Ukraine tensions test Erdogan and Putin’s complex relationship

For many, pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan enjoying ice cream together on a summer’s day encapsulated the close ties between two authoritarian leaders with reputations as being among the West’s bete noires.

The jovial scene took place at an air show outside Moscow in August 2019, a month after NATO member Turkey had taken delivery of Russian-made S-400 missiles, leading the United States to kick it off a next-generation fighter jet programme and impose limited sanctions.

The issue remains at the top of Washington’s list of grievances with Ankara to this day.

Chummy images of two strongmen presidents with a deep distrust of the West, however, belie the complexity of relations between the countries as tensions came to a head less than four years earlier when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over the Syrian border.

It is a relationship that has endured – despite their support for rival proxies in conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh – by compartmentalising its various strands.

But the latest flare-up – between Russia and Ukraine on the latter’s eastern border – could prove different given Russia’s direct involvement on territory it considers its back yard.

“There’s a close defence partnership that Turkey has cultivated with Ukraine in the last five to six years, which is really important to the Ukraine.

“But Russia considers [the eastern Ukrainian region of] Donbas a part of Greater Russia, it’s right on the border. In the mindset of Putin, Ukraine represents a much more important space. That means he’s going to be more aggressive in defending what he considers his sovereign rights.”

In recent weeks Moscow has amassed tens of thousands of troops as well as tanks and artillery near Ukraine’s eastern border. Moscow and Kyiv have been in dispute since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine.

Although Ankara has tried to stress its impartiality in the escalation, Moscow has shown signs of impatience.

Meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month, Erdogan issued a joint call for the “de-occupation” of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Besides military cooperation with Kyiv, Turkey has historical and ethnic ties to Crimea’s Tatars that led it to condemn Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, although it did not follow others in placing sanctions.

The Ankara meeting came a day after Erdogan had spoken to Putin by phone and a Turkish announcement that two US warships planned to pass through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea – a deployment since rescinded.

The day of the Erdogan-Zelenskyy summit also saw Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warn Turkey to “refrain from encouraging militaristic tendencies in Kyiv”.


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