Turkey affirmed Ukraine’s territorial integrity and is “sincerely saddened” by the Russian invasion, President Tayyip Erdogan stated on Thursday, as he tries to keep a balance between appearing to show respect for international law while showing deference to Russia, which is building a series of nuclear power plants in the country.
Ukraine’s envoy to Ankara meanwhile urged Turkey to close the Bosphorus Straits to Russian warships as a way to try to contain some of the military might of the country after its invasion of Ukraine.
Russian forces invaded Ukraine by land, sea and air on Thursday after rolling its tanks into the Donbass area on Monday. The Thursday attacks constituted the largest such military action by one state against another in Europe since World War II.
#Turkey's President Erdogan tries to play a balancing act, calls #Russia as a friend with deep historical & friendly ties while rejecting Russian military operations in #Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/RY503RXZlD
— Abdullah Bozkurt (@abdbozkurt) February 24, 2022
Turkey navigates difficult political territory regarding Russian invasion
Turkey’s Erdogan, who historically maintains good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and who had earlier offered to mediate in the conflict, told reporters that he had spoken earlier with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy by telephone.
“Turkey supports Ukraine’s battle to protect its territorial integrity,” Erdogan said in remarks broadcast by Turkish television.
“We are sincerely saddened that Russia and Ukraine, both of whom we see as friendly countries and with whom we have close political, economic, and social relations, come face to face in this way.”
Turkey carefully navigates diplomatic waters after Russian invasion
Vasyl Bodnar, Kyiv’s ambassador to Ankara, had stated earlier that Turkey, which is a member of NATO, should not remain impartial in the conflict, urging it to provide aid and to close the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to Russian ships in response to its incursion into Ukraine.
After his parleys with Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal, he told reporters “Turkey will evaluate the requests and respond as soon as possible. We expect solidarity to be shown.”
Turkey shares maritime border with Ukraine, Russia
However, the request that Turkey stop all access to the Black Sea places it in a difficult position, since it shares a maritime border with both Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea.
According to the International Montreux Convention of 1936, Ankara has control over the straits; under these strictures, it is allowed to limit the passage of warships during wartime or if Turkey is threatened.
Russian forces landed at Ukraine’s Black Sea ports as part of the Thursday invasion, opening up that area as part of the war theater. In addition, earlier this month, six Russian warships and a submarine went through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits to the Black Sea as part of what Moscow euphemistically called “naval drills” near Ukraine waters.
However, the Turkish foreign ministry spoke in strident terms for the ceasing of hostilities on Thursday, calling for an immediate end to the Russian invasion.
Turkey risked rupture with NATO after S-400 missile system purchase
”This attack is a grave violation of international law and poses a serious threat to the security of our region and the world,” the Ministry stated, adding “We call on the Russian Federation to immediately end this unjust and unlawful act.”
Ukrainian Ambassador Bodnar went a bit further urging Turkey to join other nations in imposing a wide range of sanctions on Russia, a move that Ankara has opposed as it walks a thin line, attempting to balance its commitments as a NATO member with its strong military, trade and energy ties with Russia.
Back in 2019, Turkey purchased the S-400 missile system from Russia in a clear violation of US and NATO guidelines, since the system was not compatible with NATO weapons systems. The country later shot off what most observers believe to be an S-400 missile on the shoreline of the Black Sea. Turkey was then shut out of its participation in the US’ F-35 fighter program in retaliation for the purchase of the Russian missile system.
Geopolitical expert: Ukraine invasion will have wide ramifications
The conflict in Ukraine will have important consequences for Greece, Turkey and the wider eastern Mediterranean region, says John Sitilides, a government affairs and geopolitical risk specialist in an exclusive interview with Greek Reporter.
Sitilides says that Turkey’s role is unique, as a NATO member and Black Sea power that enjoys working relations with both Russia and Ukraine.
Even as Turkey and Russia back opposing militaries in Syria, Libya, and in the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan war, they have successfully compartmentalized those differences to sustain high-level communications on a range of strategic issues of shared interest, such as Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system that have severely damaged Ankara’s relations with Washington, he says.
However, he says “President Putin is furious that Turkey, the largest foreign investor in Ukraine, continues to sell Kyiv the lethal combat drones it is now using against Russian-backed separatists.”
As the Greek-American analyst notes, Turkey and Ukraine just signed a $10 billion free trade agreement as well as lucrative joint aircraft and jet engine production deals, and Ukraine plans to purchase Turkish battleships.
On the other hand, Sitilides stresses Turkey is also heavily reliant on Russia for more than 40% of its natural gas needs, and that is expected to increase under a new bilateral energy deal. Ankara did not join the U.S. and the EU when they sanctioned Russia for the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“If Turkey responds in Ukraine in a manner displeasing to Putin, he can threaten to cut off fuel to Turkey just as he has been doing to Europe in recent weeks. That would devastate an already battered Turkish economy, now at its weakest in decades,” Sitilides tells Greek Reporter.