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Turkey walks a diplomatic tightrope between warring allies Russia and Ukraine

Ankara has bought Russian weapons and depends on it for energy sources, but has also sold military drones to Ukraine, its closest regional post-Soviet ally

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Sept. 29, 2021. (Vladimir Smirnov/Sputnik, Kremlin/Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Sept. 29, 2021. (Vladimir Smirnov/Sputnik, Kremlin/Pool Photo via AP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AFP) — The signs of Russian presence have long been visible in Turkey, from rows of tourists on Antalya beaches to the Russian battleships ploughing their way through the Bosphorus.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has worked hard to forge close ties with his counterpart Vladimir Putin, despite being on opposing sides of several conflicts, including in Syria and Libya.

Ankara has bought Russian missile defense systems against the wishes of its NATO partners and is dependent on Moscow for energy and trade.

The two nations even managed to leave behind a crisis sparked by the downing of Russian military jet by Turkey in 2015.

But now, Erdogan finds himself in a delicate balancing act.

Ukraine is Turkey’s closest post-Soviet ally in the region, and Ankara wants to show solidarity without triggering the full-blown ire of Moscow.

Erdogan visited Kyiv only last month to ink a deal on expanding drone production in Ukraine.

The use of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones in the war has been a clear source of tension with Russia.

For some analysts, Turkey’s position is clearer than it might seem.

“Turkey is actually not balancing between Russia and Ukraine. Turkey is actively supporting Ukraine and pivoting away from Russia,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli of the German Marshall Fund told AFP.

“Turkey is treading carefully so as not to attract Russian retribution,” he said.

‘Skillful diplomacy’

Turkey depends on Russia for energy supplies, importing 44 percent of its gas from Russia last year.

Russians also made up 19% (4.7 million) of the country’s foreign visitors last year.

Such factors have led Erdogan to insist he will “not abandon either Russia or Ukraine.”

Turkey has offered to host talks between their leaders and has refused to join sanctions against Moscow, abstaining during a vote at the Council of Europe.

But it also blocked warships from using the key Bosphorus and Dardanelles waterways that Russia needs to access the Black Sea from the Mediterranean.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday that Ankara denied access to three Russian warships through the straits on February 27-28, because they were not registered to Black Sea bases.

This was not a major blow to Russia, said Turkey analyst Anthony Skinner, since Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was already deployed in the campaign.

“The fact that Turkey has not closed its airspace to, or imposed sanctions on, Russia shows how concerned Ankara has been not to trigger a costly breach in relations with Moscow,” he said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walk ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 3, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank praised Ankara’s “skillful diplomacy” and said limiting access to its waterways was “not a sanction against Russia” but a “very firm position” in applying an international treaty.

Turkey is bound to block access to battleships in time of war under the 1936 Montreux Convention.

‘Vulnerabilities’

And despite its desire to help Ukraine, Turkey is vulnerable in other areas.

“Turkey and Russia have unresolved issues in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh which means that if Turkey goes too far with this policy, Russia can exploit Turkey’s vulnerabilities,” said Unluhisarcikli.

This is a particular problem for Erdogan as he fixates on the presidential elections in 2023, Skinner added. But it could also be an opportunity.

“While Erdogan will not throw all his eggs in one basket, this crisis could offer an opening to at least partially mend some of the many fences that have been damaged with the West,” Skinner said.

“The big question is what Washington and other Western capitals have to offer. What is on the table for Turkey?”

Erdogan has already called on the EU to treat his country with the same concern as it does Ukraine, without waiting for it to be “hit by a war.”

“It required a catastrophe for that… Turkey won’t wait for a catastrophe.”

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