Biden to Make Time for Turkey’s Erdogan, but Not Ukraine’s Zelensky, Before Putin Meeting

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, left, gestures as he talks with Turkish President Recep Tay
Sedat Suna, Pool Photo via AP

The administration of President Joe Biden confirmed on Monday he has scheduled a meeting with Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for June 14, on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels that day.

The meeting with the fellow head of state is particularly notable given that it will occur before a scheduled meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on June 16, the first between the two since Biden was inaugurated president. The White House on Monday pointed disregarded a request by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – whose nation Russia has torn into pieces through illegal colonization and covert support for separatists waging war in the nation’s eastern Donbass region – to meet with him in person before sitting down with Putin. In an interview with the American outlet Axios published on Sunday, Zelensky sai it would “be a big mistake” for Biden not to meet with him personally and consult him on his upcoming summit with Putin.

“We have a deeper understanding of the subject, I think, and we understand Russia better as of now — because we’ve been neighbors for many years, and because we have the war in the East,” Zelensky said. “That is why I consider such consultations to be important. I believe such consultations should happen face-to-face, because many things just cannot be discussed over the phone.”

Biden called Zelensky on the phone on Monday and invited him to the White House in July, weeks after his scheduled summit with Putin.

Biden instead has a long list of meetings scheduled with European leaders for next week, primarily NATO members, and with Erdogan, under whom Turkey, a NATO member, has violated alliance protocol by purchasing Russian-made missiles. NATO requires all members to use interoperable military equipment to allow for maximum cooperation in any potential military hostilities.

According to Biden National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Biden and Erdogan will discuss “how the US and Turkey itself deal with some of our significant differences on values, and human rights, and other issues.” Biden also reportedly seeks to discuss “the role that Turkey will play on a going forward basis with respect to negotiations and diplomacy in Afghanistan,” a nation in which Ankara has not had significant influence during the past two decades of war.

Sullivan added that Biden “knows Erdogan very well” and that both heads of state are “looking forward” to the June 14 meeting.

The national security adviser did not clarify which “differences” on human rights the two would discuss. Erdogan has spearheaded a steep decline in political freedom in his country, particularly since a failed coup occurred against him in July 2016. Since that year, Erdogan has shut down or seized hundreds of media outlets and imprisoned, fired, or prosecuted hundreds of thousands of people on dubious charges of supporting the coup. Outside of Turkey, Erdogan has ordered the invasions of at least three countries: Syria, Iraq, and Libya, much to the outrage of their respective governments.

Sullivan also did not specifically address Erdogan’s overtures to Russia or the scheduled Biden-Putin summit in relation to talks with Erdogan.

Erdogan confirmed the purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defense missiles to be used by the Turkish military in 2019, a violation of the North Atlantic Treaty. Under President Donald Trump, the United States sanctioned Turkey for the move.

Russia-Turkey ties have remained nonetheless tense in the past decade. Turkey lies on the southern shore of the Black Sea, across from Ukraine and Crimea, specifically, and has vocally opposed Russia’s invasion and colonization of Crimea in 2014. Erdogan’s government claims a responsibility to protect ethnic Crimean Tatars, a Turkic people, from Russia’s attempts to assert Russian ethnic identity in the region.

Erdogan welcomed Zelensky to Turkey in April, meeting with him before Biden has.

“Once again we have reaffirmed our basic principle of non-recognition of the illegal annexation of Crimea,” Erdogan following their summit. Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalın expanded on the statement by asserting that Turkey sought to enforce the “rights of Crimean Tatars” but also supported Ukraine’s legitimate claim to the peninsula.

In the interview he conducted with Axios published this weekend, Zelensky appeared less incensed with the lukewarm support for Ukraine’s claim to Crimea than with Biden’s decision not to impose sanctions on nations participating in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 Russian natural gas pipeline. Zelensky claimed that the White House never alerted him to the change in policy from the Trump administration, which vocally opposed it, and that he “found out about it, probably, like everybody else, from the briefing.” The pipeline is expected give Russia significant leverage over the fuel economy of several nominal American allies, most prominently Germany, and freeze Ukraine out of the economies of the nations using the pipeline.

Zelensky also lamented the limited communication Biden has kept with Kyiv, stating that it sends a message that “there are the great powers of the world, and there is everybody else.”

Following the interview publication, Biden called Zelensky on Monday. According to Sullivan, Biden “looks forward to welcoming him to the White House here in Washington this summer after he returns from Europe,” meaning Biden would not make time for Ukraine’s request for an in-person meeting with Zelensky prior to his meeting with Putin. Zelensky nonetheless described the conversation with Biden as “clear, substantive, essential,” and proclaimed himself “very pleased with the outcome of the talk.”

Russian government-owned media, citing “experts,” began downplaying the potential of any meaningful result of the Biden-Putin meeting on Tuesday.

“The summit of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Joe Biden will not bring about any radical changes in bilateral relations,” a Russian “expert” told the TASS news agency. Aleksandr Dynkin, the president of a Russian think tank, emphasized instead that Biden and Putin would likely discuss the extension of the New START agreement, which limits nuclear development. Biden extended the current treaty by five years – four more than Putin had requested – after Trump had for years refused to, demanding the two also including China in the deliberations given its substantial nuclear arsenal.

“The Strategic Offensive Arms Reduction Treaty (the New START) was ratified literally two days before the document’s expiry and so we got some respite for five years to work out a new treaty on arms reduction,” Dynkin said. “This is a very complex task as there have been no negotiations for over ten years. Today there is no consensus on the subject matter of the negotiations even before the start of this difficult talk on the levels and sublevels, delivery vehicles and warheads.”

TASS did not indicate that Ukraine would factor into the topics discussed at the meeting.

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