Ukrainian President visits Turkey as tensions escalate with Russia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Istanbul over the weekend to mark the 10th anniversary of his country’s strategic partnership with Turkey and shore up support from his Black Sea neighbour as tensions escalate with Russia over Ukraine’s simmering war in Donbas.

“Turkey’s support for the restoration of our sovereignty and territorial integrity is extremely important,” Zelenskyy stated in a joint news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Following a meeting with the Turkish leader, Zelenskyy tweeted, “We share common values with #Turkey, including human life and support.”

Saturday’s visit marks the Ukrainian leader’s second trip to Turkey in less than six months.

In 2017, the countries created a passport-free travel zone and they are currently working on the implementation of a free-trade agreement, which leaders say will more than double the level of bilateral trade between them.

In 2018, Ukraine bought six Bayraktar TB2 drones and 200 high-precision missiles from Turkey as part of a $69 million defence agreement.

Experts suggest that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a game-changer for Ankara’s relations with Moscow and how it viewed the balance of power in the Black Sea.

When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, it immediately began deploying the S-400 there. It also built up its naval forces, stationing submarines and ships with Kalibr cruise missiles capable of hitting targets 2,400km away.

Istanbul is roughly 600km from Crimea.

That math led to a 2016 speech by Erdogan in which he stated the Black Sea was becoming a “Russian lake” and warned, “If we do not take action history will not forgive us.”

Erdogan has advocated for a stronger NATO presence in the region as Russia increases the size of its naval fleet.

More recently, Turkey has looked at the Black Sea as a step towards greater energy independence.
In October 2020, it announced the discovery of 405 billion cubic metres of gas off its coast, the largest finding in the country’s history.

“Our main goal is that the Black Sea continues to be a sea of peace, tranquillity and cooperation,” the Turkish president stated, speaking next to his Ukrainian counterpart at Saturday’s news conference.