According to The Associated Press, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul in early April to discuss matters of national security and the de-escalation of tensions surrounding the Black Sea region. The meeting between the two heads of state occurred as reports of a build-up of tens of thousands of Russian troops along the eastern Ukrainian border flooded international news headlines.
Ukraine and Turkey, both European Union (EU) membership-seeking countries, have had their fair share of conflicts against Russia over the past decade. There are two key differences between the countries, however. Turkey is a full-fledged NATO member, and has been engaged in only proxy conflicts with Russia in recent years. Ukraine, on the other hand, is not a NATO member and has been engaged in a seven-year long conflict, fighting Russian backed-troops and paramilitaries within its borders.
Since 2014, there have been 29 ceasefires in an attempt to bring peace to the Donbass region. Nevertheless, fighting persists to this day and has caused the deaths of an estimated 14,000 people since 2014.
In a joint press conference, Zelensky said, “I informed the Turkish parties in detail about the situation in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine — Donbass and Crimea — in particular about the violation of human rights on the peninsula and its ongoing militarization.” He also asserted that Turkey’s support was critical to the “restoration” of the war-torn eastern provinces. Turkish President Erdoğan responded by saying “We do not wish the escalation of tensions in our shared geography under any circumstance.”
Ukraine and Turkey have made numerous trade, energy, and defense agreements, in addition to establishing a passport-free travel zone in 2017, according to Al Jazeera. Both countries share similar interests in opposing Russian expansion in the region, despite disagreeing over certain issues such as in Syria, Libya, or Nagorno-Karabakh.
Despite Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missle system and Erdoğan’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia and Turkey have been essentially engaged in a cold war for decades, Al Jazeera furthers. Places such as Northern Syria and Libya have proven that Turkey is willing to engage in conflict to pursue its ambition as a top regional power.
Soon after the two leaders held their meetings in Istanbul, Russia announced it would restrict flights to and from Turkey amid the rising hostilities, according to Reuters. Citing COVID-19 precautions as the official reason for the decision, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova did not mention that politics influenced their decision in any way.
Importantly, Turkey is a key destination for Russian tourists. Since 2018, Turkey has been experiencing a currency and debt crisis. The pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on tourism throughout the world, especially in Europe, where tourism is one of the most crucial sectors of the economy. Turkey has been particularly hit hard due to dealing with multiple crises at once.
In a video obtained from the Associated Press, The New York Times reports NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg criticized the Russian buildup of troops surrounding the eastern-occupied regions, calling it “unjustified and deeply concerning.” Stoltenberg added that NATO is sending naval support and ships to the Black Sea and that, “we are constantly looking to see how we can step up and provide more practical support to Ukraine.”
Reuters reports that, a day after Russia announced the restrictions on flights to Turkey, Erdoğan told reporters that Turkey is “not picking sides” regarding the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. He also warned other countries to refrain from feeding what he called “belligerent sentiment” into Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Russia insists it has no intention of invading Ukraine. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the idea as part of a “propaganda campaign.” She noted, “Russia is not interested in fueling a civil war in Donbas and will do everything to protect its citizens and ensure peace,” according to The Washington Post.
Photo courtesy of Presidency of Ukraine (Wikimedia Commons)