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Turkey’s Erdogan Desperately Seeks Role in Ukraine Mess

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a press conference on Thursday that he believed a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be disastrous, and presented himself as a moderator who might be able to avert such a conflict by bringing the presidents of Russia and Ukraine together for negotiations.

Speaking after meetings in Ankara with visiting Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, Erdogan said “a psychology of war in the region” was upsetting to Turkey as “a country that has ties with both sides.”

“We hope Putin and Zelensky will hold a face-to-face meeting as soon as possible,” Erdogan said. “We attach great importance to both Mr. Putin’s visit to Turkey and my visit to Ukraine. I will pay a visit to Ukraine early next month.”

Erdogan has invited Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to his country for negotiations, and reportedly hopes to host a meeting of the Ukraine monitoring mission established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

“Any development in the region between Russia and Ukraine, from border violations to a war breaking out, will bring about a serious violation of regional peace and will cause serious discomfort in the region,” Erdogan said on Friday. “We can be a mediator in finding peace between Russia and Ukraine.”

Relations between Turkey and Russia soured over the past few years due to conflicting agendas in Syria, and because Turkey sold its highly effective Bayraktar armed drones to Ukraine for use against the Russia-backed separatists of the eastern Donbass region. The Ukrainians were so pleased with the performance of the Bayraktar drones that they hope to begin manufacturing their own domestic version in the near future.

Putin called Ukraine’s use of the Turkish drones “provocative,” while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denounced Turkey’s “militarization” of Ukraine. Turkey also annoyed Moscow by joining a Ukrainian program that hopes to reverse Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

On the other hand, Turkey infamously became a major customer for Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, to the immense displeasure of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Turkey’s orders for the advanced F-35 fighter were scrapped by the U.S. because Turkey insisted on buying Russian missiles designed to shoot them down.

Russian analysts grumble that Erdogan is playing Russia and Ukraine against each other to squeeze better deals from both and bolster his image as a regional power player, but Turkish diplomatic sources told Reuters on Thursday that Russia is warming to the idea of Erdogan as a host for meetings between Putin and Zelensky. The Kremlin’s official position is that no such conference is on the schedule yet.

“If our Turkish partners are able to influence Kyiv and the implementation of the earlier reached agreements, this could only be welcomed,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.

The Ukrainians are more openly enthusiastic about using Erdogan as a mediator. In November, Zelensky gave Erdogan a list of names for a potential prisoner swap to pass along to Putin, but nothing came of the offer.

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