October 3, 2022
More than four years ago I said:
“The Ukraine conflict dealt a blow to Russia-West relations, more severe than the one dealt by the Russia-Georgia war of 2008. It has led to greater turbulence. Because, while Georgia is located at the eastern end of the Black Sea, Ukraine is a European country, and four NATO nations, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are Ukraine’s neighbors. Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia border Russia. All three are dependent on Russian natural gas and the last two are home to a substantial number of ethnic Russians. In other words, they have reasons to worry.
“Georgia and Ukraine conflicts may not be identical. Yet, both have turned into frozen conflicts, and South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Crimea are lost to these countries. Although the West often reiterates that it does not recognize the annexation of Crimea, there is little it can do to reverse it. And Georgia remains beyond West’s reach. While the US, China, and Russia continue to engage in competition as global powers they appear to admit the impossibility of making decisive interventions in the immediate periphery of the other two as shown by the Georgia and Ukraine conflicts”.
Four years after the loss of Crimea came what Moscow calls a “special military operation”. Looking back at the past seven months I cannot but conclude that this was a good choice for a variety of reasons. Primarily because as everyone now seems to agree, the initial purpose of this operation was regime change in Kyiv and a fundamental reorientation of Ukraine’s relations with the West in a way to serve Russian interests. Moscow has so far failed to achieve that. Had they called it a “war of conquest”, the entire operation would have been a worse failure.
Last Friday, a ceremony for signing the treaties on the accession of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Lugansk People’s Republic, the Zaporozhye Region, and the Kherson Region to the Russian Federation took place in the Grand Kremlin Palace’s St George Hall.[i]
President Putin said:
“I want the Kiev authorities and their true handlers in the West to hear me now, and I want everyone to remember this: the people living in Lugansk and Donetsk, in Kherson and Zaporozhye have become our citizens, forever. (Applause.)
“We call on the Kiev regime to immediately cease fire and all hostilities; to end the war it unleashed back in 2014 and return to the negotiating table. We are ready for this, as we have said more than once. But the choice of the people in Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhye and Kherson will not be discussed. The decision has been made, and Russia will not betray it. (Applause.) Kiev’s current authorities should respect this free expression of the people’s will; there is no other way. This is the only way to peace.”
I have for long held the view that the US, China, and Russia while engaging in strategic competition as global powers, are unable to undertake decisive interventions in the immediate periphery of the other two. Yes, the US and its Western allies helped Ukraine avert total defeat to Russia, push Russian forces back, and inflict losses, but unfortunately, Ukraine has again suffered irretrievable loss of territory. For some, this much would be already constitutes more than a decisive intervention. Considering the loss of territory, loss of life, suffering, and devastation caused, I beg to differ.
Last April, US Secretary of Defense Austin said, “We want to see Ukraine remain a sovereign country, a democratic country able to protect its sovereign territory. We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Indeed, Russia is weakened but perhaps not to the degree Secretary Austin had in mind. And this is why I continue to advocate a more cautious US/UK approach to Hong Kong and Taiwan as they do not border NATO territory. Does this mean that China is free to do whatever it chooses in Taiwan? No. But constructive diplomatic engagement is a better choice than a war of words which carries the risk of escalation to military conflict.
The question is “what now?” Obviously, a quick return by Kyiv and its leading Western supporters to the negotiation table is an impossibility in view of the Russian annexation of more Ukrainian territory. Thus, the fighting is likely to continue into the winter months. Moreover, this is going to be a tough winter for the people of Ukraine, European nations, and the world as well. A global recession with soaring food and energy prices will inevitably lead a majority of countries in faraway regions to say that enough is enough and that this is not their war. Probably, such a reaction is among President Putin’s expectations for the near term.
The question is where can these countries possibly turn to? A dysfunctional UN? Washington? Or Beijing? How much do the citizens of democratic EU countries know about the cabinet-level discussions in their capitals? Are they not entitled to more? What is Washington’s game plan for the next six months? Does the recent annexation of Ukrainian territories mark the end of Russia’s “special military operation” or not? Is “protracted-war” becoming the reality? If so at what cost?
I do not have the answers to the foregoing but I wish to underline a problem. At present, accompanying the fighting on the battlefield is a relentless propaganda war. This propaganda war is about atrocities, rape, murder of civilians, and mass graves. The sad reality is that war zones have never been stages for the display of compassion, generosity, and respect for innocent life. All the wars of the last century only testify to that. But propaganda wars beyond a certain point are a bad investment in the future of nations that have no other option than to live side by side. When propaganda becomes or is treated as written history, genuine reconciliation becomes mission impossible.
As a retired Turkish diplomat, I know full well that dealing with the lasting consequences of the propaganda war waged against the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the decades leading to the First World War, has remained a challenge for Turkey’s Republican diplomacy despite the chivalrous memories of the Battle of Gallipoli still celebrated together by former enemies. Because the West still views its propaganda campaigns of the past as written history.
Lowering the intensity of the Russia-West propaganda war could be the first step to opening the door to diplomacy in the Ukraine conflict.
But the only thing I know for sure is that, sometime in the future, when the conflict reaches a dead end, will come the West’s day of reckoning with the Ukraine tragedy. And by all indications, it will be a day of acrimony.