Between Securitization and Diplomacy: Türkiye's Mediation in the Russia-Ukraine War
In addition to its drones, Türkiye has also received coverage during the war for being the only state to mediate the talks between Russia and Ukraine and lately as the only state to block Sweden and Finland’s accession into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Irony has it that Finland and Türkiye are the two countries that spearheaded the creation of the 'Mediation for Peace' initiative within the United Nations (UN) on September 24, 2010. Subsequently, in June 2012, the first resolution on mediation was adopted at the UN and the 'Effective Mediation Guide' was published by the UN Secretariat. The shift from co-founding a landmark peace initiative to discussing the accession of Finland -long known for its peacemaker identity- into the most ambitious military alliance in history may be seen as a portrayal of the securitization trend in the agendas of the two countries.
Türkiye’s foreign policy has been highly securitized in the last decade. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to describe its mediation attempt in the Russia-Ukraine conflict as one of the ‘course correction’ steps that have been witnessed in Türkiye’s foreign policy recently. Mediation came to the fore as one of the instruments of the ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy largely designed by former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, which aimed at stability and cooperation in the region. It also became one of the important pillars of Türkiye's policy of ‘Humanitarian Diplomacy’ by presenting it as the only actor that can sit with both Western and non-Western actors. Subsequently, Türkiye has played a mediator role in conflicts across the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Africa, and Asia. Especially with its roles in the Syria-Israel peace talks and nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West, Türkiye started to promote itself as an 'impartial' and 'insider' mediator in the international arena.
In the following years, there has been an increasing trend of securitization in Turkish foreign policy, especially because of the Syrian crisis, the July 15 failed coup attempt and the increasing tensions in regions of interest for Türkiye such as the Eastern Mediterranean, Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. This securitization trend raised concerns regarding Türkiye’s neutrality and impartiality in its mediation initiatives such as the ones between Somalia-Somaliland and in the Astana/Sochi process it has been carrying out with Russia and Iran to resolve the Syrian crisis. The Ukraine-Russia war coincided with a period when Türkiye started to take more peaceful steps in its foreign policy. The political and economic crises Türkiye has been facing in recent years also triggered the need for a more restrained policy, hence, its rapprochement with Armenia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and the EU.
In the Ukraine crisis, Türkiye has been pursuing a policy of balancing act which is understandable since, on the one hand, it is a member of NATO and an EU candidate, and on the other hand, it has a relationship of "asymmetrical interdependence" with Russia where equilibrium weighs in favour of the latter. In such an equation, where Türkiye cannot directly take sides, ending the war and establishing peace and stability in the region would be in line with its national interests. Within only a few weeks into the conflict, the sharp rise in the prices of commodities such as natural gas, wheat, corn, and sunflower was a new blow to the already fragile Turkish economy.
Türkiye also utilizes mediation as a means of gaining international legitimacy and leverage. Mediation provided Türkiye with a regional foothold and influence in difficult countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan. In the Ukraine conflict, it serves as a tool for cultivating the image of a responsible, neutral, and engaged actor and saving its largely tarnished face, particularly, against its Western allies. There is no doubt that its mediation alongside its assertive response to Sweden and Finland’s applications for NATO membership has already provided Türkiye with more visibility and leverage in the international arena as an actor that has been long side-lined.
When considered within the framework of its balancing act policy, Türkiye's mediation can be seen as a smart diplomatic move. However, its potential success is a question mark for now. According to a study conducted by Jacob Bercovitch and Scott Sigmund Gartner, international organizations may be more effective in resolving internationalized high-intensity conflicts with their extensive resources, high prestige, and wide range of strategies. By analyzing the 2000 International Conflict Management data set, which lists more than 3500 cases of international mediation efforts since 1945, Jacob Bercovitch and Scott Sigmund Gartner argued that states can be more effective in resolving low-intensity conflicts with their geographical and cultural proximity and their ability to be informal when necessary.
Given the internationalized high-intensity nature of the Russia-Ukraine war, mediation by an international organization such as the UN could be more effective where it can apply force, pressure, and directive strategies. However, the fact that the Russia-Ukraine is turning into a systemic war between Russia and the United States, who are also permanent members of the UN Security Council, makes it difficult for the UN to resolve this conflict since these countries have the power to veto any resolutions offered by the UN. The resolution could be more of an option had it catered to the interests of the US. However, in this case, it seems like the US is more interested in continuing the war until Russia is driven well into the corner. In a similar vein, Russia’s willingness to sit around the table seems more like a play for time than a sincere attempt to resolve the conflict. In this case, perhaps the international community could act more prudently and use the war as an opportunity for self-reflection and the revision of the malfunctioning international system.
States in Europe have already doubled their military budgets and there is an increasing demand for NATO accession even among "peaceful" countries such as Sweden and Finland. In other words, there is a rising trend of securitization in international politics. In this equation, it is yet a mystery whether Türkiye’s peace-making efforts in the Russia-Ukraine war would bring about success. The fact that it is selling weapons to one of the parties and blocking the accession of its European counterparts into NATO could also damage its neutrality and impartiality as a mediator. As such, its mediation seems to serve more as a tool for mending Türkiye’s own relations with its allies rather than actually resolving the conflict. Such a happy ending could only come through a robust international effort that would also require the revision of the existing international order.
Pınar Akpınar is Action Research Program Manager at the Sabancı University ARAMA Chair.