Turkey President Erdoğan on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the future of NATO

World leaders have begun assembling in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. Among the leaders who sit at the crossroads of many issues of global importance is Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. From Ukraine, to Russia, to NATO, he wields outsized influence in both the east and west. Judy Woodruff sat down with Erdoğan in New York.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    World leaders have began assembling in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly.

    Among the leaders who sit at the crossroads of many issues of global importance is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, or Turkey, as they pronounce it. From Ukraine to Russia to NATO, he wields outsized influence in both the east and the West.

    We sat down yesterday in New York.

    President Erdoğan, thank you very much for talking with us.

    I want to begin with a war in Ukraine, where, as you know, people are dying still every day. You have shown support for both sides, Russia and Ukraine. How do you think — who do you think has the upper hand right now?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkish President (through translator):

    Judy, first of all, who has the upper hand, Russia or Ukraine?

    As a leader, I'm not willing to consider this. All we want to do and what we want to see is to end this battle with peace, whether it be Mr. Putin, whether it be Mr. Zelenskyy. I have always requested and recommended this. This is a conflict that ended up in casualties. The people are dying, and nobody will be winning at the end of the day.

    And that's not what we're looking for.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, on the war, how do you see it? You said this week you believe it should end as soon as possible. How do you see it ending, and how quickly?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (through translator):

    Most importantly, Russian attitude will be very, very important here.

    In Uzbekistan, I got together with President Putin, and we had very extensive discussions with him. And he is actually showing me that he's willing to end this as soon as possible. That was my impression, because the way things are going right now are quite problematic; 200 hostages will be exchanged upon an agreement between the parties.

    I think a significant step will be taken forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Should Russia be permitted to keep some of the territory it's taken from Ukraine since it invaded in February? Should that be part of a solution to this — to this conflict?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (through translator):

    No, and undoubtedly no.

    When we talk about reciprocal agreement, this is what we mean. If a peace is going to be established in Ukraine, of course, the returning of the land that was invaded will become really important. This is what is expected. This is what is wanted. Mr. Putin has taken certain steps. We have taken certain steps.

    The lands which were invaded will be returned to Ukraine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Should Russia be allowed to keep Crimea?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (through translator):

    Since 2014, we have been talking to my dear friend Putin about this, and this is what we have requested from him.

    We asked him to return Crimea to its rightful owners. These are our descendants at the same time, the people who are living there. If you were to take this step forward, if you could leave us, you would also be relieving the Crimean Tatars and Ukraine as well. That's what we have always been saying.

    But since then, unfortunately, no step has been taken forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Does President Putin recognize that he miscalculated, that he greatly underestimated the will of the Ukrainian people to stand up for their own country?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (through translator):

    No leader in the aftermath would say that it was a mistake. Nobody will say, yes, I made a mistake.

    The same thing can be applied to Ukraine as well. Mr. Zelenskyy, do you think when he was moving forward, does he feel he made a mistake? The leaders, when they take a path, they will find it very difficult to go back? It's very difficult for the leaders to go back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Was this invasion justified by the Russians? Was it justified?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (through translator):

    Well, no invasion can be justified. An invasion cannot be justified.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Russians went in. And, in the last few days, as you know, Mr. President, there have been reports of horrific killings of civilians and soldiers, torture by Russian soldiers of Ukrainian civilians. They found mass graves where the Russian troops have left. Who should be held responsible? And should President Putin be held responsible?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (through translator):

    About this issue, the most ideal answer could be given as a result of the activities taken by the United Nations.

    With the activities of the United Nations, a light should be shared on these discussions. If that doesn't happen, as a leader of a country, it will be difficult for me to explain these issues, come up with a statement, or else it will bring us to our position as a country that does not follow a balanced foreign policy.

    We cannot hold sides. We cannot take sides. And it wouldn't be right for us to do that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If the U.N. investigations show that there is evidence that Russian soldiers committed these atrocities — and, as you know, there have been bombings of hospitals, schools, civilians across Ukraine — should President Putin himself be held responsible?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (through translator):

    If an investigation leads to that conclusion, Putin will show his reaction. It's not right to observe Putin as an entirely different person because he is prioritizing the interests of his country and he's fighting for his interests, for his country's interests.

    Right now, in the battle between these two countries, we are talking comprehensively with Putin. At the same time, we are talking comprehensively with Zelenskyy. And, at the same time, we are talking comprehensively with Guterres. And Guterres is actually talking to all the parties involved.

    If we are going to reach a conclusion, we are not going to reach that conclusion by taking sides. We are not going to defend a single leader. But, instead, we have to be looking for a conclusion that will satisfy all parties involved.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I understand what you're saying.

    At the same time, you're saying Putin is doing — Mr. Putin is doing what's in the interest of the Russian people, but does that include killing hundreds, thousands and many, many more of Ukrainian civilians?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (through translator):

    Judy, we have to see this for what it is. Not only the Ukrainians are dying, but there are so many casualties on the Russian side as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But they invaded.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (through translator):

    That's a different fact. Yes, it was done.

    But prior to the breaking out of this conflict, many things had happened. And with the conflict, things have unfolded tremendously. And now we are seeing a certain amount of diminishing casualties. The U.N. has to reach a conclusion as soon as possible. And upon that conclusion, we will be able to put forward our stance for what it is.

    That's why we are taking steps forward, in order to sort out this hostage crisis. And, at the same time, we are taking necessary steps forward in order to allow Ukrainian grain to leave the ports. And we reached a certain level. So it's not about pushing one person to the one side entirely and defending the other. This is not how we will cultivate results.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have blocked the admission to NATO of both Sweden and Finland and raised the issue of people you refer to as Kurdish terrorists.

    Are you close to resolving this? I know that they have asked Turkey to provide evidence that these people you want them to deal with are terrorists. But are you — first of all, are you close to an agreement? And if they don't accept whatever Turkey explains, are you prepared to just permanently block Sweden and Finland from joining?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (through translator):

    Here especially, Sweden has been a cradle for terrorism. And the terrorists have infiltrated all the way into their parliaments.

    And, in Stockholm, we see terrorists are demonstrating all the time. The banners, the poster of the leader of the terrorist organizations are abound. They are demonstrating. They're throwing slogans. And they're attacking the innocent Turkish descendants in Stockholm. And we have given all the evidence relevant to these developments to our Swedish interlocutors.

    Finland, on the other hand, they're not like Sweden. They're a bit more calm, and they have more control over the developments. But Sweden is not like that. They're always using certain reasons. They're always using certain excuses. They always talk about the Constitution. And, as the reigning principle of the Constitution, they value the freedom of expression.

    And, in return, I say terrorism has nothing to do with the freedom of expression. And the Turkish Parliament is the eventual decision-maker.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You will be facing the voters of your country next year for reelection. Do you believe you will win? Or could Turkey go in another direction?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (through translator):

    We have no concerns about winning the elections. Nobody will replace us, because there is no alternative.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I have to ask you because you're in the United States. And, as you know, we have had an election here in the last two years, where one of the people who was running did not accept the results and challenged them.

    Could you see something like that happening in Turkey?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (through translator):

    Well, these are common things. They happen all the time.

    There is losing by a great extent and there is not winning. But we are currently in such a position that we will be able to be triumphant.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last question.

    Your relationship with the United States, what shape would you say it's in?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (through translator):

    I can't say that our relations are ideal. Why? Because our trade volume with the United States is not supposed to be where it is today.

    And in the defense industry, we are not at the level that we desire. For example, we have the outstanding issue of F-16s. We have procured F-16s from the United States. But, instead, certain political decisions are being made, resulting in the imposition of sanctions upon Turkey. This is not very becoming of two friendly countries such as the U.S. and Turkey.

    We have spoken to the Republicans, and we have received the support of the Republicans. If we can't get the results out of the United States about the F-16s, what are we going to do? Of course, we're going to take care of our own selves.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Erdoğan, thank you very much for talking with us. We appreciate it.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan:

    Thank you.

  • (through translator):

    I would like to thank you so much.

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