Can Turkey’s mediation efforts win hearts and minds?
Since the end of the Cold War, we have witnessed a growth in the importance of mediation as a means of preventing conflicts and resolving disagreements. There has been increasing interest in, and support for, mediation efforts, not only from the UN but also from regional actors.
Although mediation has developed into an important tool for resolving crises, it still faces a number of problems because it is a complex process that involves several variables, including the intentions of those in dispute and the motivations of third parties.
Disputants might accept mediation out of fear of souring relations with the country offering to mediate or concern over international sanctions if they reject the initiative. Meanwhile, third-party mediators often offer their services to increase their leverage on the international scene or extend their own spheres of influence. However, there are other motivations that drive the involvement of third parties, such as investing in their own domestic gains.
The war in Ukraine has presented Turkey with another example of this, as Ankara acts as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv, bringing together the conflicting parties in Turkey to facilitate peace talks.
Turkey has faced a quandary since the start of the devastating war between Russia and Ukraine. As a country that has close relations with both sides in the conflict, it refused to join its Western allies in imposing sanctions on Moscow and its airspace remains open to Russian planes. At the same time, it has continued to supply Bayraktar TB2 drones to Ukraine, closed the Turkish straits to Russian warships and condemned Russia’s actions at the UN.
In mediation literature, trust and persuasiveness are highlighted as two crucial characteristics required for a mediator to achieve success. That is to say, the mediator needs to be able to develop trust between the parties and persuade them without pressuring or manipulating them.
Thus, Ankara’s delicate position is respected enough by both sides for them to accept it as a host of peace talks, highlighting the position in which Turkey finds itself as a perceived neutral party in the war in Ukraine.
On March 10, Turkey hosted the first ministerial-level meeting between Russia and Ukraine since the invasion began in late February. The Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers, Dmytro Kuleba and Sergey Lavrov, took part in a trilateral meeting with their Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, in the southern city of Antalya.
The main concern of the Turkish leadership is that the deterioration of the economic situation in the country might threaten its chances of success in national elections next year.
Then, on March 29, Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul hosted another round of direct peace talks between the two sides. Although the face-to-face negotiations concluded without any major diplomatic breakthrough, Cavusoglu noted that “meaningful progress” was made.
The meeting in Istanbul also resulted in some positive perceptions of Turkey’s international posture and relations, as the country earned widespread praise for its efforts to end the conflict. The US, Russia, Qatar and EU countries, including Italy and the Netherlands, publicly expressed their appreciation. Needless to say, Turkey’s crisis management during the war in Ukraine is therefore also helping to mend diplomatic ties between Ankara and its Western partners.
Although no major diplomatic breakthrough is expected any time soon, it is still crucial that the necessity for the diplomatic process continues to be emphasized.
Moreover, the mediation process serves Turkey’s own interests. It not only boosts its leverage and prestige on the international scene but also enhances its security given the uncertainty of the current geopolitical context. The Turkish leadership again faces external and internal challenges, which largely explain its decision to resurrect its policy of “zero problems with neighbors” and embrace mediation as an instrument.
In the 2000s, Turkey engaged in high-profile mediation attempts in some perennial intrastate and interstate conflicts in the Middle East to help overcome the challenges of post-2003 geopolitical uncertainties. Those attempts paid off for Ankara, economically and diplomatically, in the early part of the decade. Therefore there are also high stakes for Turkey in the Russia-Ukraine talks.
Many predict that a prolonged war is likely to have serious economic consequences for Turkey. At a time when the nation’s economy is going through a most difficult time, the Turkish leadership can hardly afford an economic or tourism boycott against Russia.
The main concern of the Turkish leadership is that the deterioration of the economic situation in the country might threaten its chances of success in national elections next year. According to a recent survey, almost 80 percent of Turks believe that the country should remain neutral in the war between Russia and Ukraine, amid fears of adverse economic outcomes if any other posture were adopted.
Besides domestic economic concerns, Turkish authorities are also worried about the security consequences of the war in Ukraine. Russia’s influential role in Syria is another driving force behind Ankara’s delicate balancing act. The threat of Kurdish separatism in Syria and the situation in Idlib are two hotspots where Turkey needs Russian cooperation, rather than confrontation.
In particular, when Turkey fails to get the support in Syria it expects from its Western allies, Russia appears to be the only option, through the Astana peace process. Also, Turkish leaders are concerned about any flow of refugees from Idlib, which could place them in a difficult situation given the public unease about refugees.
Given the economic, security and diplomatic concerns, therefore, authorities in Turkey aim to benefit as much as they can from the country’s role as mediator in the Ukraine conflict, ahead of the elections next year.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.