Before heading to Moscow last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stopped in Ankara to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and hail his diplomatic efforts to end the war in Ukraine.
Less than two hours after the two shook hands, much of the goodwill Ankara has engendered in the West through its unique role as mediator between warring parties has been undone, undermining Turkey’s chances of capitalize on the thawing of links.
The turning point came when a court in Istanbul sentenced a philanthropist, Osman Kavala, to life in prison for his role in anti-government protests in 2013, defying Western calls to release him in a case many consider as politically motivated.
A Western diplomat who watched headlines on his phone in surprise on Monday last week said the decision underscored how the Erdogan government could not be trusted on some issues, despite scoring political points on the issue. ‘Ukraine.
Another envoy called the verdict a worst-case scenario.
Eight diplomats said the decision was a blow to Turkey’s ambitions to heal frayed economic and political ties with Western countries while remaining close to Moscow. Erdogan opposes sanctions against Russia imposed since his invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
It also dampened Western hopes for rapprochement, the eight diplomats said.
It’s a turnaround for Turkey, which is the only country to have hosted wartime talks between Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers and peace negotiators. Ankara wants the West to prepare for an end to the war, including the gradual lifting of sanctions, and the lifting of restrictions on its own defense industry.
He also wants more cooperation with his NATO allies, including the United States, France and Italy, and to ease existing tensions with the West ahead of elections amid growing economic difficulties.
Fear of reviving Erdogan ahead of next year’s election which recent polls suggest he could lose has also undermined chances of striking any meaningful trade or investment deals, including progress on updating an EU customs union, several diplomats said.
Erdogan and officials say the war has made allies aware of Turkey’s geopolitical importance and that Ankara’s balanced policy towards Ukraine has been welcomed, even admired.
The diplomats interviewed share this assessment.
The West understands Turkey’s stance on sanctions and Ankara will not become a haven to escape them, Turkish officials have said.
This weekend, Erdogan’s spokesman and chief foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin paid a surprise visit to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
He later said he discussed ways to end the war.
If Russia’s attacks on Ukraine last through the summer, Turkey will likely come under increasing pressure from Washington and Brussels to bolster its support for Ukraine, diplomats said.
He has already sent armed drones to kyiv, blocked some Russian naval passages to the Black Sea and banned Russian flights to and from Syria.
Turkey’s stance of facilitating negotiations and opposing sanctions against Moscow can only last for a while, a third diplomat said.
A move to Ukraine in the conflict could prompt Russia to punish Turkey’s economy by cutting off important tourism and energy flows, or both, the person said, highlighting how the opportunity could turn into a crisis for Ankara.
Some analysts said Kavala’s decision served as a warning to the opposition ahead of the election.
The president might have been emboldened by the diplomatic cover the war afforded him, they added.
Erdogan does not want to be excluded by the West, but he wants him to accept him as he is: as Turkey’s strongman, said Birol Baskan, a non-resident scholar at the Institut du Moyen East based in Washington.
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