President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey told reporters Friday that joining other NATO countries in sanctioning Russia for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine was impossible because his economy is simply too dependent on Moscow.
Erdogan also denied seeking to cancel a deal with Moscow to buy S-400 air defense missiles, an agreement that violates NATO protocol as all armory among alliance nations must be interoperable.
Erdogan’s resistance to engage in punitive actions against Russia stands in significant contrast to other NATO members states, most prominently the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland, who have enthusiastically urged the world to work to limit Russia’s international profits to prevent the funds from helping continue the war in Ukraine. It is also notable given Turkey’s complex relationship with Russia, which vacillates between economic partnership and strain over Turkey’s NATO status, Erdogan’s Islamist ideology, and historical strife between the two countries.
The latter set of facts has made Turkey one of the top points of contact during the war for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who, Erdogan insisted at a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, this week, had personally requested Turkey mediate the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
Erdogan insisted to journalists on a flight back from the NATO summit that he had no plans to participate in sanctions on Russia, according to Reuters.
“We are buying nearly half of the natural gas we use from Russia. Separately, we are making our Akkuyy Nuclear Power Plant with Russia. We cannot set these aside,” Erdogan reportedly said. “So there is nothing that can be done here. We must maintain our sensitivity on this issue.”
“Firstly, I can’t leave my people in the cold of the winter. Secondly, I cannot halt our industry. We must defend these,” the president explained.
In remarks published elsewhere from the same flight, Erdogan reportedly described the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems initially announced in 2018 as a “done deal” that he had no power to cancel in light of the current war. Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014.
The current war escalated out of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where Russia had been – extensive evidence suggests – arming and supporting pro-Russian separatists for nearly a decade – in late February after Putin announced that he would recognize those separatists as official governments. Putin announced that Russia would recognize the two areas of the Donbas not as parts of Ukraine, but as the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic,” and that those two countries had requested Russian military intervention to fight off Ukraine’s “Nazis.” Putin has branded the war a “de-Nazification” of Ukraine, notably omitting that Ukraine’s president is Jewish.
Erdogan has endeavored in the past month not to overly antagonize Russia while still expressing support for Ukraine. His remarks at the NATO summit on Thursday were among the least negative towards Russia.
“We will continue our talks with both Mr. [Vladimir] Putin and Mr. Zelensky from now on as well. All our efforts aim to create an atmosphere of peace by bringing together the two leaders,” Erdogan told the summit, according to the office of the president of Turkey.
Erdogan did object once again to Russia’s illegal colonization of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and “strongly reiterated our [Turkey’s] support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”
“Our stance on Russia’s attack on Ukraine is clear and consistent with this principled policy of ours. The destruction and humanitarian tragedy caused by the war are evident,” Erdogan asserted. “The war-torn cities, hospitals, schools and houses that have nearly turned into wrecks, and weeping refugees, who packed all their assets in one suitcase, have all reminded us once again of the bitter face of wars”:
Erdogan claimed that meaningful Turkish involvement as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia was “Mr. Zelensky’s demand which he has made during our talks” and claimed Zelensky personally “wants Turkey to assume an intermediary role.”
“It is out of the question that Russia disagrees with that. During the meeting between the foreign ministers, a positive approach was displayed regarding this issue,” Erdogan said. “It is our wish that a leaders’ level meeting will be held. And should there be such a demand or proposal, we have already said that we stand ready for such a step by holding a meeting in Ankara, or Istanbul, or another city of ours.”
Zelensky has repeatedly called to meet with Putin in-person since the assault on Kyiv began in late February. The Kremlin has rejected the call to have the two heads of state discuss the war personally.
Even before the latest war began, Zelensky had long called for a direct, bilateral engagement between himself and Putin. The two leaders met for the first time in 2019 for talks, which were chaperoned by the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, and then-chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel. Zelensky complained to reporters that the “Normandy Four” format, as it was then referred to, was frustrating and fruitless.
“Look, it’s very difficult to negotiate [with Putin], but today there were moments when we agreed on something, on certain things,” Zelensky said at the time, adding:
That’s because he dissects every question into details … and then we begin to even consider every word. So yes, this is difficult. I’m just a different person, I’m a quick person. I thought that we could just sit down real quick and have a deal. … But it’s different here, it’s different biomechanics, so to speak.
Putin described himself as “happy” with the engagement at the time.
In mid-February, before hostilities against Kyiv itself began, Erdogan told reporters he had hoped to host a meeting between Zelensky and Putin in Turkey.
“During our meeting, President Zelensky noted that he was positive about the trilateral meeting in the format of Putin, Zelensky and Erdogan,” the president said, referring to himself in the third person. “If Putin has a positive attitude to this issue, I hope we will be able to organize such a meeting in Istanbul or Ankara. In addition, I want to know Putin’s opinion during a phone call.”