Erdogan’s double-dealing will backfire on Turkey

Turkey claims to be an honest broker in its diplomatic quest to resolve the Ukraine conflict, but the military support it is providing Kyiv to help defeat the Russian invasion tells a very different story.

In recent weeks Ankara has taken centre stage, as President Erdogan has sought to position himself as a key interlocutor in efforts to end the fighting. At the start of this month, Turkey hosted the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers in the hope of arranging a ceasefire. While those talks achieved little success, the Turks have maintained their shuttle diplomacy and, following the latest round of talks in Istanbul this week, the first clear indications emerged that a peace deal might be possible.

After the Ukrainian negotiating team outlined its core proposals for ending the conflict – whereby Kyiv is seeking to exchange military neutrality in return for security guarantees – Moscow announced that it would “drastically reduce” military activity near the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv and Chernihiv “to create mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations”.

The Russian offer to scale down its offensive operations around the Ukrainian capital has been greeted with a healthy degree of scepticism: the Kremlin has told a series of bare-faced lies about its real intentions since it launched its “special military operation”. Moreover, Ukrainian fears that Russia’s offer to reduce hostilities was no more than a bluff appeared to be confirmed when Russian artillery intensified its shelling of targets in the Kyiv suburbs.

Nevertheless, the fact that the two sides have, for the first time since hostilities commenced last month, managed to inject a rare moment of optimism into the proceedings is a credit to the Turks. They have stuck at their diplomatic task despite the many obstacles they have encountered, not least of which is the suspicion that Vladimir Putin has no interest in seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Turkey does, of course, have a vested interest in ending the fighting, as the conflict threatens to have a profound impact on the geopolitical balance of the Black Sea region, where Ankara enjoys maritime borders with both Ukraine and Russia. Turkey is also Russia’s largest trade partner in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Even so, as is often the case when Mr Erdogan involves himself in an international crisis, troubling questions persist about the Turkish leader’s real motives for investing so much personal political capital in ending the conflict.

The Russians have good reason to question Mr Erdogan’s peacekeeping role given that Ankara is already taking sides by providing the Ukrainian military with Bayraktar drones, which have reportedly been used to destroy Russian heavy armour. Moreover, Turkey and Russia have often found themselves in competition, with the two countries on opposing sides in the recent conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. In one of the more notable confrontations, in 2015 the Turks shot down a Russian Sukhoi warplane for flying too close to the Syrian-Turkish border.

There will be concerns, too, among Nato leaders about Ankara’s precise objectives, as the Turks have hardly been enthusiastic supporters of the West’s uncompromising response to Putin’s unprovoked act of aggression. To date, Turkey has declined to join the Western sanctions imposed against Moscow, nor has it closed its airspace to Russia, raising fears that Turkey could become a useful conduit for sanctions-busting activities.

It would not, after all, be the first time that there has been unease within Nato ranks about the Turks’ trustworthiness. At the height of the Syrian conflict Mr Erdogan weaponised the refugee crisis to blackmail the EU into paying billions of euros to stem the flow of migrants flooding the shores of southern Europe. More recently the future of Turkey’s continued membership of the Nato alliance was raised after Mr Erdogan signed an arms deal with Moscow to buy Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, which was specifically designed to shoot down Nato warplanes. The US responded by cancelling Turkey’s participation in the F-35 stealth fighter programme.

Mr Erdogan no doubt believes that, by indulging in this double-dealing, he is asserting Turkey’s position as an important power in its own right as he seeks to reclaim its former Ottoman glories. Certainly, by attempting to make Turkey the epicentre of diplomacy in the Ukraine conflict, he will be looking to boost his country’s international stature.

Even so, by seeking to keep both Moscow and Kyiv on good terms, Mr Erdogan must understand that he is playing a dangerous game, especially if he still values Turkey’s membership of Nato.

Russia’s appalling conduct in Ukraine, where there is mounting evidence of Russian war crimes, means that, so long as Mr Putin remains in power, Nato will regard Russia as a hostile state. This is an outlook that will ultimately force Mr Erdogan to choose whose side he is really on.

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