March 29, 2022

The Bayraktar Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) TB2 looks like the malformed lovechild of a small plane and a large, angry wasp. But if the armed drone looks weird, there’s nothing strange about its performance. Over the past few weeks, the Ukrainians have been using their fleet of just 12 to churn up Russian hardware. By all accounts — most of which are set to video and posted on social media — they’ve taken out a Russian command post, a bunch of military vehicles (including a tank); various types of truck; a load of surface-to-air missile systems and a couple of Russian fuel trains.

Ukrainians write songs about their beloved Turkish drones. Ankara is feted in Kyiv. Now, not content with helping to kill Russians, Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan is now trying to negotiate with them. Erdoğan spoke to Putin over the phone on Sunday and stressed the palpable need for a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds, saying Turkey was happy to help. He also — and this is important — made clear that Turkey will not jeopardise its relations with Russia or Ukraine. His ability to speak to both sides was, he said, an asset. They both agreed to hold more talks in Istanbul.

Turkey has offered to mediate between the two sides ever since the Russian army barrelled into Ukraine, following Putin’s hour-long televised meeting in which it became quite clear he was in the grip of despotism’s true curse: an utter detachment from the reality that would, under normal circumstances, restrain him. Thousands have now died in a war that is now over a month old and that Putin told everyone would last three days. Then again, he also told everyone — including Ukraine’s Jewish President — that he was going to “denazify Ukraine”, which his troops chose to do last week by shooting up the Holocaust Memorial in Drobitsky Yar on the outskirts of Kharkiv.

So Putin now finds himself in a tricky spot. His soldiers are getting shredded by Ukrainians buoyed by Western weaponry and the motivation that comes with defending their homeland . My concern has always been that Moscow has never cared about the lives of its soldiers — it’s not like their families can complain or the government is accountable to its citizens. Besides, there are plenty more where they came from and, despite some reports, plenty more Russian hardware to wheel into play.

But for now, Russia flounders. There is much talk of “off-ramps”, a phrase used in geopolitical circles to mean giving someone a way out of a disastrous situation (usually of their own making). The problem is: how do you do it? Putin cannot talk to the United States or to Britain or even the EU — all of whom are doling out weapons and cash to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia — without looking pathetically weak.

Any Western state is a problem for him, which is a problem for us because we’re not going to trust China to do it. And no country in the non-Western world has the relationships or political clout to do it, apart from maybe India, which is more concerned with keeping things sweet with Moscow and is therefore clearly unacceptable to the Ukrainians. Such is the desperation for mediators that last month saw the yarmulke-wearing Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett jetting off to Moscow to try to make some progress (“see how Putin big-dicked him by making him fly on Shabbat,” observed an Israeli friend to me). It didn’t seem especially serious.

Turkey, though, is different. “Turkey is kind of unique here,” Ziya Meral, a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI tells me. “It borders Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea and has made sure to have good relations with both. It has consistently condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine — especially the seizure of Crimea. It is supplying the Ukrainians with drones. But at the same time it has strong relations with Russia, especially around energy, defence and tourism.”

He continues: “For the Russians, there are obvious advantages. First of all, it allows them to sit down and say they are negotiating. They can claim they are trying to find a solution — but not with the West. That is vital to them: to show they are engaging for peace but on their own terms. They are not bowing to anyone.”

It does seem the Kremlin is exploring this possible off-ramp seriously. The Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who is personally close to Putin, was on the ground in Turkey over the weekend, acting as an unofficial plenipotentiary for Moscow and will report back to his President personally. To be fair, he is by all accounts now living there anyway after being forced to scuttle out of both London and Israel. It’s not the type of forced exile that millions of Ukrainians are suffering right now, but it’s something.

For Turkey, the war in Ukraine presents both danger and opportunity. Erdoğan wants his country to form part of an energy route across the European continent — something that has become much more likely following the EU energy sanctions on Russia, as well as the fact that no one now wants to rely on Moscow for gas anymore anyway. Erdoğan has also always insisted that Turkey is an important global player that needs to be involved in the world’s major events. And the one now playing out in Ukraine folds all his neuroses into it. For him, Turkey must never be too reliant on Russia and China but he is also perennially mistrustful of Nato. A middle course is the only way. Do this right and that might be possible.

But as skilful a negotiator he may be and as open to resolution as Putin may be — and I have reservations over the veracity of both of those claims — there is a limit to what can be achieved. Putin is only talking so much because the Ukrainians fought so well. If they hadn’t, he wouldn’t be negotiating. He’d be gloating.

And so it won’t be Turkey, or Erdoğan, that brings about peace in Ukraine. In the coming weeks, it might play a supporting role, but that’s it. As Meral concludes: “It’s not the men in suits but the ones on the battlefield that will ultimately decide what happens — as they always do.”

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