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Turkey, Israel see benefits of Ukraine mediation

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AFP)
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11 Mar 2022 02:03:35 GMT9
11 Mar 2022 02:03:35 GMT9

A failure to produce concrete results over three rounds of talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials has encouraged players from the Middle East — particularly Israel and Turkey — to take an active stance as mediators in the conflict in Eastern Europe.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett travelled to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, reportedly to discuss Israel acting as a mediator. Bennett also spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky three times in the space of 24 hours. Ukraine has requested that Israel serve as intermediary, citing the Tel Aviv government’s good relations with both Kyiv and Moscow. In televised remarks to his Cabinet, Bennett spoke of his three-hour Kremlin meeting with Putin, saying that it had “the blessing and encouragement of all parties” — an allusion to the US, among other powers.

Cultural ties between Russia and Israel have been a positive factor in bilateral relations for years. Israel is home to more than a million Russian-speaking citizens born in former Soviet states. This has allowed Moscow to use the soft power of cultural affinity and personal connections to facilitate economic cooperation, including high-tech trade with Israel, especially in the area of nanotechnology. Moreover, maintaining positive ties with Israel — Washington’s closest ally in the region — has allowed Putin to project the message that Russia has not been isolated. Given recent realities, this gateway explains Israel’s ability to mediate between all parties directly and indirectly involved in the conflict: Russia, Ukraine and the West.

Domestically, Bennett’s mediation efforts are likely to play positively, helping him to emerge from the shadow of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. He may also anticipate achieving some regard as an international statesman, thereby boosting Israel’s standing after decades of global criticism over its actions regarding Palestine. That said, Israel’s efforts have already been viewed with a level of suspicion in some quarters due to Russia’s leverage over it. Israel relies on the Kremlin for security coordination in Syria, while Moscow also has a seat at the negotiating table with Iran over its nuclear program. There may be some significance to the fact that, for the first time since 2018, Iranian forces were this week killed in an Israeli strike in Syria. Notably, the attack happened the day after Bennett met Putin in Russia and also at the height of the Vienna talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal. The future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was expected to be finalized imminently only a few days ago, is now again in doubt due to Moscow’s demand for sanctions exemptions, as the Kremlin seeks guarantees regarding trade with Iran.

Another willing mediator in the Ukraine conflict is another Middle Eastern player — Turkey. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba met in Antalya on Thursday for the first Cabinet-level meeting between the two countries since Russia’s invasion began. They failed to agree on either a truce or the opening of humanitarian corridors, and an attempt to agree on a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky also failed. 

NATO member Turkey shares maritime borders with Russia and Ukraine in the Black Sea. Known as the “wild card of NATO diplomacy,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed taking on a mediating role at the beginning of February. Previously, Ankara had been criticized by Russia over its support of Ukraine through the sale of Bayraktar TB2 drones. It has called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “unacceptable” and announced it would partially block Russian warships from accessing the Black Sea. However, it has so far refused to enforce sanctions.

This is not the first time that relations have deteriorated between Ankara and Moscow. They have previously always gone back to normalizing ties, mainly due to economic factors. A direct clash occurred in November 2015, when a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 ground attack aircraft, but economic indicators — such as trade, which plummeted in 2016 — have steadily been rebuilt. Among such reconnections, Turkey’s S-400 missile defense deal has turned its armed forces, a NATO ally, into a major customer of the Russian arms industry. Meanwhile, the first source of nuclear power in Turkey, the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, is being built and is owned by Russia’s Rosatom. Moreover, TurkStream, a pipeline inaugurated in 2020, takes gas from Russia to Turkey via the Black Sea in a manner that weakens Ukraine’s role as a transit country for Russian gas.

Despite geopolitical intersections at the Syrian warzone, the Black Sea, the Libyan conflict and the Caucasus, it seems the marriage of convenience that has been maintained between Russia and Turkey relies primarily on economic interdependence. Among all the tensions, this illustrates some kind of special partnership between Turkey and Russia.

At this stage, it is not clear whether the Kremlin will further collaborate with one partner or the other, or rely on both. However, what is clear is that the Ukraine conflict will directly impact Russia’s foreign policies, including its policies toward the Middle East. Despite speculation that Russia would leave the region due to its current focus on Europe, the fact that both proposed mediators are from the Middle East speaks for itself.

It is expected that the conflict in Europe will lead to broader transformations in the Middle East and new dynamics.

Dr. Diana Galeeva

Moreover, it is expected that the conflict in Europe will lead to broader transformations in the region and new dynamics — for example, the uncertainty surrounding the JCPOA and its impact on Russia-Iran relations and the possibilities created for and by both Israel and Turkey, whose positions can be expected to give them added leverage within the region’s dynamics. Crucially, mediators may also have exclusive access to the great powers for matters extending beyond immediate negotiations. All this again demonstrates how interconnected global politics is with regional dynamics and further suggests that, as the Russia-Ukraine conflict develops, direct and indirect impacts on the Middle East will continue to emerge.

  • Dr. Diana Galeeva is an Academic Visitor to St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. Dr. Galeeva is the author of two books: “Qatar: The Practice of Rented Power” (Routledge, 2022) and “Russia and the GCC: The Case of Tatarstan’s Paradiplomacy” (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2022). She is also a co-editor of the collection “Post-Brexit Europe and UK: Policy Challenges Towards Iran and the GCC States” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).
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