In light of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, which has jeopardized the European security framework and led to a significant shift in relations with Moscow, coupled with Türkiye’s strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East and Ankara’s ambitions, Denys Kolesnyk, French consultant and analyst, had the privilege of conducting an interview with Ukraine’s Ambassador to Türkiye, His Excellency Vasyl Bodnar.
How would you describe the current state of Turkish-Ukrainian relations and what are the key areas of cooperation between the two countries?
Over a decade ago, we forged a strategic partnership with Türkiye, which has flourished over time. This partnership is rooted in mutual interests and has yielded tangible benefits through practical collaboration. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we entered into a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), opening up exciting prospects for boosting bilateral trade. Despite the challenges posed by the Russian war on Ukraine and disrupted logistics via the Black Sea, our trade outcomes remain favorable. We are confident that the full implementation of the FTA will yield even more fruitful cooperation in the future.
Defense cooperation serves as the second pillar of our partnership, focusing on advanced technologies, aerospace, and naval domains. It extends beyond mere trade transactions and has solidified our practical collaboration by facilitating the establishment of joint ventures and the exchange of relevant technologies and spare parts. This cooperation reflects the growth of both Turkish and Ukrainian defense industries and lays the foundation for future advancements. We consider it a driving force in our partnership. Numerous companies have actively participated in this endeavor, not only in response to the Russian invasion but even prior to it. Our defense cooperation has yielded positive outcomes, exemplified by the worldwide recognition of Bayraktar drones. Furthermore, we have not only procured these drones from Türkiye but also setting up production facilities in Ukraine.
The same principles apply to the realm of high-tech. A notable example is the Turkish Kızılelma unmanned fighter, which utilizes engines from the Motor Sigh from Ukraine. This collaboration serves as a prime example of the fruitful outcomes stemming from bilateral cooperation. When it comes to people-to-people interactions, it is worth highlighting their positive nature. Since the onset of the war, we have received significant humanitarian assistance from the Turkish government and society. Over 750,000 Ukrainians have found refuge in Türkiye, and the Turkish society has shown unwavering support, despite varying views on the reasons behind the conflict. Presently, more than 70% of Turks believe that this war is unjust and hold Russia responsible for the aggression. Additionally, when a devastating earthquake struck southern Türkiye last February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy promptly dispatched a rescue team from our nation to aid the Turkish people.
A notable aspect, particularly when considering the future, is the prospect of reconstruction. Several Turkish infrastructure companies renowned for their expertise in rebuilding war-affected regions, such as Syria or Iraq, have already demonstrated their keen interest and preparedness to contribute to Ukraine’s reconstruction efforts. What’s more, certain companies have already initiated joint projects within Ukraine, focusing on the restoration of bridges, roads, schools, and other vital social infrastructure, despite the ongoing conflict. This demonstrates a strong foundation for future cooperation in this area.
In your opinion Mr Ambassador, what could be the key areas of cooperation in the reconstruction of Ukraine?
Mutual understanding between both parties led to the signing of an agreement last August, establishing a task force dedicated to governmental-level cooperation in reconstruction. We have facilitated visits by relevant officials to Türkiye, enabling discussions and providing explanations to Turkish business circles regarding potential opportunities. Ukraine places immediate emphasis on the rapid reconstruction of roads and bridges.
Additionally, the second wave of reconstruction encompasses housing rehabilitation, the development of social infrastructure, and the establishment of industries. Türkiye’s valuable experience in creating industrial zones holds significant importance for bolstering Ukraine’s industrial capabilities.
In light of last year’s geopolitical developments, such as the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, how would you characterize Turkish-Ukrainian relations, and how does Ankara support Ukraine in these challenging times?
Since the commencement of the full-scale Russian invasion, Ankara has provided steadfast political support, even though there were no overtly harsh statements from the Turkish side. The commitment to preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity and considering Crimea as an integral part of Ukraine was clearly evident. The policy of non-recognition of the occupation of Crimea had been in place even before the February 2022 invasion.Turkey has been a significant supplier of humanitarian aid, with over two hundred trucks dispatched by the government and governmental institutions. Collaborations with NGOs and the Turkish community have also facilitated the relocation and support of over two thousand Ukrainian children, particularly orphans, in the southern part of Türkiye.
At the outset of the conflict, our sole provider of attack drones was the Turkish company Baykar, with whom we signed a relevant agreement in 2018. This partnership has been instrumental in training our pilots, who played a vital role in Ukraine’s defense, particularly during the initial stages. We have also engaged with other equipment suppliers. Notably, the decision to close the Turkish straits was of immense importance for Ukraine, as it prevented numerous Russian military ships, many of which were involved in aggression against Ukraine, from entering the Black Sea. As a result, Odesa and Mykolaiv were spared from potential Russian naval landing operations.
Another significant dimension is Türkiye’s mediation efforts between Ukraine and the aggressor. Türkiye stood as the sole country that brought the conflicting parties to the negotiation table. In March 2022, peace terms were discussed in Istanbul, however, the Russians failed to honor their commitments. Subsequent talks focused on a grain deal and the exchange of prisoners, with Ankara playing an active and instrumental role in facilitating agreements. Positive outcomes have been achieved, such as the sale of over 30 million tons of grain to foreign markets under the initiative “The Grain from Ukraine ». Additionally, prisoner swaps have taken place, and presently, five Azov detachment commanders remain in Türkiye as guests of President Erdogan, further exemplifying the successful mediation efforts.
How could you evaluate the progression of relations? Did the relations grow stronger after the Russian invasion or become colder? And Türkiye has been criticized over its relations with the Russians. What kind of role does it play in your bilateral relations?
In this aspect, Ankara has proven to be honest and understanding partner. It is important to acknowledge that we also have another facet to consider, which involves cooperation between Türkiye and Russia. Even prior to the war, we had established separate tracks of engagement. The Ukrainian-Turkish strategic partnership was developed based on our own interests, with ties to Russia and Türkiye not overlapping in this regard. While there have been a few instances where emotions may have come into play, we have addressed them privately. These instances were related to matters such as stolen grain from Crimea or attempts to bypass sanctions. However, in general, our approach has been to comprehend the dynamics and grounds of these relations.
And also every time I try to explain that when Erdogan engages in discussions with Putin, it is possible that he may also address issues concerning Ukrainian interests. It is evident that Türkiye prioritizes the implementation of its own interests in its dealings with Russia. Whether we approve or not, this practical dimension is an inherent aspect of the situation, and Türkiye establishes its own policies. Instead of merely creating perceptions of cooperation, it is more beneficial for us to focus on fostering practical collaboration. Here, we approach the situation from a more realistic standpoint, and we do not criticize the Turkish side for their connections with Russia. Rather, we engage in dialogue with them, urging them to fulfill their role as mediators by conveying our ideas and vision in order to facilitate the implementation of practical initiatives.
Türkiye has a diverse range of foreign policy priorities, including its relationships with NATO, the European Union, and its regional partners. From Ukraine’s perspective, what are the key aspects of Türkiye’s foreign policy that have the greatest impact on the bilateral relations between our two countries?
I consider Türkiye to be the easternmost part of the Western world, as it is a member of NATO, a candidate for the EU, and maintains strong connections with Western countries. This can be observed through the trade turnover, with more than 80% of trade linked to the US and the EU. Türkiye actively seeks to create opportunities for strengthening these relationships and strives to enhance them in its own interest. It aims to be a global player and engages with various regions around the world. Notably, Türkiye has a significant diplomatic presence and implements projects in Africa, demonstrates activity in Asian countries, and engages with the Americas. This reflects Türkiye’s internal desire to be a respected and influential player, supported not only by political declarations but also through practical cooperation.
For Ukraine, the strategic dimensions revolve around security and economics. Security is closely tied to NATO and its activities, and we believe that our relations will significantly strengthen if Ukraine becomes a NATO member. In this regard, we have the support of Türkiye in terms of our integration into the Euro-Atlantic space. The outcome of the NATO Vilnius Summit will shed light on the future course.
Regarding economic cooperation, it is crucial to enhance bilateral trade through the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and collaborate with the EU, which holds practical significance for Türkiye as well. Additionally, developments such as Black Sea security gain increasing importance, and we are confident that there will be more opportunities to strengthen our cooperation for the benefit of the entire European continent.
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