Invasion of Ukraine increases friction between Erdogan and Putin

RZESZOW, Poland – In the pre-dawn hours, as the world held its breath watching the first moves of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, the Turkish military made a last-minute rush to evacuate diplomatic staff and other Turkish citizens in the capital, Kyiv.

Two military cargo planes entered Ukrainian airspace shortly after midnight and landed at Boryspil International Airport, the main civilian airport located 29 km east of Kiev city center.

But the planes got stuck. So did their military crews, as well as the Turkish diplomats and citizens they were trying to evacuate. At 5 a.m., Russia unleashed the first salvoes of its war against Ukraine, making any escape impossible.

Images of the airport the following day, obtained from commercial satellite imagery company Planet Labs, show two gray military cargo planes parked in the open on one side of the airport, which so far was not the target of Russian airstrikes.

The stranded planes have now become Exhibit A of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s misreading of the situation in Ukraine, exposing him to domestic criticism for not evacuating Turkish citizens in time, for misjudging President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and for not heeding American warnings of an invasion seriously enough.

Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin have enjoyed a sometimes close, sometimes adversarial relationship, as the Turkish leader has cultivated ties with Moscow – partly as leverage against the West, but also out of necessity, since Turkey is under pressure from many sides by Russia.

Turkey is a member of NATO, but such mistrust has built up because of Mr. Erdogan’s flirtations with Russia that it has not been invited to at least one of the leaders-level meetings of the NATO. alliance before the Russian invasion, according to senior researcher Asli Aydintasbas. with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

At the same time, Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan have found themselves in recent years on opposite sides of conflicts in Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria.

Russian troops in Syria have long threatened to continue their offensive against the last rebel-held area in that country, which could force up to four million Syrians to flee to Turkey. And since 2020, the Russian military has expanded its footprint in the Caucasus region.

Now Russia looks poised to dominate the northern shores of the Black Sea with its advances in Ukraine, where Mr Erdogan has angered Russia by selling Turkish-made drones, some of which have been used to strike Russian armored convoys since the start of the invasion, according to Ukrainian officials.

Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin spoke on the phone on February 23, hours before the start of the invasion. Mr. Erdogan reiterated his offer of mediation between Russia and Ukraine and reiterated his invitation to Mr. Putin to travel to Istanbul for a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“President Erdogan said that he still attaches great importance to the close dialogue he has established with Russian President Putin on regional issues, that they have seen the positive results and that he is determined to maintain this understanding,” an official statement from Turkey said. said the presidency.

Mr Erdogan has maintained an even tone in his public statements on the situation, describing the invasion of Ukraine as “unacceptable” but continuing to call for a peaceful resolution.

But there is a sense of anger in Mr Erdogan’s presidential circle that Mr Putin lied to them about his intentions in Ukraine, Ms Aydintasbas said.

“Turkey was slow to take action and evacuate its people,” Ms Aydintasbas wrote in a text message, adding: “They never believed the US scenario of a full-scale invasion and dismissed US warnings.” .

“I suspect Erdogan trusted his relationship with Putin and thought it would be a minor incursion,” she added. “Turkey also did not evacuate its citizens based on this belief. This turns out to be a huge miscalculation.

The situation appeared to have inspired a change in Turkey’s stance towards Russia on Sunday, when Turkey’s foreign minister and presidential communications chief for the first time called Moscow’s intervention against Ukraine an act of war. .

Turkey oversees access to the Black Sea through the Montreux Convention, a 1936 international treaty that regulates seagoing vessels crossing the Bosphorus. Defining the situation as a war would allow Turkey to close the Bosphorus to vessels from the countries concerned.

There remains a loophole for Russia, since, as one of the Black Sea littoral states, it can claim that the movement of ships is for them to return to their home port. Russian warships and a submarine have already crossed the Black Sea in recent weeks and played a role in the attack on Ukraine, but Turkey’s action could complicate Russia’s ability to send reinforcements or to resupply its forces.

“It’s not a game-changer, but it’s a nuisance for the Russians,” Ms Aydintasbas said. “It’s a nuisance not to be able to bring their Mediterranean fleet up” from the Bosphorus to the Black Sea. The change in tone was “indicative of feelings in Turkey”, she added.

Not much is known about Turkey’s decision-making process in the final hours before the outbreak of war, but it is clear that Mr. Erdogan miscalculated the speed and severity of the Russian operation, as well as the urgency of evacuation.

According to flight tracking records, two Turkish Air Force planes landed in Kyiv, one with the code TUAF600 at 00:15 a.m. Thursday and the second, TUAF601, at 3:43 a.m. said Justin Bronk, an aerial power and technology researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Two hours after the first plane landed, Ukraine announced it was closing its airspace due to the impending Russian attack. The second Turkish plane appeared to turn around, missing its scheduled landing at 2:46 a.m., but then continued and landed about an hour later.

There are no flight records of the two military planes that departed within hours of landing, Mr Bronk said. Ukraine and Russia then announced the closure of airspace, he noted.

The thefts could have gone undetected if the pilots had turned off their transponders, Mr Bronk said. But satellite images seen by the Times indicate otherwise.

Turkey has been calling its citizens in Ukraine individually for a month, urging them to leave, and is still trying to evacuate 6,600 citizens from the country, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday.

A Turkish student stuck in Kharkiv, a northeastern city that has suffered the most intense assaults, posted on Twitter asking for help Saturday.

“We are a student community of 35 people in Ukraine/Kharkiv (this number is not the total number of students in Kharkiv),” wrote the student, Ahmet Kagan Gumus. “3 of us have been evacuated and now we are 32. For the first time we are hearing the sounds of clashes, bombings, helicopters and jet planes very close.”

The plight of Turkish citizens – students, tourists and businesspeople – stuck in Ukraine as the war escalates is not unique. Thousands of foreigners are struggling to flee, including Afghan refugees, African students and employees of Western companies and embassies.

Turkey, like many other countries, is scrambling to rescue citizens who manage to travel overland from Ukraine to neighboring countries, but borders are clogged with tens of thousands of refugees and 20-mile traffic jams. Mr Cavusoglu said a Turkish Airlines plane was flying home some who had managed to reach Romania.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has asked to speak with his Russian counterpart to arrange an air corridor for evacuations, Cavusoglu said. Mr Akar reached Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu on Sunday, according to an official Turkish statement.

But this statement made no mention of any agreement for an air corridor.

Nimet Kirac contributed reporting from Rzeszow, Poland, and Safak Timour from Istanbul.