« The Turkish and Russian leaders have found themselves on opposite sides of a host of armed conflicts. In Ukraine, the stakes may be higher than ever » reports Carlotta Gall in The New York Times.
In the hours before dawn, as the world held its breath watching the first movements of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, the Turkish military made a last-minute dash to evacuate diplomatic staff and other citizens of Turkey from the capital, Kyiv.
Two military cargo planes entered Ukrainian airspace soon after midnight and circled down into Boryspil International Airport, the main civilian airport that lies 18 miles east of Kyiv city center.
But the planes ended up stranded. So too were their military crews, and the Turkish diplomats and citizens they were trying to evacuate. At 5 a.m., Russia unleashed the first salvos of its war on Ukraine, making any flight out impossible.
Pictures of the airport the next day, obtained from the commercial satellite imagery company Planet Labs, show two gray military cargo planes parked in the open at one side of the airport, which so far has not been a target of Russian airstrikes.
The stuck planes have now become Exhibit A of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s misreading of the Ukraine situation, opening him to criticism at home for not evacuating Turkish citizens in time, for misjudging President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and for not taking American warnings of an invasion seriously enough.
Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin have had a sometimes close, sometimes contentious relationship as the Turkish leader has cultivated links with Moscow — partly as leverage against the West, but also out of necessity, since Turkey is being squeezed from several sides by Russia.
Turkey is a NATO member, but so much distrust has built up because of Mr. Erdogan’s flirtations with Russia that it was not invited into at least one of the alliance’s leadership-level meetings before the Russian invasion, according to Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Russian troops in Syria have long threatened to press their offensive against the last rebel-held area in that country, which could force up to four million Syrians to flee into Turkey. And since 2020, the Russian military has expanded its footprint in the Caucasus region.
Now Russia looks poised to dominate the northern shores of the Black Sea with its advances in Ukraine, where Mr. Erdogan has irritated Russia by selling Turkish-made drones, some of which have been used to strike Russian armored convoys since the invasion began, according to Ukrainian officials.
Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin spoke on the telephone on Feb. 23, hours before the start of the invasion. Mr. Erdogan repeated his offer of mediation between Russia and Ukraine and reiterated his invitation to Mr. Putin to visit Istanbul for a meeting with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
“President Erdogan stated that he always attaches great importance to the close dialogue he established with Russian President Putin on regional issues, that they have seen the positive results of this and that he is determined to maintain this understanding,” an official statement from the Turkish presidency said.
Mr. Erdogan has maintained an even tone in his public statements over the situation, describing the invasion of Ukraine as “unacceptable” but continuing to call for a peaceful resolution.
But there is a sense of anger in Mr. Erdogan’s presidential circle that Mr. Putin lied to them about his intentions in Ukraine, Ms. Aydintasbas said.
“Turkey was late in taking action and evacuating its people,” Ms. Aydintasbas wrote in a text message, adding, “They never believed the U.S. scenario of a full-scale invasion and dismissed U.S. warnings.”.
“I suspect Erdogan trusted his relationship with Putin and thought it would be a minor incursion,” she added. “Turkey also failed to evacuate its citizens based on that belief. That’s proving to be a huge miscalculation.”
The situation seemed to have inspired a shift in Turkey’s stance toward Russia on Sunday, when both the Turkish foreign minister and head of presidential communications described Moscow’s intervention against Ukraine for the first time as an act of war.
Turkey oversees access to the Black Sea through the Montreux Convention, a 1936 international treaty that regulates sea vessels passing through the Bosporus. Defining the situation as war would allow Turkey to close the Bosporus to vessels of the countries involved.
There remains a loophole for Russia, since, as one of the littoral states on the Black Sea, it can claim the movement of vessels is for them to return to their home base. Russian warships and a submarine have already passed through to the Black Sea in recent weeks and have played a part in the attack on Ukraine, but Turkey’s action may complicate Russia’s ability to send reinforcements or resupply its forces.
“It’s not a game changer but it’s a nuisance for the Russians,” Ms. Aydintasbas said. “It’s a nuisance not to be able to have their Mediterranean fleet go up” the Bosporus to the Black Sea. The change in tone was “indicative of the sentiments in Turkey,” she added.
Not much is known about Turkey’s decision-making process in the last hours before the outbreak of war, but it is clear that Mr. Erdogan miscalculated the speed and the severity of the Russian operation, and the urgency for an evacuation.
According to flight-tracking records, two Turkish Air Force planes landed at Kyiv, one with the code TUAF600, at 12:15 a.m. on Thursday and the second, TUAF601, at 3:43 a.m., said Justin Bronk, a research fellow for air power and technology at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Two hours after the first plane landed, Ukraine announced that it was closing its airspace because of the impending Russian attack. The second Turkish plane appeared to turn back, missing its scheduled landing at 2:46 a.m., but then proceeded and landed about an hour later.
There are no flight records of the two military planes leaving in the hours after they landed, Mr. Bronk said. Both Ukraine and Russia had announced the closing of airspace by then, he noted.
The flights could have left unseen if the pilots turned off their transponders, Mr. Bronk said. But the satellite images seen by The New York Times indicate otherwise.
Turkey has been calling its citizens in Ukraine individually for the last month, urging them to leave, and is still trying to evacuate 6,600 citizens from the country, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday.
A Turkish student stuck in Kharkiv, a northeastern city that has come under the most intense assault, posted on Twitter to appeal for help on Saturday.
“We are a student community of 35 people in Ukraine/Kharkiv (this number is not the total number of students in Kharkiv),” the student, Ahmet Kagan Gumus, wrote. “3 of us were evacuated and now we are 32. For the first time, we hear the sounds of clashes, bombardments, helicopters and jets from very close.”
The predicament of Turkish citizens — students, tourists and business professionals — stuck in Ukraine as the war intensifies is not unique. Thousands of foreigners have been struggling to flee, including Afghan refugees, African students and employees of Western companies and embassies.
Turkey, like many other nations, is scrambling to rescue citizens who manage to travel overland out of Ukraine to neighboring countries, but the borders are clogged with tens of thousands of refugees and 20-mile tailbacks. Mr. Cavusoglu said that a Turkish Airlines plane was bringing home some who had succeeded in reaching Romania.
The Turkish defense minister, Hulusi Akar, demanded to speak to his Russian counterpart to arrange an air corridor for evacuations, Mr. Cavusoglu said. Mr. Akar did reach the Russian defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, on Sunday, according to an official Turkish statement.
But that statement made no mention of any agreement for an air corridor.
The New York Times, March 1, 2022, Carlotta Gall, Photo/Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images