Top US diplomat looks to bolster Turkey ties as Ukraine war rages on

Victoria Nuland’s trip, the second for a senior US official to Ankara in a month, reflects ‘positive uptick’ in the relationship

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland testifies before a Senate Foreign Relation Committee hearing on Ukraine in Washington. Getty Images / AFP
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US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland held talks in Nato ally Turkey on Monday during a high-level visit to discuss Ankara's mediation efforts between Ukraine and Russia, and US-Turkish potential defence sales.

The trip is the second in a month for a senior US official, following Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to Ankara in early March.

It comes as the US seeks to improve ties with Turkey that have grown strained in recent years over Ankara's contentious decision to buy a Russian missile system, its exclusion from the F-35 fighter programme and other issues.

The US wants to “emphasise our unified support for Ukraine, and co-ordinate on our response to the Russian Federation's unprovoked war", the State Department said.

Turkey last week hosted talks in Istanbul between Russia and Ukraine.

The US delegation met Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal and reviewed "topics of mutual interest, including economic and defence co-operation, counterterrorism, and key areas of shared regional and global interest," the State Department said.

Experts saw Ms Nuland's visit as “significant” amid US efforts to gain more Turkish co-operation on Ukraine and against Russia, in return for better ties with Washington.

Soner Cagaptay, a historian and director of the Turkish programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pointed to a changed US-Turkish dynamic following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

“Russia's aggression towards Ukraine has awakened a sense of realism in Turkey towards Russia in general,” Mr Cagaptay told The National.

He said the war has reinforced a Turkish pivot towards the West, a public backing for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and continued sales of Turkey’s lethal Bayraktar drones.

Turkey has also blocked Russian warships from entering the Black Sea to join the fight, in line with an international treaty allowing Ankara to do so during times of war.

Ms Nuland’s visit, Mr Cagaptay argued, “is very significant because it reasserts the high-level US engagements with Turkey and because it is Nuland herself, a big strategic thinker in US government on Turkey and Russia".

But any thaw in the US relationship is not where Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan wants to it to be, the expert argued.

“He is craving more engagement with [US President Joe] Biden… even a visit [by Biden to Turkey] or an invite to the White House,” Mr Cagaptay said.

Such a narrative could go a long way in helping Mr Erdogan in next year’s elections by offsetting the economic woes Turkey is suffering.

The White House, however, despite a lengthy call between Mr Biden and Mr Erdogan last month, is still cautious about a Turkish rapprochement.

Washington would like to see Mr Erdogan abandon the S-400 Russian missile defence system before it removes related sanctions or readmit Turkey in the F-35 fighter jets consortium after expelling it in 2019.

But one area that Ms Nuland might be able broker on her visit, Mr Cagaptay said, is “finding the way forward with the F-16 jets” sale.

Turkey has showed interest in purchasing F-16s but faces opposition from the US Congress.

The visit could also produce more military co-operation on Ukraine, without any publicity, as Ankara still wants to avoid a full rupture with Moscow, and getting “its hands caught in the cookie jar", Mr Cagaptay said.

Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the political dimension of Turkey’s mediation efforts in Ukraine will be on Ms Nuland’s agenda.

Turkey, one of the few Nato countries to keep channels open with Russia, hosted two rounds of talks between senior Ukrainian and Russian officials in March.

“The US is keen to understand Turkish mediation efforts so that expectations on American actions are properly set,” Mr Stein told The National.

He explained that Washington is looking for a “verifiable end to the Russian invasion that is synced with Mr Zelenskyy’s demands and not some mushy peace agreement that sees the sanction regime weakened.”

Here, Mr Stein pointed to US concerns that Turkey is “more accepting of a mushy outcome” that could resemble the Astana talks on Syria that favoured Russia.

Ms Nuland will visit Greece, Cyprus and Germany following her stop in Ankara. US Under Secretary for Commerce Marisa Lago will arrive in Turkey on Tuesday to discuss trade and investment ties.

A larger interagency US delegation is accompanying Ms Nuland on her meetings.

It includes Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs Ilan Goldenberg, Deputy Assistant Secretaries Erika Olson, Karen Sasahara and Jennifer Gavito.

Updated: April 04, 2022, 6:00 PM