March 15, 2022
Western countries are experiencing a shock because it is for the first time since the end of the Second World War that the continent is witnessing a major armed conflict, the only exception being the break-up of Yugoslavia and the NATO airstrikes in March 1999, the first military operation against a European country in the history of the Alliance. Since 1945, wars were fought elsewhere, in Korea, Algeria, Vietnam, and in recent decades mostly in the broad Middle East. Europe’s immediate problem was to prevent Middle East refugees, escaping the tragic consequences of Western military interventions, from reaching its shores. Thus, post-war stability had led many to believe that war had become obsolete in Europe. Not anymore.
Russia’s invasion is now gathering momentum, targets in western Ukraine are being hit, and attempts to bring hostilities to an end have failed so far. Some observers in Turkey use an African proverb to describe the invasion of Ukraine and underline the suffering of the Ukrainian people. They say, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” While appreciating the allure of this proverb, I would hesitate to use it in the context of the current war because in Ukraine as one elephant keeps trampling the grass, the second one remains on the other side of a deep river too dangerous to cross.
On March 10, in an interview with the French LCI TV channel, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Joseph Borrell admitted that the West had made mistakes when building relations with Russia, the people of Russia had tough times and President Putin was now exploiting their grudge against the West. “Thus, we lost the opportunity to bring Russia closer to the West in order to deter it,” he said.[i]
In response to a question regarding Ukraine becoming a member of NATO, “There are moments in which we could have reacted better. For example, we proposed things that we could not guarantee, in particular Ukraine’s accession to NATO. This was never realized. I think it was a mistake to make promises that we could not fulfill,” he said. And in response to another question whether continuing military support to Ukraine means a state of belligerency, he said “No, we are not at war with Russia.”
Was this ALSO an admission that the West had failed to read the lessons of the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 and the annexation of Crimea by Russia correctly? Yes. Do these justify the invasion of Ukraine? No, absolutely not.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov recently said that shipments of Western weapons to Ukraine are complicating the situation and making weapons convoys legitimate targets for the Russian forces.
“We have warned the US that the US-orchestrated inundation of Ukraine with weapons from some countries is not just a dangerous move, but also an action that makes these convoys legitimate targets,” he told Russia’s Channel One TV.
Russia’s westernmost airstrike on a Ukrainian military base near the Polish border killing dozens and wounding more than a hundred only showed that this was not an empty threat.
As for peace initiatives, President Macron and Chancellor Scholz continue their trilateral phone calls with President Putin. There must also be some behind closed doors exchanges between Moscow and Washington but so far these do not appear to have yielded tangible results.
In an earlier post, I said that President Putin has invested a lot in Russia’s relationship with Turkey and one should not be surprised if he were to allow Ankara a diplomatic role in the Ukraine conflict.[ii] Thus, the Turkey-Russia-Ukraine trilateral Foreign Ministers Meeting was held on March 10, 2022, in Antalya. But it was clear that Mr. Lavrov had not traveled to Antalya to negotiate an immediate ceasefire.
In remarks to the press after the meeting, he said that the idea of such a trilateral meeting was raised by President Erdogan during a conversation with President Putin and the Russian side accepted that proposal because they stand ready for any contacts on the fundamental issues of the current Ukrainian crisis and on issues connected to looking for ways out of it. But he also said:
“The only thing we made clear straight away was that these contacts must have added value. We believe that they must not be used, first of all by our Ukrainian colleagues who often try to do things like that, to replace or devalue the main existing negotiations track, which is taking place in Belarus between two delegations approved by the presidents of Russia and Ukraine.
“Our meeting today has confirmed that there is no alternative to this track.”
Yesterday, Mr. Lavrov’s predecessor former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov signed his name to the co-authored “Statement by the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group (EASLG) Co-Conveners: Ukraine and reducing nuclear risks”. [iii] The Statement says dialogue, diplomacy, and negotiations are the only acceptable route to resolving the conflict in a way that can stand the test of time.
After having served for ten years as his country’s ambassador to the UN, and eighteen years at the helm of Russian diplomacy, only second to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko (1957–1985), it is hard to imagine that Foreign Minister Lavrov would think differently.
Regardless of his underlining of the talks at the Belarus border as “the main existing negotiations track”, the Antalya trilateral was the first meeting at this level between Russia and Ukraine, so a positive development. Turkey needs to keep trying and joining hands with others in the quest for peace. Ankara should remain on this path also because the unprecedented Western sanctions against Russia are a declaration of economic war with serious consequences for global food and energy supplies. And wars in the immediate neighborhood and sanctions not only impact the targeted countries, but also regional countries as we know very well in Turkey.
Hopefully, the direct talks between Ukraine and Russia would soon result in a ceasefire because if the fighting were to turn into urban warfare, loss of life and devastation would reach even more dramatic levels. And if the “volunteers” from all over were allowed to join the battles in Ukraine, the picture would only get uglier.
With the war raging in Ukraine pundits have started to speculate on a new global order, on security architectures in Europe and beyond. While this is only understandable, there are still many questions with no answers: How would things evolve in Russia in the medium term? Would Putinism survive without President Putin? What would mainstream Russians think about this war once they have access to more information? What about transatlantic relations? Since the Second World War Europe has relied heavily on US defense support, but this comes at a cost. It allows European diplomacy only a secondary role. Would Europe be able to change this? Do the US and the EU see China through the same prism? What about the economic dimension of strategic competition?
Pundits in Turkey share the opinion that Russia’s assault on Ukraine has highlighted once again Turkey’s strategic importance. I agree, but I wish the occasion had been a happier one. I cannot help asking myself, “what if Turkey had also managed to remain on the democratic path?”
I hope that Ankara’s current diplomatic flurry is a first step towards restoring Ataturk’s Republican foreign policy. But we must not forget that while international developments highlight Turkey’s strategic value, the key to reinforcing our global status is the restoration of our democracy.