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  • Will Kingston-Cox

For humanity or self-interest? Turkey as mediator between Russia and Ukraine


Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has propelled Turkey into the unique position of mediator between both Moscow and the West - specifically Kyiv. In March, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hosted the Antalya Diplomacy Forum between Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, the first ‘high-level’ contact between the belligerents. The forum was followed by the fourth round of peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul on 29 March which, whilst not providing a breakthrough, provided the first glimpse of realistic, pragmatic dialogue.

However, Turkey’s most crucial role in mediating between Kyiv and Moscow comes in its role as broker of the Black Sea grain initiative. Whilst it is indisputable that Turkey has facilitated a continuation of grain exports out of Ukraine, providing abundant positive consequences for global food security, it is wholly likely that such humanitarianism may be derived from Ankara’s economic self-interest.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine back in February led to a complete cessation of maritime grain shipments from Ukraine - one of the world’s largest grain exporters. The results of such a cessation were seismic. Global food prices skyrocketed and threatened the food security of many poorer nations, to the degree of potential famines. Turkey, in cooperation with the United Nations, assumed the humanitarian role of ensuring global food security was mitigated amidst the war in Ukraine.

On 22 July, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, Turkish president Recep Erdogan, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, and Ukrainian infrastructure minister Oleksandr Kubrakov signed the Black Sea Grain Initiative in Istanbul. The initiative created a framework to safely export grain and other foodstuffs from the Ukrainian ports of Odessa, Chornomorsk, and Yuzhne. Under the initiative, ships are permitted to traverse out of Ukraine via the Black Sea, through the geopolitically significant Turkish straits of Dardanelles and Bosporus, and into the Mediterranean Sea.

The deal was initially successful. By 23 July, grain prices had dropped to prewar levels with over a million tonnes of grain being exported from Ukraine by the end of August. In total, an estimated 9.5 million tonnes of corn, wheat, barley, and rapeseed have been exported since the agreement was signed in July. Prior to October, it was wholly reasonable to assume that the extent of the global food crisis had been mitigated satisfactorily. However, Turkey would once again be compelled to wield its de facto status as Russia-Ukraine mediator when the Black Sea grain deal seemed all but set to end in catastrophic failure.

On 29 October, Russia declared it was temporarily withdrawing from the agreement, accusing Ukraine of exploiting the safe shipping corridors to launch a drone attack on its Black Sea fleet stationed in Sevastopol, Crimea. The Russian decision to pull out of the deal was met with harsh international condemnation. French president Emmanuel Macron, in a call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, denounced Russia’s temporary withdrawal as “harm[ing] global food security”. US president Joe Biden called the move “purely outrageous”, hinting it would exacerbate starvation and the potentiality of famines across the globe. Most succinctly, US secretary of state Antony Blinken accused Moscow of “weaponising food”.

Whilst the future of the Black Sea deal, and with it global food security, seemed perilous, a committed Turkey successfully talked Moscow back into the agreement. By 2 November, the initiative was back in full operation with 354,500 tonnes of grain being shipped - the most in a single day since the agreement. On the news of Russia’s withdrawal, Erdogan said “we will continue decisively our efforts to serve humanity”.

One cannot help but think Turkey’s ‘service to humanity’ is a wrapper of convenience. The economic ramifications of the deal’s success seem to benefit Turkey greatly. As of 31 October, Turkey is the second-largest recipient of Ukrainian foodstuffs, at an estimated 1.3 million tonnes. In terms of total voyages received, Turkey by far exceeds other recipient nations. Furthermore, Putin and Erdogan agreed to boost bilateral business cooperation back in August 2022 at the Sochi summit. Since, Turkey has increased its Russian crude oil purchases whilst European importations have dwindled.

Whilst it is impossible to dismiss the fact that Turkey, in part, has acted in the humanitarian interest over the food crisis, its emergence as mediator seems more likely to be driven by self-interest. Geopolitically, Turkey’s control of the Black Sea exits renders its position critical to the success of the deal. And economically, Turkey seems set to benefit significantly from the deal’s success; casting doubt on Ankara’s purported humanitarian motivations.

Image: Flickr/ Pressekonferanse med Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.



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