By Arab News
By Menekse Tokyay
The world’s attention will on Thursday be focused on a meeting due to take place in Turkey’s southern resort town of Antalya at which the Turkish, Ukrainian, and Russian foreign ministers will discuss the ongoing conflict in Eastern Europe and look at ways to defuse tensions and find middle ground for a peaceful resolution.
Sharing a maritime border with Russia and Ukraine, Turkey has long tried to act as a neutral and balanced mediator between the two countries by upgrading its importance to NATO and at the same time not antagonizing Russia.
Ankara also closed the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits under the 1936 Montreux pact, allowing it to stop some Russian ships from crossing the Black Sea but also limiting Western forces’ access to the zone.
The meeting, to be held on the sidelines of the Istanbul Mediation Conference, will be the first high-level, face-to-face talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmitry Kuleba since Feb. 24 when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.
In a phone call on March 6 between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s leader expressed his concerns over growing anti-Russian feeling around the world and offered to mediate in peace talks.
On Tuesday, the Turkish and Russian defense ministers also spoke by phone and during their conversation the Kremlin was asked to help secure safe passage to Turkey of Turkish commercial ships loaded with sunflower oil and wheat currently waiting in the Sea of Azov. Later, four ships were allowed to reach Turkey.
Prof. Emre Ersen, an expert on Turkey-Russia relations from Marmara University in Istanbul, told Arab News that Turkey, as one of the few countries that enjoyed close relations with both Ukraine and Russia, had been genuinely trying to play the role of an active mediator between the two countries.
“This meeting also gives the governments of Ukraine and Russia the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that they are still open to diplomatic negotiations with each other,” he said.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at The Washington Institute, described Turkey’s Russia-Ukraine policy as “pro-Ukraine neutrality” at this stage, as Ankara sold drones to Ukraine while not sanctioning Russia to balance its economic benefits on both sides.
On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov pointed out that the Antalya meeting between Lavrov and Kuleba was crucial for the negotiation process between Moscow and Kyiv.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and wait for the meeting,” he said.
However, experts were not expecting ground-breaking results from the talks.
Cagaptay told Arab News: “I do not anticipate a breakthrough regarding the ongoing war because Putin is not ready for that. But it is still a significant accomplishment for Turkish diplomats because they can get the foreign ministers of the warring parties together around a table. It is quite impressive to gather them in Turkey.”
Ersen said: “The Russian and Ukrainian delegations have already met several times in the last few weeks, and it is still very difficult to reconcile the positions of the two sides regarding thorny issues like the status of Crimea, Donbas, and Ukraine’s future relations with NATO.
“Nevertheless, Turkey will likely continue its policy of supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity in a powerful way without alienating Russia.”
On Monday, a humanitarian corridor was opened on the personal request of French President Emmanuel Macron to allow civilians to leave a number of Ukrainian cities. However, the Ukraine government criticized Russia’s announcement of new evacuation routes as some of them would pass through active conflict zones.
Cagaptay noted that the best outcome from Thursday’s meeting in Antalya would be a short-term ceasefire to allow the evacuation of new groups of civilians in Ukraine after recent agreements were violated.
He said: “President Erdogan is quite eager to have the war ended ahead of Turkey’s 2023 elections because he doesn’t want to put the country’s already fragile economic growth at further risk. He needs robust economic growth. Any confrontation with Russia could trigger sanctions on trade and tourism fronts and they could jeopardize growth targets, and that would be a real nightmare for Erdogan.”
On the Bayraktar combat drones that Turkey had provided to Ukraine, Ankara said they were supplied following an agreement between the Ukrainian government and a private Turkish firm.
Meanwhile, pro-government Turkish businessman, Ethem Sancak, recently visited Moscow and spoke to Russian media claiming that the real culprit of the Ukrainian war was NATO, adding that Ankara was unaware that Bayraktar drones would be used against Russians. He also underlined the importance of keeping strong ties between Turkey and Russia.
Russia is Turkey’s top source of natural gas and wheat, and a second source of oil.
The approaching summer season that is expected to bring in tourism income to narrow the current account deficit is also a factor that is being taken into consideration by politicians in Turkey when carefully assessing relations with the Kremlin. Last year, 4.7 million Russians visited Turkey, accounting for one-fifth of the country’s international visitors in 2021.
During his phone call with Putin, Erdogan said Turkey and Russia could conduct trade in national currencies as an alternative method of making payments after several Russian banks were removed from the Swift international payments network.
Aydin Sezer, an expert on Turkey-Russia relations, told Arab News: “Since the beginning of the war, Turkey didn’t join the Western economic sanctions, overtly condemned the invasion, and didn’t close its airspace. This stance provided Turkey with a potential of mediation.”
Unlike the Western countries that have banned Russian airlines from using their airspace as part of sanctions, Turkey remained the main hub for Russia’s air travel and kept its airspace open to Russia, walking a diplomatic tightrope throughout the conflict.
“However, the participation of the foreign ministers was set two months before. Several other figures such as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan have already made diplomatic efforts to mediate between the warring parties.
“Therefore, these talks in Antalya don’t mean final peace negotiations, but they would provide an avenue and an occasion to open the way for peace,” Sezer added.
He pointed out that Ankara would act cautiously and would not burn bridges with Russia especially because of the economic fallout that would be felt immediately.