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Turkey's president wishes to maintain friendly ties with Russia and Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A potential invasion of Ukraine would shake up relationships among many world leaders. Turkey is just across the Black Sea from Ukraine. And while Turkey is a NATO member, it also worked with Russia. Turkey's leader plans to go to Ukraine this week, but he's in a tough spot, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long sought to portray Turkey as an important player in both Europe and the Middle East. Last week, with the world watching to see if Russia would invade Ukraine, Erdogan said he'd go to Ukraine and would also speak with Russia's Vladimir Putin in hopes of lowering tensions.

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PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Now I have a visit to Ukraine in front of me. In the meantime, maybe a visit to Moscow will take place or talking over the phone with Mr. Putin. Above all, we want peace to prevail in the region.

KENYON: Sinan Ulgen, with the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, sees potential hostilities between Russia and Ukraine as a very unwanted development for Turkey. Ankara is involved with Moscow in Syria and elsewhere, while at the same time maintaining strong defense ties with Ukraine, including the sale of armed Turkish drones. Ulgen says it would be, quote, "incredibly difficult" for Ankara to choose between those two relationships. Beyond that, Ulgen says Moscow's overarching goals go well beyond Ukraine. It's demands include no further eastward movement by NATO and no more NATO weapons in former Soviet states. These, he says, are not topics Turkey should expect to mediate.

SINAN ULGEN: And then Moscow wants to deal with Washington directly and to some extent with NATO. So in that sense, there is no real role for a country like Turkey because the issue is not about the status of Ukraine solely.

KENYON: The Ukraine crisis could also mark a turning point in relations between Erdogan and Putin, says analyst Soner Cagaptay at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Erdogan has pursued a path of strong support for Ukraine, while at the same time remaining an ally to Moscow. But if, for instance, Ankara keeps selling armed drones to Ukraine, Cagaptay says Putin has a powerful economic weapon at his disposal - the annual summer flood of Russian tourists to Turkey's Aegean coast and holiday resorts.

SONER CAGAPTAY: Putin can easily put in place tourism sanctions, a boycott of Turkey and economic and trade sanctions. Those would cripple growth prospects, and Turkey's economy is in dire straits right now. Erdogan wants to return strong growth in the runup to 2023 presidential elections. And if he cannot deliver growth, he can't win.

KENYON: Cagaptay says, so far, Turkey's sounding like a loyal NATO member, ready to do its part. But he wonders how far Erdogan would be willing to challenge Putin, even if the request comes from President Joe Biden.

CAGAPTAY: I think, in this case, Turkish President Erdogan has found himself in a pickle. Biden will probably ask him to support U.S. regarding Ukraine, but Erdogan will probably stay quiet because he does not want to pick up a fight with Putin at this moment - a fight that would hurt him, hurt Turkey's economy and definitely hurt Erdogan's reelection prospects.

KENYON: In the meantime, he says, Erdogan's main goal will be to find ways to keep tensions from escalating further.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "LIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.