Vasyl Bodnar’s 23-year career in Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken him to Ukraine’s neighbors on all sides: north & east, serving in Moscow; west, serving in Warsaw; and now south, serving as Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey after an earlier posting there.

Considering Ukraine’s geopolitical priorities, it’s a plum assignment for Bodnar, who served as a deputy foreign minister since 2017 before two weeks ago moving to Ankara, the capital of Turkey.

After the United States and European Union, Turkey is arguably Ukraine’s most important strategic partner in the world. In some ways, the Black Sea neighbor surpasses both the U.S. and EU in importance because it is so vital to helping Ukraine reach its economic and security goals.

Turkey has been active and uncompromising in vowing to never recognize Russia’s illegal seizure in 2014 of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula after a brief military invasion. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has condemned the Kremlin’s ongoing repression of Crimean Tatars on the peninsula.

And, unlike some in the nervous West, Erdogan has been willing to supply Ukraine with weapons to defend itself against Russia’s war — now in its eighth year, with 7% of Ukrainian territory under the Kremlin’s control, more than 14,000 killed and 1.5 million people displaced. Ukraine carried out its first missile strike earlier this month using Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drone.

Moreover, the support of Turkey — a NATO member — is key to deterring further Russian military assaults through the Black Sea and keeping the sea open. Aside from the security component, Turkey is also Ukraine’s 5th largest trading partner, trailing only China, Poland, Russia and Germany. The goal is to hit $6 billion in bilateral trade this year on the way to the ultimate goal of at least $10 billion annually. And, Ukraine and Turkey both share an unsatisfying situation for both: Excluded from the European Union, but trying to get in.

‘Inspiring’ challenge

Nobody has to explain Turkey’s strategic importance to Bodnar.

“It’s attractive, challenging and very inspiring,” Bodnar said. “There are a number of huge and important tasks to complete, not only for the bilateral relationship but also for regional stability.”

To underscore the importance, Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have met at least a half-dozen times since Zelensky’s election in 2019. They last met on Sept. 21, 2021, in New York at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly. They are expected to meet again in Kyiv in early 2022 to kick off celebrations for the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

Tricky ties

Turkey, however, can be a tricky strategic partner whose behavior is not everything that Ukraine would hope.

For starters, Erdogan and Ukraine’s No. 1 enemy, Russian President Vladimir Putin, have been making nice — over arms sales, including Ankara’s purchase of Russian S400 missile defense systems, and mutual hostility toward the West. For another, Turkey refuses to join the West in economic sanctions against Russia — or any other country else, for that matter, as a part of longstanding policy.

But Ukraine is willing to overlook those drawbacks for the sake of stronger bilateral ties. “It’s better not to demand something that is impossible to achieve. It’s better to focus on what is realistic and profitable for both countries. I have more optimism than pessimism.” Bodnar said. Turkey’s longstanding antipathy to economic sanctions “is well known since 2014. Turkey is not going to join sanctions against their economic interests.”

Besides, with the threat of a deeper Russian military invasion from the Black Sea still very much real, “it’s essential to have Turkey on our side,” Bodnar said. “It’s one of the dangers we still witness — Russia’s Navy forces in the Black Sea region. We should be prepared to defend the coastline and land entrances from the peninsula and the Azov Sea. In defense, we are counting first of all on ourselves. It is only we who can defend ourselves.”

Keeping on Turkey’s good side is also why Ukraine did not object to Ankara’s purchase of Russian S400 missile defense systems. “We are not trying to link it to our bilateral relationship,” he said of the purchase that angered Turkey’s NATO allies. “That was their decision.”

Trade barriers

And, despite many years of tough negotiations, Ukraine and Turkey still have not reached a free trade agreement. To achieve such a pact, Bodnar said that Turkey must become less protectionist in its trade policies.

“Turkey’s market is closed, protected by high tariffs, preventing more products from Ukraine to have the possibility to enter the Turkish market,” Bodnar said. “It’s mostly liberalized on our side. It’s the only sticking point that doesn’t allow us to finalize the agreement.”

The current hope is to conclude a free trade agreement in early January, when the two nations celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations with another visit to Ukraine by Erdogan. Nonetheless, even without such a deal, greater defense industry cooperation, especially in the aviation industry, could add billions of dollars yearly to the bilateral trade total.

And the two nations continue to deepen tourism and other cultural ties, with a record two million Ukrainian visits to Turkey this year, with 300,000 Turks making the trip to Ukraine. No passports or visas are required on either side — internal ID documents are enough.

Russian experience

Bodnar worked in Ukraine’s Embassy in Moscow from 2000–2004, the early years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, when the Russian leader was attempting to get along with the West and not engaging in such a militaristic and aggressive foreign policy.

“The beginning of 2000 looked more democratic,” he recalled. It was a time when “no one could believe that we’d have Russia as an enemy.”

But all the signs were there if only they had been read properly. Even then, the Kremlin was suppressing democracy, dissent and the rights of minorities, and turning into the autocracy it is today.

While his Russian counterparts were “declaring Ukraine independent” and hailing the three “brotherhood nations” of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, Bodnar said “when you talked with them more honestly, there were a number of signals showing that neither the Ukrainian language nor the Ukrainian nation nor Ukraine’s independent status is satisfactory for the Russians. Internally, they didn’t agree with that.”

And so the world has what it has now: Putin defending his kleptocracy at home, invading neighboring countries and occupying their territory, and attacking the West’s democratic institutions at every opportunity.

“The great Russian policy is the reconstruction of the Soviet Union, 2.0,” Bodnar said. But he predicted that the Kremlin will fail because the Russian leaders are applying “previous methods to a new reality. They are losing from this. It’s a problem for their economy because sanctions actually work.”

He said Putin’s obsession with subjugating Ukraine is “the main topic of Russian neurosis” and the reason why he is “creating enemies” — Ukraine and the West — for internal political purposes. Ultimately, “all depends on our ability to defend ourselves and be strong enough to protect ourselves from a further invasion,” Bodnar said. The Kremlin’s “continuation of its aggressive policy will lead to losses for Russia and losses for the region. In the modern world, this won’t work as in previous ages.”

He also predicted that any further attempts by the Russian military to “capture new territories will bring more sanctions to Russia and not lead to any accomplishments.”

Turkish experience

Bodnar, besides overseeing Ukraine’s policy in Turkey as an acting department head from 2004–2006, Bodnar also lived in Turkey when he served as minister counselor at the embassy from 2013–2015.

He hopes that deepening tourism, cultural and religious ties will be a big part of his mission.

In his short time, he’s already met in Istanbul with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader to 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. Bartholomew endeared himself to Ukrainians by recognizing the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2018, to the chagrin of the Moscow Patriarchate.

He also met with the Ukrainian diaspora in Istanbul. An estimated 35,000 Ukrainians live in the nation of 82 million people. Many are women who married Turkish men, he said, but the community also includes professors and business leaders. He said an estimated that Turkey had 1.6 million tourism visits from Ukraine this year by September and the total could hit 2 million by year’s end, which would “actually be a record” number of visitors, he said, vaulting Ukraine into the ranks of the top three nations visiting Turkey.

Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Bondar doesn’t believe that Turkey will impose a lockdown that bans foreign tourism. “The signals are they will not close the country. They are pushing for more, stronger vaccinations and tougher measures on the streets. In comparison to Ukraine, there is a stronger and more disciplined attitude when it comes to wearing masks.”

If the pandemic allows, Bondar hopes to organize more historical, literary, scientific, theatrical and musical events, as well as so-called “cuisine diplomacy,” to celebrate each other’s specialty foods. “It’s always important to strengthen our cultural presence,” he said.

 

About Vasyl Bodnar 

Born: Sept. 20, 1976, Olesyne in Ternopil Oblast

Education: Lviv National University, International Relation Faculty (1998), Law Faculty (2003), the Netherlands Institute of International Relations “Clingendael” (1999) 

Languages: English, Polish, Russian

Married.

Professional career:

1998-2000 Attaché, Third secretary, Balkan Desk, MFA of Ukraine (Kyiv)
2000-2004 Third secretary, Second secretary, Embassy of Ukraine to the Russian Federation  (Moscow)
2004-2006 Acting Head of Turkey and South Caucasus Desk, MFA of Ukraine   (Kyiv)
2006-2010 First secretary, Counselor, Embassy of Ukraine to the Republic of Poland  (Warsaw)
2010-2012 Deputy Director General of the Third Territorial Department (Eastern and Northern Europe), MFA of Ukraine (Kyiv)
2013-2015 Minister Counselor, Embassy of Ukraine to the Republic of Turkey (Ankara)
2015-2017 Consul General of Ukraine in Istanbul, Representative of Ukraine to the BSEC Organization
February -November, 2017 Acting Director, Director of the Second European Department, MFA of Ukraine
November 2017 Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs

 

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