Türkiye’s Mediation in Russia’s War Against Ukraine:
Diplomacy in Action
By Dr Kateryna Tyminska*
On 10 October 2022, following the now famous attack on Kerch bridge, Russian Armed Forces launched massive and indiscriminate attacks against civilian infrastructure and inhabitants in Kyiv among other Ukrainian cities—another escalation in Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine which began on 24 February 2022.[i] The G7 ‘condemned [the Russian attacks] in its strongest possible terms and recalled that indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilian populations constitute a war crime.’ The following day, Türkiye’s[ii] Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called for an immediate ceasefire, stating that ‘Russian attacks jeopardised the diplomatic efforts which aimed to solve the Ukrainian crisis.’[iii] Later that week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Kazakhstan.[iv] Ankara is engaged in fostering lasting peace and stability in the wider Black Sea region, which contributes to boosting the country’s regional leadership and global standing. Among Türkiye’s driving forces are its shuttle diplomacy efforts, closeness and friendly ties with both Ukrainian and Russian leaders, as well as thorough understanding of regional political and security challenges.
Türkiye’s Bonds With Crimean Tatars
Since Russia’s attempted annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in February-March 2014, Türkiye rallied for respect of international law and condemned the illegal actions undertaken by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea, which included: the imprisonment of Ukrainian citizens, among them Ahtem Chiygoz[v], Deputy Chairman of the Qirimtatar Milliy Meclisi (the Mejlis [parliament] of the Crimean Tatar People), the supreme representative and executive body of Crimean Tatars. It was banned by Russia’s Supreme Court as an extremist organisation and more Crimean Tatars fell victims to Russia’s discriminatory actions.[vi] Inadvertently, Russia’s repressive tactics united the Crimean Tatars in the struggle to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders.
Crimean Tatars are of the same Sunni Muslim predomination as their Turkish brethren. Crimean Tatars, Karaims and Krymchaks are among Ukraine’s legislatively acknowledged indigenous people.[vii] Their religious likeness, Türk-based language, geographical proximity and common history are part of the Tatars’ importance to Türkiye in relations with Ukraine over the ‘Crimean question.’ This is evidenced by the recently updated ‘Turkish ancestry’ status by the Directorate of Migration of the Ministry of the Interior of the Turkish Republic.[viii] It allows Crimean Tatars the right of long-term residence in contrast with the current rule requiring eight years of uninterrupted residence of any non-Turkish national to be considered for a long-term residency.[ix]
Since Ukraine’s 1991 proclamation of independence, Türkiye seeks the restoration and preservation of ties to Crimean Tatars; they survived the horrors of ‘double deportations’ firstly in 18-20 May 1944 as part of Soviet ethnic cleansing and more recently after 26 February 2014 following Russia’s occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine. The well-being of Crimean Tatars internally displaced in Ukraine is also close to Ankara’s decision making. As pledged by the Housing Development Administration of Türkiye some ‘500 houses for Crimean Tatars in Ukraine’ would be built shortly.[x] In 2020, Türkiye was also among the first countries to support the establishment of the Crimean Platform—a new international consultation and coordination format initiated by Ukraine that strives to de-occupy Crimea and its peaceful return to Ukraine.’ In its Press Release Regarding the Eighth Anniversary of the Illegal Annexation of Crimea, Türkiye’s Foreign Ministry reiterated that it ‘does not recognise this act which is a clear violation of international law.[xi]’
Türkiye’s Rescue Efforts and Mediation Skills
In 2017, Türkiye succeeded in its humanitarian rescue efforts. Ankara facilitated the release of Ahtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov; leaders of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People illegally detained by Russian occupation authorities in 2015-2016 and sentenced to prison for 8 and 2 years respectively. It is also believed that, in addition to those humanitarian tracks, Türkiye’s political leadership facilitated religious matters between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches. The country’s indirect involvement is highly possible due to the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian Church in Istanbul and appeals by the First Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, Ukrainian MP, Mustafa Dzhemilev. In his communication with Türkiye’s President Erdoğan explaining the importance of Kyiv’s religious independence from Moscow, Dzhemilev stressed that ‘it was a matter of national security.’[xii]
Indeed, in 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Istanbul granted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church the ‘tomos of autocephaly,’ decreeing its religious independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. It brought not only the symbolism of a ‘religious divorce’ from Russia, but also contributed to positive image-making of Türkiye as a multi-religious and multiethnic country of peaceful coexistence of its national minorities, highlighting the importance of interfaith dialogue as part of its political and security strength and independence in regional and global affairs.
Kyiv-Ankara Dialogue: From Neighbours to Strategic Partners
In 2011, when relations between Ukraine and Türkiye were upgraded to a strategic partnership, few expected that Ankara would become Kyiv’s most ardent supporter in political and security matters.[xiii] These Black Sea neighbours share similar ambitions in strengthening regional security and resilience, and over the recent years have grown from regional partners to reliable confidants on a string of sensitive issues. Also, both countries regard each other positively due to enhanced political, business, tourism and cultural cooperation.
Currently, Ukraine’s resistance on the battlefields and across the country is often associated with the ‘Bayraktar’ song (‘flag bearer’ in Turkish):[xiv] a tune dedicated to the Turkish Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) the Bayraktar TB2 that are actively used by Ukraine’s Armed Forces in its defence war with Russia. It has become an enduring symbol of Ukraine’s resistance and resilience.[xv] Along with Bayraktar units, Istanbul has emerged as a diplomatic centre for peace talks between Russia and Ukraine to end the war. Efforts have been facilitated by Türkiye but, so far, are unsuccessful due to escalations on the ground. However, the summer 2022 breakthrough deal to resume Ukraine’s grain exports brought Türkiye well-deserved credit for averting a global food crisis. The Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul that includes Russia, Türkiye, Ukraine and the United Nations (UN) is a glowing example of Türkiye’s diplomatic drive.[xvi] A few months later and efforts by Türkiye, Saudi Arabia, the Holy See and the UN brought prisoners of war home in a historic swap between Ukraine and Russia.[xvii] And, during Russia’s siege of the Azovstal iron and steel plant in Ukraine’s Mariupol, Türkiye expressed its readiness to provide strategic evacuations for the Ukrainian defenders.
Türkiye’s President Erdoğan’s Leadership in Global Crisis
In addition to the national efforts of Türkiye it should also be noted that Türkiye’s President Erdoğan has played an active and important role even before the eruption of hostilities on 24 February 2022. Indeed, several weeks before Russia’s invasion, Erdoğan visited Kyiv and reaffirmed his country’s support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as the Crimean Platform and rights of the Crimean Tatars. Türkiye was ready to enhance its engagement in conflict-preventive measures and contribute to mediation between Ukraine and Russia ‘on the way to ending war in the Donbas.’[xviii]
Against the backdrop of Türkiye’s reluctance to join international sanctions against Russia — seen as a risk that couldundermine its neutrality in mediation efforts — Ankara closed the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits for all foreign warships; posing an important obstacle to Russıa’s fleet moves to the Black Sea, which it uses as a military shortcut to Ukraine’s southern borders. As explained by Türkiye’s Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu: 'Türkiye is not considered a belligerent in this conflict, it has the ability to restrict passage of warships from warring states.’[xix] These actions may seem insufficient in light of Turkish acceptance of Russia’s Mir bank cards (connected to the Russian Mir national payment system used to circumvent Western sanctions) and sound European Union (EU)-US pressure to ‘crack down on Russian sanctions evasion.’[xx] Türkiye remains the only NATO Member State which is yet to impose sanctions on Russia and continues to accept Russian aircrafts at its airports.
On the other hand, Türkiye and its leadership have all the necessary tools and skills to deliver messages to the Kremlin in ways that are well-accepted and duly noted there. Many political, humanitarian, agricultural, and religious engagements have been successful. Erdoğan’s peace making efforts are welcome in Kyiv and Moscow, as well as nationally and internationally.
Many explain these diplomatic thrusts as a reflection of Türkiye’s upcoming general elections set for 18 June 2023 and Erdoğan’s aim to consolidate his image as an internationally recognised peace maker. To the international audience, Türkiye’s peace-seeking ambitions and proved abilities for rapprochement with former ‘adversaries including Armenia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia’ point to diplomacy in action with long-term commitments and reduced regional tensions.[xxi] An old Turkish proverb says that ‘good words open iron gates.’ It seems that Türkiye’s diplomatic and political leadership not only know the right words, but also have the keys to some of the most guarded gates in the world.
Balanced actions combined with precise tactics, a deep understanding of cultural complexities, religious diversities and history are cautiously being applied by Ankara. Whether this is a continuation of the once prevalent Ottoman-way or a reflection of modern Türkiye’s political attempts to improve global stability will be seen only with time and lasting peace.[xxii] Yet, it would be a mistake to underestimate Türkiye, which safeguards its position in global affairs as a core priority. Peace making in the wider Black Sea Region, the protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity and minority rights (particularly of Crimean Tatars) rank high on Türkiye’s priority list—and therefore so is ending the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
*Kateryna Tyminska, PhD, is an expert in Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and former diplomat.
17 January 2023
[i] Roman Olearchyk, Mehul Srivastava, Max Seddon, Christopher Miller, ‘Vladimir Putin Says Russia Launched Strikes on Ukraine Over Crimea Bridge Explosion’, Financial Times, 10 October 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/24da8f9c-e27b-4522-a520-d2d29f8f2469; Al Jazeera and News Agencies, ‘Sickening’: World Reacts as Explosions Rock Ukrainian Cities, 10 October 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/10/10/world-reacts-to-new-russian-missile-strikes-on-ukrainian-cities.
[ii] In June 2022, the UN recognised the country to be known officially by its Turkish name, Türkıye.
[iii] Hürrıyet Daıly News, ‘Türkıye Calls for Russia, Ukraine Truce Ahead of Erdoğan-Putin Talks‘, https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/erdogan-to-meet-putin-in-astana-turkish-official-177633.
[iv] Guney Yildiz, ‘Putin-Erdogan Meeting in Kazakhstan: Could Turkiye Bring Peace to Ukraine?’, Forbes, 13 October 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/guneyyildiz/2022/10/13/putin-erdogan-meeting-in-kazakhstan-could-turkiye-bring-peace-to-ukraine/.
[v] Human Rights Watch, ‘Crimea: Baseless Conviction of Crimean Tatar Leader’, 12 September 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/09/12/crimea-baseless-conviction-crimean-tatar-leader
[vi] Qirimtatar Milliy Meclisi official site, https://qtmm.org.
[vii] Parliament of Ukraine, Law of Ukraine ‘On Indigenous People’, https://zakon.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/1616-20#Text.
[viii] Daily Sabah and AA, ‘Türkiye Grants Crimean Tatars Indefinite Leave to Remain’, 11 August 2022, https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/legislation/turkiye-grants-crimean-tatars-indefinite-leave-to-remain.
[ix] Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Türkiye, Presidency of Migration Management, Residence Permit Types, https://en.goc.gov.tr/residence-permit-types.
[x] Anadolu Agency, ‘Turkey to Build 500 Houses for Crimean Tatars in Ukraine’, 11 April 2021, https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/diplomacy/turkey-to-build-500-houses-for-crimean-tatars-in-ukraine.
[xi] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Türkiye, Press & Information, No:88, 16 March 2022, Press Release Regarding the Eighth Anniversary of the Illegal Annexation of Crimea, https://www.mfa.gov.tr/no_-88_-kirim-in-yasadisi-ilhakinin-sekizinci-yildonumu-hk.en.mfa.
[xii] Matthew Kupfer, ‘In Turkey, Ukraine Finds a Challenging Yet Effective Partner’, Kyiv Post, 26 October 2018, https://www.kyivpost.com/business/in-turkey-ukraine-finds-a-challenging-yet-effective-partner.html.
[xiii] Republic of Türkiye, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Relations between Turkey and Ukraine, https://www.mfa.gov.tr/relations-between-turkey-and-ukraine.en.mfa.
[xiv] Taras Borovok, ‘Bayraktar’ official song, released 1 March 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TXww0a_7p4.
[xv] Al Jazeera, ‘Turkey’s Baykar Drone Company ‘Will Never’ Supply Russia: CEO’, 19 July 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/7/19/turkish-firm-wont-supply-uavs-widely-used-by-ukraine-to-russia.
[xvi] Daily Sabah Agencies, ‘Istanbul Grain Center Launched, to Be Officially Opened on Wednesday’, 26 July 2022, https://www.dailysabah.com/business/economy/istanbul-grain-center-launched-to-be-officially-opened-on-wednesday
[xvii] Roman Romaniuk, Roman Kravets, ‘The Great Swap: How it Was Possible to Release Azovstal Defenders and Why Putin Traded Them for Medvedchuk’, Ukrainska Pravda, 3 October 2022, https://www.pravda.com.ua/eng/articles/2022/10/3/7370072/.
[xviii] President of Ukraine official site, ‘Volodymyr Zelenskyy: Historical Visit of Turkish President Demonstrates Who is a Friend of Ukraine, Always Willing to Help’, 3 February 2022, https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/volodimir-zelenskij-istorichnij-vizit-prezidenta-turechchini-72709.
[xix] Heather Mongillio, ‘Turkey Closes Bosphorus, Dardanelles Straits to Warships’, US National Security Strategy, 28 February 2022, https://news.usni.org/2022/02/28/turkey-closes-bosphorus-dardanelles-straits-to-warships.
[xx] Henry Foy, Sam Fleming, James Politi, Laura Pitel, ‘US and EU Step Up Pressure on Turkey Over Russia Sanctions’, Financial Times, 15 September 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/95243a73-22c8-447e-bbae-a10a206d7e9e.
[xxi] Paul Benjamin Osterlun, ‘Turkey, a Mediator in Ukraine, Mends its Own Ties With Neighbors’, AlJazeera News, 30 March 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/30/turkey-a-mediator-in-ukraine-mends-its-own-ties-with-neighbours.
[xxii] Presidency of the Republic of Türkıye, Directorate of Communications, ‘Book by President Erdoğan: ‘A Fairer World is Possible’, 5 September 2021, https://www.iletisim.gov.tr/english/haberler/detay/book-by-president-erdogan-a-fairer-world-is-possible.