ANKARA: On Sunday evening, Turkey pursued a terminological change in defining the ongoing Russian assault on Ukraine as a “war” — a strong wording compared to its earlier statements that described it as an “unacceptable military intervention.”
Ankara also reiterated its mediation proposal to host peace negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow.
Ankara’s latest move sparked debates about whether it will implement the wartime articles of the Montreux Convention on its Dardanelles and Bosporus straits that would bar Russian warships not associated with the Black Sea fleet from crossing the Turkish straits for the duration of the conflict.
“We are witnessing yet another war in our region. President Erdogan has offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine as we have strong relations with both countries. . He also called for a unified stance on the part of the allies,” Fahrettin Altun, Turkey’s communications chief, tweeted.
Another critical question is whether Turkey can play an effective role in mediating between the warring parties at a time when Ankara is attempting to maintain its good ties with Ukraine and Russia to secure both its energy imports and tourism flows from Russia and defense cooperation with Ukraine.
In a similar vein, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said in an interview with Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk that “the situation in Ukraine is officially a war according to the Article 19 of the Montreux Convention.”
On the first day of the war, Ukrainian Ambassador to Ankara Vasyl Bodnar urged Ankara to close the straits to the passage of Russian warships.
But Cavusoglu emphasized that Turkey cannot block all Russian warships reaching the Black Sea because a clause in the Montreux Convention exempts those returning to their registered bases.
Ankara’s move to describe events in Ukraine as a war under the Montreux Convention gives Turkey the right to act accordingly. Until Sunday, it termed the conflict as a “military intervention” or an unacceptable “operation.”
So far, Turkey’s senior officials repeatedly urged the parties to begin ceasefire negotiations and to immediately halt Russian attacks.
As a diplomatic tool, Turkey attaches high importance to mediation. A decade ago, it launched with Finland the Mediation for Peace Initiative, a group of countries that work on different mediation practices.
Turkey’s mediation offers have been consistently welcomed by the Ukrainian side, while Russia would welcome any Turkish effort to convince Ukraine to come into compliance with the existing Minsk Protocol of 2015 as a result of any mediation offer.
Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at Rane Intelligence, said that Turkey’s announcement to partially close the Bosporus straits to Russian military activity will probably make the country appear less neutral in any potential Ukrainian-Russian peace talks.
“That being said, Russia is feeling very isolated at the moment and could be looking to give Turkey some sort of symbolic win to improve Moscow’s relationships in the post-war aftermath,” he told Arab News.
But Bohl added that the potential of Turkey mediating any talks relies on the assumption that Russia is interested in serious ceasefire negotiations.
“It’s still not clear if Putin’s maximalist aims that he laid out in his nationwide speeches are going to remain Russia’s strategy going forward,” he said.
“If they do, then any role Turkey might play in negotiations would be symbolic,” he added.
On Sunday, Cavusoglu conducted intense diplomatic contact with key figures for the conflict’s resolution, including OSCE Secretary-General Helga Maria Schmid, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov.
According to Jonathan Katz, senior fellow and director of Democracy Initiatives at the US-based German Marshall Fund, Turkey should support Ukraine through direct military and humanitarian assistance, bolster the defense of NATO and its partners, including in the Black Sea and South Caucasus.
“Therefore, Ankara shutting down the Bosporus and Dardanelles to Russia’s warships is also critical,” he told Arab News.
“Putin’s war with Ukraine is a direct threat to Turkey’s security and will have lasting ramifications for the security of the Turkish people.”
At least six Russian warships and a submarine passed through Turkey’s straits this month.
Although Ankara is yet to join Western sanctions against Russia, the Russian side is still skeptical about a possible role that Turkey might play in the peace talks, especially after Ankara openly defined the Russian invasion as a “war” and termed Russia’s annexation of Crimea as an occupation.
Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank close to the Kremlin, said that it would be difficult for Russian President Vladimir Putin to accept Erdogan’s mediation.
“The reason is that because the latter has always sided with Ukraine since 2014. It’s like having two Zelenskys at the table across Putin instead of one,” he told Arab News.
Since 2018, Turkey has sold Bayraktar TB2 drones to Ukraine, which has helped the military destroy significant amounts of Russian armor, while the two countries also agreed to jointly produce some defense and security technologies.
“Although being a mediator between Ukraine and Russia would be Turkey’s dream scenario, it is increasingly unlikely it will happen, especially if Turkey really decides to close the Straits to Russia warships as it will be a clear political signal that it chooses the pro-Ukrainian side,” Karol Wasilewski, a Turkey analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, told Arab News.
“I also doubt the Russians would agree to that,” he added.
“The regime is increasingly isolated and would definitely connect the dots that Turkey’s change of rhetoric about the Russian aggression — the fact that Turkey started to call this a ‘war’ — came right after the NATO summit,” said Wasilewski.