There is a different kind of Russian influx into the Bosphorus these days. Thousands of fleeing Russians have arrived in Istanbul in hopes of escaping an economy collapsing due to sanctions and a country mesmerized by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-Orwellian spell. Among them are artists, academics and software workers.
“I took the first Airbnb I found,” said a Russian academic I recently met for coffee. In Istanbul, he might call the Russian assault on Ukraine a “war”, but at home it is a “special military operation” – and anyone who says otherwise faces 15 years’ imprisonment.
Russian exiles aren’t the only ones in town. This week, a delegation of Russian negotiators met their Ukrainian counterparts in the Dolmabahce Palace, an Ottoman-era administrative building also on the Bosphorus. The two sides met several times in Belarus and in video calls, with no concrete results, but Turkish officials who met both delegations here saw signs of progress and a new tone from the Russian side. The Russian defense ministry said Tuesday it would “drastically reduce” the military encirclement of the Ukrainian cities of Kiev and Chernihiv, focusing instead on the Donbas.
Turkish officials think these small steps could pave the way for a potential meeting between Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, the charismatic president of Ukraine, within weeks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said Putin needs an “honorable exit” and his advisers believe the gap on some issues is narrowing.
But the Ukrainians are skeptical. They fear Russia is playing well because she is bogged down in Kiev and other parts of the country where Ukrainian resistance has been stiff. They believe that Russia’s move is meant to slow Ukrainian military progress in reclaiming some key cities and that the Russians want a respite just to resupply and receive a new round of recruitments scheduled for mid-April.
The truth is probably somewhere in between: the Russians still have military goals they hope to achieve and the war is far from over, but progress has also been made on some important issues. The secret ingredient to any ceasefire agreement will likely have to be the tacit commitment of the United States: the Biden administration signals that ending the war would bring Russia conditional and incremental relief from sanctions. And this is not yet on the table.
Dissidents and official delegations are not the only Russians in the city. Russian politicians and oligarchs – and their boats – are also slowly showing up. A yacht linked to former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev reportedly docked at an Istanbul marina – incidentally, a stone’s throw from where Russians and Ottomans signed an armistice that ended the Russo-Turkish war. of 1877-1878, with the Turks having to sign off what is now Bulgaria.
Then there’s Roman Abramovich, the sanctioned Russian oligarch who somehow made his way into the peace talks. Turkish officials say Abramovich was helpful in holding this week’s meeting and was treated in a Turkish hospital for suspected poisoning. Meanwhile, in recent days, his two superyachts have docked in the Turkish ports of the Mediterranean.
It cannot be denied that Ankara appears eager to provide a safe haven for the Russian oligarchs, their boats and their money. Erdogan said this week: “We will keep the doors open to capital groups who would like to park their potential in Turkey”, leaving no mystery about Turkey’s intentions. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said: “If it is legal and it is not contrary to international law, I will consider [it]. “
At the start of the war, Ankara’s balance between Russia and Ukraine seemed like a risky move, with Turkey selling armed drones to Ukraine as it sought to preserve its difficult partnership with Putin. The Turks felt vulnerable to Moscow, worried about their fragile economy and prepared for turbulent times.
But despite all its tragedy, the war itself appears to have alleviated Turkey’s dilemma. It has provided new capital for Turkey’s creaky economy, a new opportunity to mend Turkey’s ties with the West, and a new role for Turkey’s president by offering good offices to both sides in the conflict. For once, Turkey has managed to maintain a delicate geopolitical balance. Perhaps, if one side or the other pushes for victory, or if the West tires of Turkey’s semi-neutrality, Ankara will once again lose balance.
But for now, the sweet Slavic buzz coming from the various Russians strolling along the Bosphorus sounds sweet to Turkish ears.