Turkey’s Erdoğan heads for Ukraine as rifts with Moscow deepen

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is set to visit Kiev on Monday for a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that could have a deep impact on Turkey’s broader foreign policy as its relations with Russia reach a rocky patch.

The two presidents will hold the eighth meeting of the Ukraine-Turkey High Level Strategic Council and discuss ways to deepen strategic partnership and cooperation in areas including defence, as the Ukrainian military continues its struggle against pro-Russian insurgents in the eastern Donbass region.

When the strategic council was set up in 2011, the focus was on moving toward a free trade agreement and visa-free arrangements between two countries that at the time were strong contenders to join the European Union.

By last year’s meeting in Istanbul, the countries had made large strides toward reviving trade volumes, which reduced drastically after the Donbass conflict kicked off and Russia annexed Crimea following the Ukrainian revolution in 2014. Although the $4 billion in trade in 2019 is still only half the volume reached in 2008, the aim is to bump this up to $10 billion.

Erdoğan and Zelensky spoke in favour of a free trade agreement at the 2019 meeting, and the Turkish president said he was keen to boost partnerships in construction and infrastructure, areas where Turkish firms have been squeezed since the domestic economy slowed down following a currency crisis in 2018.

But Sergiy Korsunsky, a former Ukrainian ambassador told the Kyiv Post in October that the talks over the free trade agreement had been in a stalemate for years as the two sides failed to compromise on key issues, particularly agriculture. Ukraine has had to rely ever more on agriculture since losing a large part of its industrial sector in the Donbass conflict, and its protectionist tariffs and desire to open up new markets were making agreeable terms difficult to reach, Korsunsky said.

One area the two countries have been making great progress in is defence. The Ukrainian Defence Ministry said that Turkish-Ukrainian defence cooperation was moving to joint production when defence officials from the countries met in Kiev on Jan. 26.

That signalled a step forward in collaboration on armed drones, which the Turkish firm Baykar has built a strong reputation around. Ukraine’s state-run weapons producer Ukrspecexport signed a deal to jointly produce drone parts with Baykar in September.

But this is just one part of the boosted defence cooperation, which Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Sibiga, said would include 200 million liras ($33.4 million) of Turkish financial support for the Ukrainian army.

This is another area where Ankara is at odds with Moscow, whose orbit NATO member Turkey had paradoxically grown closer to in recent years as Kiev sought closer ties to the Western alliance.

Russia President Vladimir Putin has worked closely with Erdoğan on numerous issues of crucial importance to Turkey, even though the countries are often on opposing sides, not least the Syrian conflict. Both countries have a considerable military presence in the country and have engaged together in efforts to manage the resolution of the conflict.

But with the United States and their Kurdish partners in Syria marginalised, the shared interests holding Turkey and Russia together in that country have all but evaporated. In their place is a mounting Syrian government offensive to capture Idlib, the last rebel-held province in the northwest of the country, that looks sure to drive hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers to Turkey’s border.

Likewise, the two countries are supporting opposing sides in Libya, which has taken prime position among Turkey’s foreign policy concerns this year. Erdoğan used the presence of Russian mercenaries helping the Libyan National Army press its attack on Tripoli to justify his decision to send Turkish and Syrian rebel forces to the country.

Turkey’s next steps with Ukraine could put the spotlight on another field of disagreements with Russia. As well as opposing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and taking Ukraine’s side in the standoff in the Azov Sea, Turkey has taken a supportive stance to the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate’s endorsement of the Ukrainian Church’s bid for independence from Russia.

Stronger cooperation with Ukraine could come in the form of a repeat this year of joint naval drills in the Black Sea or in energy cooperation, another area that demonstrates Turkey’s complicated relations with Russia.

Ukraine is set to lose out as Russia diversifies its gas delivery network to Europe, partly thanks to the TurkStream pipelines that Putin and Erdoğan inaugurated in January. Stronger cooperation could help Ukraine safeguard its role in the regional energy market and provide Turkey with important backing in the various disputes it is facing in the neighbourhood.

© Ahval English