03/08/2022, 16.34
GATEWAY TO THE EAST
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Turkey's great game over Ukraine

by Marta Ottaviani

The foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine are set to meet in Antalya. After 20 years, an Israeli president is travelling to Ankara on a state visit. In an economically vital region of ​​the world, Erdoğan is trying to reposition Turkey internationally. Russia knows that it will have to pay a price in the regions where the two countries are de facto allies.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is preparing to host a meeting that might end in checkmate on three fronts: Russia, the West and the part of the Islamic Sunni world that has little tolerance for the kind of diplomatic activism Turkey has accustomed us since 2009.

If negotiations between Russia and Ukraine are successful, he will certainly try to cash in. Behind this Turkey – which is playing a crucial role in today’s foremost international crisis – there is also another one that needs this mediation for two reasons.

The first is that the Black Sea area is vital to its economic interests at a time when the country’s economy is not doing particularly well and absolutely cannot afford a prolonged regional crisis.

The second is that the country needs to reposition itself in the global arena by reconciling its desire to maintain its alliance with Russia, whilst trying to break out of its recent isolation.

Just as preparations are underway in Antalya to host the foreign ministers of Russia (Sergey Lavrov) and Ukraine (Dmytro Kuleba), Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog will arrive in Ankara tomorrow on a two-day visit to meet his Turkish counterpart, President Erdoğan.

Turkish media are already describing the event as historic. The last time an Israeli president set foot in Turkey was two decades. With Herzog, the former allies (Turkey and Israel) should begin a major thaw in relations after years during which Erdoğan levelled all sorts of accusations against Israel whilst the latter repeatedly accused Turkey of financing Hamas.

What is more, since the new Russo-Ukrainian crisis broke out, Turkey began a rapprochement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), from which Ankara had distanced itself over the UAE’s ties with Israel.

This is the Turkish context in which negotiations will start in two days’ time. Importantly, Ankara was able to get Russia to sit down with Ukraine alone; hitherto, Moscow had insisted on the participation of representatives of the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (Lugansk) until the last moment.

But what are the stakes for Turkey and Russia? For Ankara it is the great opportunity, which it has been waiting for a long time, to be seen by the international community as a major world player. And that's not all. If the mediation succeeds, it would earn Turkey considerable political capital with the West, which it could use advantageously in various ways. 

The Biden administration, which until now has kept Turkey at arm's length, would be forced to adjust its relationship with its former staunch ally.

The European Union would also learn a lesson. Recently, President Erdoğan was none too pleased when the EU announced plans to speed up Ukraine’s application, noting that the accession negotiations for Turkey are chronically stalled. 

It is more than likely that Ankara will use its role in the crisis to at least ease visa applications for Turkish citizens, a goal that is really close to the Turkish president’s heart.

The greatest price will however be paid by Putin's Russia, which is why the Russian president tried to get Belarus to host the talks.

The main risks for the man the Kremlin are changes to the relative balance of power in an alliance that has always been a marriage of interests centred on trade and energy.

This is why Ankara closed the Bosphorus, citing to the Montreux Convention at the last moment, when everything that could get through had done so, while cargo flights and trade relations continue.

All this has a price and Russia will pay it wherever Moscow and Ankara are present on the ground, apparently aligned, but in fact divided by different interests and visions, certainly in Syria, but also in Libya, the Caucasus and Central Africa.

In addition, one aspect that has so far stayed below the radar could prove to be particularly dangerous for Putin: Turkey's protectiveness towards Crimean Tatars, or what is left of them, as well as, of course, Russia’s many Turkic communities.

A humanitarian motive is behind this, but as usual, one that also conceals a strategic goal. Tatarstan is one of the republics of the Russian Federation where Turkey is most present with investments and cultural influence. 

It is not hard to imagine how Erdoğan might like to be seen and act as the protector of Russia’s Muslim populations, trying to smuggle in, even there, the Muslim Brotherhood.

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