EXPLAINER: A mediating role for Erdogan in Ukraine crisis?

AP , Thursday 3 Feb 2022

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has again offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine after talks with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Thursday, as Turkey walks a tightrope balancing its relations with both countries.

Zelenskyy of Ukraine with Erdogan of Turkey
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and Turkey s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walk ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. AP

A key NATO member in the strategically important Black Sea region, Turkey has been urging a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Here's a look at Turkey's ties to Ukraine and Russia, and Erdogan's possible role as a mediator:

ERDOGAN THE MEDIATOR

The Turkish president has voiced fears that the situation could ``turn into a new crisis.''

Ankara has close ties to both Kyiv and Moscow, and Erdogan believes his country can play a key role in defusing the tensions. He has suggested in the past that Turkey could be a venue for possible peace efforts and renewed an offer to host tension-reducing talks during his meeting with Zelenskyy.

``Turkey is prepared to undertake its part in order to end the crisis between two friendly nations that are its neighbors in the Black Sea,'' Erdogan said after his meeting. ``I have stressed that we would be happy to host a summit meeting at a leadership level or technical level talks.''

After seeing Zelenskyy, Erdogan hopes to host Russian President Vladimir Putin in Turkey. He has said Putin's visit is likely to take place after the Russian president returns from China, where he will attend the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Speaking to reporters before his departure, Erdogan would not provide information on Turkey's possible mediation plans, saying he first needs to meet with both leaders.

Last week, Erdogan said it would not be ``rational'' for Russia to invade Ukraine, and that Turkey would do whatever is necessary as a NATO member. However, he has also spoken of a need for a ``meaningful dialogue with Russia'' to resolve any ``reasonable'' security concerns it may have and to explain to Moscow why some of its requests ``are not acceptable.''

TURKEY'S TIES TO UKRAINE

Turkey has historic relations with Ukraine and strong ethnic ties with Ukraine's Crimean Tatar community.

Ankara has spoken out against Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimea, vowing never to recognize it. In Kyiv, Erdogan underlined Turkey's commitment to Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty, including Crimea.

NATO-member Turkey backs Ukraine's efforts to join the alliance.

Ankara has increased defense cooperation with Ukraine in recent years. It has sold Kyiv armed Bayraktar TB2 drones which have been used against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine's Donbass region, angering Moscow. The two countries also plan joint defense industry production projects.

Eight agreements, including a free trade pact, were signed during Thursday's visit _ which coincides with the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Turkey and Ukraine.

A DIFFICULT PARTNERSHIP WITH RUSSIA

The situation over Ukraine has put Turkey in a bind. The NATO member has been trying to repair its frayed ties with the U.S. and other alliance members, following its controversial decision to buy advanced Russian air defense technology. But at the same time it cannot afford to damage its ties with Moscow.

Turkey would be hard pressed to join in potential sanctions or operations against Russia. The country, which is struggling to cope with a major currency crisis, banks on tourism revenue to help its economy and provide vital foreign exchange, and Russia is Turkey's main tourism market. Moscow has exploited that situation in the past, stopping flights carrying tourists to Turkey _ and halting agricultural imports _ after Ankara downed a Russian military jet deployed in Syria in 2015.

Turkey also needs to tread carefully with Russia in Syria. Ankara needs Moscow's approval to continue its presence in northern Syria, despite the two supporting opposite sides in Syria's civil war. In 2020, 37 Turkish soldiers were killed in Russian-backed airstrikes against rebels in Syria's last rebel-held Idlib province.

To further complicate matters, Russia is a major source for Turkey's natural gas and is currently building the country's first nuclear power station.

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