banking on this privileged position, Turkey is the only country that has managed to host an in-person, one-to-one summit between the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia since the conflict’s onset.[51]

Even though the Istanbul-based talks did not bring about a major breakthrough, the presence of a clear diplomatic off-ramp is of critical importance since it provides the contenders with a semi-institutional framework to work on an acceptable formula for settlement. Although moved by different expectations, Russia and Ukraine have both praised Turkey for its mediation efforts and signalled their respect for Ankara’s diplomatic credentials.[52] While the conflict might not be ready for mediation at the moment, the existence of a de-confliction space allows the parties to tone down military tensions without risk of losing face.

Turkey is carefully crafting a tentative zone of agreement, but it is not actively pushing for a negotiation. If the environment is not ripe for peace talks, the premature use of active strategies might antagonize one of the contenders, especially if the peace-broker has limited leverage that can be wielded to force parties to sit at the table. Turkey is having to manage a delicate balancing act as it patiently waits for the moment in which both parties are genuinely ready to adopt a give-and-take approach.

  • Strongly motivated, seasoned mediator

Turkey has spent a significant amount of diplomatic, economic, and political resources on building solid partnerships with Ukraine and Russia during the last years, and it is doubtful that it will stand idly by while these ties deteriorate as the war drags on. On the contrary, Ankara is committed to ensuring regime continuity in Kyiv and Moscow since the returns on its diplomatic investments rest on the personal ties that President Erdoğan has sewed with its Ukrainian and Russian homologues, President Zelensky and President Putin. Thus, it is of utmost priority for Turkey to prevent the conflict from running amok through the Black Sea basin and turning the region into a tension-ridden space.

As a result of the century-long bellicose coexistence between the Ottoman and Tzarist empires, Turkey is not new to dealing with the expansionist ambitions of a belligerent Russia. Building on this legacy, President Erdoğan and his close entourage have sharpened the art of negotiating with Russia in several war-torn theatres. Pushing for diverging agendas and supporting rival groups, Turkey and Russia have recurrently found themselves on opposing sides. However, they have managed to preserve cordial diplomatic relations and uphold their respective strategic interests. The frontline role of Russia and Turkey in brokering the cease-fire which ended border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave last November, is a case in point of the two countries’ capacity to manage tensions in conflict-ridden contexts.[53]

Turkey banks on solid mediation credentials and has proved its skills in crafting cohabitation solutions, peace agreements, and cease-fire deals with Russia in several uneasy contexts. Since Ankara is familiar with Moscow’s strategic thinking and negotiation tactics, it is in the proper position to mediate between Russia and Ukraine on a number of issues, from creating safe corridors for exporting Ukrainian agricultural products through the Black Sea[54] to facilitating talks for the swap of prisoners of war.[55]


  • Russia goes military all-in

The stiff Ukrainian resistance and counter-offensive has forced Moscow to lower its expectations and significantly recalibrate its strategic objectives as defined at the onset of the offensive. However, achieving a significant on-the-ground victory seems to remain for Russia a non-negotiable condition before seriously exploring a political solution to the conflict.[56] Indeed, it is hard to imagine Russia backing down without having secured a tactical victory allowing Putin’s regime to save face domestically and internationally. Should Russia remain deprived of victory, it will become increasingly difficult for Turkey to build a zone of agreement that garners the interests of both Kyiv and Moscow.

  • Trust-deficit within the Western camp

In the early stages of the Ukraine-Russia war, NATO praised Turkey’s attempts to mediate the conflict and sent messages of appreciation to President Erdoğan.[57] However, the widespread consensus supporting Ankara started to wane following Turkey’s veto of Sweden and Finland’s membership bids for NATO. After a short-lived thaw in relations, the current impasse seems to have brought the Atlantic Alliance back into the cold. The first round of bilateral meetings held in an attempt to clear the air between Turkey and the two Scandinavian countries were inconclusive.[58]

Ankara’s outright hostility toward Sweden and Finland’s NATO bids rests on the two Nordic countries’ semi-overt sympathy to exiled exponents of AKP’s historical nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and the Gülen movement.[59]  Although Sweden and Finland approved legislations declaring the Kurdish guerrilla group a terrorist organization, the two countries – but especially Sweden – have historically expressed interest in the Kurdish movement’s political ambitions.[60] Stockholm and Helsinki are refusing to extradite to Ankara those charged with terrorism offences or thought to be linked to Fethullah Gülen,[61] which has led to tensions soaring on minor issues. The election of a former Iranian Kurdish peshmerga, Amineh Kakabaveh, as a member of parliament in Sweden, and the media coverage of a PKK affiliate, Salih Muslim, by Swedish state television channel SVT, are but two examples.[62]

Turkey has legitimate security concerns regarding the military activities linked to the PKK and considers the separatist group a primary threat to its national security.[63] In an op-ed published by The Economist, President Erdoğan maintained that Ankara is ready to enter into genuine negotiations on condition that the Nordic candidate countries are willing “to curb the activities of all terrorist organizations and extradite the members of these organizations.”[64]

However, Ankara’s steadfast opposition has been met with discontent rather than solidarity from its NATO allies, who perceive Turkey’s posture as uncooperative and provocative in a moment of extreme vulnerability for the Atlantic Alliance. Should Turkey continue to veto Sweden and Finland’s bid for Nato membership, the stalemate will likely nurture frustration and fuel mistrust among other NATO members.

With Ankara pulling the brakes on the recently resumed bilateral talks with Greece[65] while unveiling a new military offensive in northern Syria,[66] tensions are likely to soar again within NATO. If the above dynamics are not handled deftly, the temporary cold could drive a major wedge between Turkey and the other members of the Atlantic Alliance. Needless to say, such a fractured Western camp significantly waters down the chance of a successful Turkey-led mediation.

  1. Limited returns on risky investments?

For the time being, Moscow seems to have set aside its plan of capturing Kyiv through a massive land operation and lowered both tactical scope and land projection of its military operations. The war has entered a new phase where city-by-city fighting in Ukraine’s eastern provinces is the rule of the day.

Should Moscow significantly consolidate its military control over the Ukrainian littorals – and potentially extend it to include the port city of Odesa – Ankara is likely to feel an increased sense of vulnerability. There is no doubt that a mounting Russian military presence in Turkey’s backyard will have far-reaching consequences on Ankara’s threat perception. The recalibration of the geopolitical balance of power in the Black Sea region resulting from such a scenario is bound to significantly alter Turkey’s strategic calculus in an area that Ankara has historically considered as its natural sphere of influence. Therefore, preventing an emboldened Russia from irreversibly tilting the Black Sea’s equilibrium at Turkey’s expense tops Ankara’s list of priorities and drives its mediation efforts. However, despite these growing concerns, Turkey is keen not to let tensions spiral out of control as the two countries continue to share converging interests, and their cooperation in strategic sectors is of paramount importance to Ankara’s bid for autonomy from the West.

Until now, Turkey has proved capable of maintaining a degree of neutrality with respect to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Indeed, it has managed to offer measured military support to Kyiv while preserving amicable ties with Moscow. However, with fighting intensifying in the secessionist provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk and pressure mounting from Western countries on Finland and Sweden's NATO membership bids, it might become more difficult for Ankara to maintain its delicate balancing act. As the conflict drags on and gradually heads into an intractable war, the chance for Turkey to create an acceptable formula for settlement is weakening while the risk of getting caught between NATO’s hammer and Russia’s anvil is growing.

While a nominal neutrally leaning attitude has informed the Turkish approach to the conflict until now, it is important not to read Ankara’s diplomatic moves as a passive posture. Most importantly, since Ankara has bet on the political solution track to secure gains, it is likely that Turkey will make every effort to prevent the mediation process from hitting a wall. However, if the window for a Turkey-sponsored settlement were to reduce dramatically, Ankara would cease further efforts so as not to suffer the embarrassing setbacks of a humiliating diplomatic defeat.


[1] Kevin Breuninger, “Here’s What’s in Biden’s $700 Million Military Aid Package for Ukraine,” CNBC, June 1, 2022,

[2] “Despite US Warnings, Russian S-400 Missile Systems Arrive in Turkey,” France24, July 12, 2019,

[3] Tim Lister, “Turkey Bought Russian S-400 Missiles Designed to Down NATO Planes. For the US, That's a Problem,” CNN, July 13, 2019,

[4] Karen DeYoung, Kareem Fahim, and Karoun Demirjian, “Trump Says U.S. Will Cancel Turkey’s Purchase of F-35 Planes,” The Washington Post, July 16, 2019,

[5] Valerie Insinna, Joe Gould, and Aaron Mehta, “Congress Has Secretly Blocked US Arms Sales to Turkey for Nearly Two Years,” Defence News, August 12, 2020,

[6] Suzan Fraser and Lolita C. Baldor, “Reports: Turkey Tests Russian-Made S-400 Defense System,” The Associated Press, October 16, 2020,

[7] Amanda Macias, “U.S. Sanctions Turkey over Purchase of Russian S-400 Missile System,” CNBC, December 14, 2020,

[8] Jim Zanotti and Clayton Thomas, “Turkey: U.S. Sanctions Under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA),” Congressional Research Service – Insight IN11557, December 16, 2020,

[9] Yörük Işık, “CAATSA Sanctions are Hurting Turkey’s Military Readiness at a Time When NATO Can’t Afford It,” Middle East Institute, May 6, 2021,

[10] Paul Antonopoulos, “Power Balance in the East Mediterranean is Changing as France Sends Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier,” Greek City Times, September 10, 2020,

[11] Patrick Wintour, “EU Leaders Approve Sanctions on Turkish Officials over Gas Drilling,” The Guardian, December 11, 2020,

[12] Asli Aydıntaşbaş, “Low Expectations: A Year of Renewal for the EU-Turkey Relationship,” European Council on Foreign Relations, January 27, 2021,; Humeyra Pamuk et al., “Biden, Erdogan Upbeat about Ties but Disclose No Breakthrough,” Reuters, June 15, 2021,

[13] Pavel K. Baev Kemal Kirişci, “An Ambiguous Partnership: The Serpentine Trajectory of Turkish-Russian Relations in the Era of Erdoğan and Putin,” Brookings, September 19, 2017,

[14] “Turkish F-16 Fighter Jets Shoot Down Russian Warplane after 'Airspace Violation',” Deutsche Welle (DW), November 24, 2015,

[15] The ship was later sunk in the Black Sea by two Ukrainian R-360 Neptune anti-ship missiles on April 14, 2022.

[16] Jonathan Marcus, “Russia S-400 Syria Missile Deployment Sends Robust Signal,” BBC, December 1, 2015,

[17] “Turkey’s Snuggling Up to Russia Is Likely to Hurt It,” The Economist, February 16, 2017,

[18] “At Least 34 Turkish Soldiers Killed in Air Strikes in Syria's Idlib: Syrian Observatory,” Reuters, February 27, 2020,

[19] “Turkey Has No Plans to Cut Russian Oil Imports, Welcomes Iran Supply,” Daily Sabah, March 9, 2022,

[20] “Rosatom Secures Construction Permit for Akkuyu-4 Nuclear Reactor (Turkey),” Enerdata, November 3, 2021,,from%20the%20Russian%20bank%20Sberbank.

[21] “Turkey, Russia Lay Foundation for Third Unit of Akkuyu NPP,” Daily Sabah, March 10, 2021,

[22] “Operators Fear Russians Visiting Turkey May Fall by over 50% in 2022,” Daily Sabah, April 13, 2022,

[23] Can Sezer and Daren Butler, “Turkey Tourism Revenue Doubled, Trade Deficit Narrowed Last Year,” Reuters, January 31, 2022,

[24] Ceyda Caglayan and Canan Sevgili, “Turkish Tourism Heats Up, Stoking Hopes of Economic Recovery,” Reuters, May 23, 2022,

[25] Galip Dalay, “Deciphering Turkey’s Geopolitical Balancing and Anti-Westernism in Its Relations with Russia,” SWP Comment No. 35 –  Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), May 20, 2022,

[26] Burak Ege Bekdil, “Turkish Firm to Sell Drones to Ukraine in $69 Million Deal,” Defense News, January 14, 2019,

[27] Ezgi Akin, “Intel: Erdogan Accuses Russia of 'Negligence' while Signing Military Aid Deal with Ukraine,” Al Monitor, February 3, 2020,

[28] Metin Gurcan, “Turkey on Course to Strategic Partnership with Ukraine,” Al Monitor, October 21, 2020,

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Burak Ege Bekdil, “Turkey and Ukraine to Coproduce TB2 Drones,” Defense News, February 4, 2022,

[32] “Ankara, Kyiv Agree to Complete FTA Negotiations This Year,” Daily Sabah, February 3, 2020,

“Ukraine, Turkey to Sign Free Trade Deal During Erdogan Visit to Kyiv,” Reuters, February 2, 2022,

[33] “Ankara, Kyiv Agree to Complete FTA Negotiations This Year,” Daily Sabah, February 3, 2020,

[34] “The Agreement on a Free Trade Area between Ukraine and Turkey Is the Result of Three Decades of Cooperation and Friendship between the Two Countries - Volodymyr Zelenskyy,” Presidency of Ukraine, February 3, 2022,

[35] Riada Asimovic Akyol, “The Suffering of Crimea’s Tatars,” New Lines Magazine, May 12, 2022,

[36] “Crimea: Persecution of Crimean Tatars Intensifies,” Human Rights Watch, November 14, 2017,

[37] Handan Kazanci, “Turkey to Build 500 Buildings in Ukraine,” Anadolu Agency, April 11, 2021,

[38] Amberin Zaman, “Russian Rebuke of Turkey for Crimea Support Highlights Ankara's Delicate Balancing Act,” Al Monitor, August 25, 2021,

[39] “Ukraine Opens International Summit on Crimea,” VOA News, August 23, 2021,

[40] Jacob Bercovitch, “The Structure and Diversity of Mediation in International Relations,” in Mediation in International Relations: Multiple Approaches to Conflict Management, eds. Jacob Bercovitch and Jeffrey Z. Rubin (London: Palgrave, 1992), 1-26.

[41] Jacob Bercovitch, “The Structure and Diversity of Mediation in International Relations”: 6.

[42] Jacob Bercovitch, “The Structure and Diversity of Mediation in International Relations”: 1-26.

[43] William I. Zartman and Saadia Touval, “International Mediation: Conflict Resolution and Power Politics,” Journal of Social Issues 41, no. 2 (1985): 27-45.

[44] Marieke Kleiboer, “Understanding Success and Failure of International Mediation,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 40, no. 2 (June 1996): 360-389.

[45] Philip Robins, “The Foreign Policy of Turkey,” in The Foreign Policies of Middle East States, eds. Raymond Hinnebusch and Anoushiravan Ehteshami (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2014): 315-336.

[46] Giorgio Cafiero, “Mending Fences: The New Normal in Turkish Diplomacy,” The New Arab, April 11, 2022,

[47] The national role conception (NRC) is how the political leadership perceives the country’s role in the international system. Consequently, the NRC is of paramount importance because it is the interpretative framework that informs the strategic thinking of the élite when defining the foreign policy and national interests of a country.

 [48] Federico Donelli, “Explaining the Role of Intervening Variables in Turkey's Foreign Policy Behaviour,” Interdisciplinary Political Studies 6, no. 2 (2020): 223-257,

[49] Semih Idiz, “Ukraine War Boosts Erdogan's ‘New Atlanticism,' but for How Long?,” Al Monitor, March 31, 2022,

[50] Pinar Tremblay, “How Erdogan Could Emerge Stronger from War in Ukraine,” Al Monitor, March 15, 2022,

[51] Dorian Jones, “Turkey to Host Meeting of Ukrainian, Russian Foreign Ministers,” VOA News, March 9, 2022,

[52] “Zelensky Says Turkey Ready to Become Guarantor of Ukraine's Security,” Business Standard, April 1, 2022,; “Kremlin Thanks Turkey for Mediation Efforts over Ukraine War,” Daily Sabah, March 29, 2022,

[53] “Armenia and Azerbaijan Agree Ceasefire after Border Clash – Armenia,” Reuters, November 16, 2021,

[54] “Russia Says Ready to Work with Turkey to Free Up Ukraine's Grain Exports,” Daily Sabah, May 30, 2022,

[55] Uğur Ergan, “Prisoner Swap Plan Devised by MİT on Moscow, Washington Demand: Sources,” Hurriyet Daily News, April 30, 2022,

[56] Catherine Belton, “Putin Thinks West Will Blink First in War of Attrition, Russia Elites Say,” The Washington Post, June 3, 2022,

[57] “The Secretary General Underlines the Importance of Turkey’s Contributions to NATO,” NATO, March 11, 2022,

[58] Orhan Coskun and Jonathan Spicer, "Turkey's Talks with Sweden, Finland Made Little Progress on NATO Concerns, Sources Close to Talks Say,” Reuters, May 27, 2022,

[59] Fethullah Gülen is an Islamic cleric and leader of a movement known as Hizmet or, by the Turkish Government, as FETÖ (Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation). According to the AKP, Gülen was identified as the mind behind the 2016 Turkish coup d'état attempt.

[60] “Turkey up In Arms over Sweden’s Contacts with Syrian Kurds,” The Arab Weekly, April 21, 2021,

[61] “Turkey's Erdogan Discusses Concerns with NATO Hopefuls Sweden and Finland,” Reuters, May 21, 2022,

[62] “Sweden 'Naive' about Integration: Ex-Peshmerga Swedish MP,” France 24, September 8, 2018,

“Swedish State TV Airs Interview with Top Terrorist amid Turkey Talks,” Daily Sabah, May 26, 2022,

[63] “Conflict Between Turkey and Armed Kurdish Groups,” Council on Foreign Relations, last modified May 12, 2022,

[64] Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “Recep Tayyip Erdogan on NATO Expansion,” The Economist, May 30, 2022,

[65] “Turkey's Erdogan Halts Talks with Greece as Tensions Flare Again,” Reuters, June 1, 2022,

[66] “Erdogan Says Turkey to Rid Syria's Tal Rifaat, Manbij of Terrorists,” Reuters, June 1, 2022,

: 17-June-2022

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