How Turkey's Move To Free Ukrainian Commanders Strained Ties With Russia
Turkey's decision to send five Ukrainian commanders home with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Saturday has sparked a diplomatic row with Russia, which accused Ankara of violating a prisoner exchange agreement and threatened to end a Black Sea grain export deal.
The five men were part of the Azov unit, a volunteer battalion that fought against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. They were captured by Russian forces in 2022 during the siege of Mariupol, a strategic port city that Russia eventually took over after killing thousands of civilians.
The Azov commanders were released in September 2022 as part of a prisoner swap brokered by Turkey and the United Nations but were required to stay in Turkey until the end of the war, according to the terms of the agreement.
Zelenskiy, who visited Turkey on Saturday to discuss trade and security issues, surprised Moscow by bringing the five men back to Ukraine on his plane. He said he had asked Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to let them go as a gesture of goodwill.
"I am grateful to my friend Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his support and solidarity with Ukraine", Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter. "These are our heroes who defended Mariupol and did not give up even when they were captured".
Russia reacted angrily to Turkey's move, saying it had breached the prisoner exchange deal and had not informed Moscow in advance. Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov said Turkey had "violated agreements" and "created additional problems" in the already tense relations between Russia and Ukraine.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it had summoned the Turkish ambassador to protest the decision and had discussed the issue with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan in a phone call on Sunday.
The ministry said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Fidan has also talked about the situation in Ukraine and the Black Sea grain export agreement, which is due to expire on July 17.
The agreement, signed in 2022, lifted a Russian de facto blockade of Ukrainian ports that had hampered Kyiv's ability to sell its agricultural products abroad. The deal also allowed Russia to export its own grain and fertilizer through Turkey.
However, Moscow has threatened to quit the agreement, saying Kyiv has not fulfilled its obligations to facilitate Russian exports. Erdogan said on Saturday he was pressing Russia to extend the deal by at least three months, calling it "very important" for both countries.
Turkey has tried to balance its relations with Russia and Ukraine, which are both important trade partners and regional allies. Ankara has supported Kyiv's territorial integrity and sovereignty but has also coopered with Moscow on energy and defense projects.
Turkey's move to free the Ukrainian commanders may have been intended to show solidarity with Kyiv and to boost Zelenskiy's popularity at home, where he faces criticism for his handling of the war and the economy.
However, it may have jeopardized Turkey's ties with Russia, which could retaliate by cutting off grain suppliers or imposing sanctions. The move may also complicate Turkey's role as a mediator in the conflict.