“This is one of my favourite cities in the world,” Aita, an IT worker from Moscow said, drinking beer outside a bar in Istanbul’s party district, Taksim. “Which is good, because now it is one of the only places we can actually come to.” For decades, Turkey’s 15-million strong metropolis has been a major destination for tourists from her country. Apart from the newly drawn up signs in the window of one or two shops, warning Russian cards can’t be used to pay, it would be impossible to know anything has changed.
Aita, however, doesn’t know how long her latest trip is going to last. Originally from Eastern Siberia, she is one of the fortunate Russians who can jokingly refer to themselves as a “digital nomad” and work remotely from abroad while her home country is in meltdown. With Western sanctions imposed over the invasion of Ukraine causing economic chaos, wiping out the savings of millions of people and triggering a run on the banks, many young professionals like her are looking to get out.
Turkey is one of the few countries in Europe that hasn’t yet closed its airspace to Russian flights, making it an increasingly common option for those going into self-imposed exile. Despite its membership of NATO, Ankara has always maintained close political and economic links with Moscow, and has a lot to lose in the current crisis.
While formally aligned with the US-led alliance, it is entirely dependent on Russia’s gas imports, and has bought its military hardware despite fierce objections and even sanctions from Washington. At the same time, it has made significant investments in Ukraine, with bilateral trade hitting £5.5 billion in 2020 alone and has staunchly backed Kyiv’s claims to Crimea, annexed by Russia after the 2014 Euromaidan. One official said last year that the split between the two Eastern European nations is problematic for Ankara, as “Turkey is close to Russia and Ukraine,” but that it would work to try and encourage reconciliation.
As Western intelligence warned that Moscow could be poised to order an offensive in recent weeks, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looked to position himself as a peacemaker, proposing to host talks between the two sides. “Our wish is that we can embrace the role as a mediator and do what falls on our shoulders,” he told reporters last month.
Now though, it appears the time for diplomacy is over, with President Vladimir Putin having given the green light for Russian troops to encircle major Ukrainian cities, as residents seek safety from shelling in basements and subway stations. Branding the move a “war,” despite the Kremlin’s insistence it is just a “special operation,” Erdoğan has given the order for the Bosphorous and Dardanelles straits, which link the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, to be closed to warships. Under the terms of the Montreux treaty, Ankara can control who passes through the narrow waterway, and has effectively blocked Russian fleets from linking up with their compatriots off the coast of Ukraine.
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“It is so sad,” Meryem, a digital marketing manager living in Istanbul, said. “If Turkey can do something to stop the fighting, we should. Erdoğan only wants to look after what Turkey wants – he doesn’t really care about the war – but maybe something good can still come of it.” And while Ankara has condemned Putin’s war, the Turkish leader has said that although it plans to join other NATO member states in their response to it, he is not prepared to sacrifice his country’s “national interests” in its relations with both sides.
One area where Erdoğan isn’t holding back, however, is in arming Ukraine, and deliveries of Turkey’s advanced Bayraktar attack drones have been landing in Kyiv in recent days. Seeing use for the first time in a major conflict between two powers, the unmanned aerial vehicles have been credited with helping take out columns of enemy armour, so much so that they have quickly taken on a near-legendary status. A jaunty “Bayraktar song,” set to clips of Russian tanks being blown apart from the air, has already attracted more than half a million views online.
The drone’s fearsome laser-guided missiles were widely hailed as having helped Turkey’s ally, Azerbaijan, make significant gains against neighbouring Armenia during last year’s brief but bloody war in Nagorno-Karbakh. Now, it seems Ankara is again prepared to support one of its close partners to shift the needle in an armed conflict.
The cautious friendship between Europe’s two great Eurasian powers had given Western officials cause for concern in recent years, claiming that Erdoğan and Putin were autocrats cut from the same cloth. However, when push came to shove, Ankara appears to have sided firmly with the West, even if it has stopped short of burning all its bridges with Moscow.
That response appears to be a popular one among the large number of Ukrainians who call Turkey home. Evhenii and his family, who left the Eastern European nation to make a new life in the country, are among them. “We just don’t understand – why aren’t Russians out on the streets protesting this decision,” he asked, carrying his country’s flag on their way to a demonstration against the war. “Or not enough of them anyway… If Turkey can do anything to help Ukraine, it should.”
“We are from Kyiv,” another pair of demonstrators outside Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia mosque said. “We don’t know if we will ever be able to go back. Everyone needs to help end this war.” For the time being, though, there seems to be little anyone can do to put a diplomatic end to the brutal conflict Putin has unleashed on Europe, and on the people of Ukraine.