The following was my summing-up of the Ukraine conflict seven years ago:
“News from Ukraine and Ukraine-related developments are not encouraging. The Minsk cease-fire remains fragile. Political and economic difficulties facing Ukraine show no sign of abating. The Government does not appear strong and determined enough. There has been no progress on the level of autonomy to be recognized to the separatist regions. The conflict between “federalization” and “decentralization” continues. Ukraine troops are now being trained by American officers. Russia’s naval deployments and air activity are becoming increasingly reminiscent of the Cold War. NATO is holding joint exercises in Poland, Lithuania, the US in Georgia. The Treaty on Alliance and Integration between Russia and South Ossetia has been submitted to the State Duma for ratification. The flow of immigrants and asylum seekers from Ukraine into EU countries is on the rise… The West continues to see Mr. Putin as an unpredictable leader determined not to allow Ukraine to chart its future. He says that he wants as close interaction as possible with the US, based on equal rights and mutual respect of interests and positions of each other. Both the West and Russia seemingly desire to put the Ukraine conflict behind and move forward but words and deeds do not match.” [i]
On March 18, Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping held a two-hour-long video conference. To put their meeting in perspective, one does not have to go back all the way to China’s “century of humiliation”, but a brief chronological look at the recent past, particularly the last year could be useful.
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.
Merriam-Webster defines “brinkmanship” as, “the art or practice of pushing a dangerous situation or confrontation to the limit of safety especially to force a desired outcome”, and “diplomacy” as “the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations”. However, I am inclined to see the former not as an art, but as a gambling game at the end of which, more often than not, there are no winners.
Now, with loss of life, devastation, displacement within Ukraine and into neighboring countries, “brinkmanship” in the Ukraine crisis has already gone beyond the limit of safety. So, it is time for diplomacy.
During the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western countries failed to help Moscow chart a new path. Some former members of the Warsaw Pact, which had remained forcibly under communist regimes since the end of the Second World War, others under Soviet occupation and yearning for independence, crossed over to the “other side” in exercising what was their indisputable right under international law. There were no written commitments of the kind Russia is demanding now regarding NATO expansion, but one may say in all fairness that at least an understanding was given. Ukraine’s leaders should have been in a better position than those in the West to know that their joining NATO was a real red line for Moscow. They could have waited longer to fulfill their aspiration to join the EU, for the post-Cold War European security architecture to evolve, Russia to digest the loss of an empire and waves of NATO expansion.
The Turkish Government has decided to close the Turkish Straits to all warships as a result of Russia’s military offensive against Ukraine. So, I thought that an updated version of a post I had written two years ago could be timely.
Two years ago, I was trying to draw attention to the risks of the politically, financially, and environmentally extravagant, and totally unnecessary “Canal Istanbul” project. With the decline of the Turkish economy, the project is unfortunately not dead yet, but it has moved way down on the Government’s agenda. Today, not only Turkey’s but the world’s attention is focused on the Russian offensive against Ukraine. Thus, the Montreux Convention has once again become a topic of interest. And this may prove the last nail in the coffin for the Canal Istanbul project.
In my last post, I said that President Putin would probably resist ordering a full-scale invasion of Ukraine because a bloody conflict will zero out his theory about the Russians and Ukrainians being one people. I proved wrong. It seems that the risks of leaving lasting scars on the Ukrainian psyche, the potential loss of life, and suffering did not stop him. Thus, despite repeated denials of any intention to take military action, President Putin ordered a premeditated full-scale invasion of Ukraine in defiance of international law, the UN Charter, and Russia’s own definition of the so-called rules-based international order. In the long term, even the people of Russia may see this invasion, not as a glorious conquest but as a sad chapter of Russian history.
It started with satellite photos of the Russian military buildup near Ukraine in early November 2021. Ever since, Russia and the West have been fighting a war of nerves with frenetic diplomacy accompanied by mutual accusations of spreading misinformation, allegations of false-flag operations, Western intelligence reports and statements at the highest levels predicting an imminent invasion, and Russian denials.
Although being overshadowed by the standoff in Ukraine, Turkish foreign policy has entered a remarkably busy period. Our leaders are paying visits to or receiving visitors from countries long considered adversaries. Ambassadors are probably getting ready to pack for their new posts. Moreover, Ankara is offering its good offices to Russia and Ukraine. All we hear is good news. The 0-15 age group could be impressed because, for the past ten years, they have only seen conflict, confrontation; they have only heard rhetoric, bravado, and talk about centers of evil trying to prevent Turkey’s rise as a global power.
Last week, Presidents Macron and Putin had a phone call. According to the Kremlin readout of the call, “at the French side’s initiative”, President Putin once again drew attention to the absence of a substantive response from the United States and NATO to the Russian initiatives. He also stressed the reluctance of the leading Western powers to encourage the Kyiv authorities to implement the Minsk agreements.