Erdogan’s options on Ukraine are all risky
The Ukrainian crisis continues to dominate the international agenda. Its origins go back to 2008, when the US launched an initiative to open the way for the former Soviet countries — especially Ukraine and Georgia — to join NATO.
Following the reaction of the European members of NATO, this promise was transformed into a more vague commitment to be materialized at some time in the future. The move heartened many Ukrainians, but it also divided the country because there is a strong ethnic Russian community in Ukraine and many people supported cooperation with Moscow. As a result, many Ukrainians took to the streets to protest this initiative.
For its part, Russia continues to assert itself in the region and is attempting to regain as much influence as possible in its former backyard. Regarding Ukraine, it may resort to one of four different actions. One is to find a negotiated solution with Ukraine, while also involving NATO and/or the US. The second is to consolidate the self-declared autonomous status of Donetsk and Luhansk with the support of some of Russia’s client countries, as it did for Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Three is to stir up unrest in Ukraine and form a pro-Russian government. And the fourth option is an outright invasion, but this is an unlikely scenario.
Despite insistent reports, mainly from the US, claiming that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine, the Ukrainian authorities give the impression that they do not perceive such an imminent threat.
The Ukrainian defense minister said last week that tensions between Russia and Ukraine had not gotten any worse since last year and there were no signs that suggested Moscow was preparing an attack. Similarly, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry described as hasty the decisions of the US, UK and Australia to advise the family members of their diplomatic staff to leave Ukraine.
Last but not the least, media outlets on Friday claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had asked US President Joe Biden to tone down the warnings of a Russian invasion, saying he was creating unwanted panic. It is not realistic to assume that the Ukrainian president would be less aware of the threat his country is faced with.
A mediator’s role in such a complicated crisis requires tact and refined diplomacy.
Warmongering is the last thing that is needed at the present juncture. It is true that Russia last week moved another 6,000 soldiers to areas close to the Ukrainian border, saying that this was in preparation for a military drill. The Pentagon responded by announcing that 8,500 soldiers have been put on high alert for a possible deployment in Eastern Europe, but the entire exercise looks more like saber-rattling than a serious threat of war.
We do not know how many NATO countries would send troops to Ukraine to fight the Russians should war break out. The Croatian president has already announced that he would oppose sending his country’s troops. Many NATO countries might invent excuses for not participating in any war with Russia. Moscow does not directly threaten Western European countries. The threat is confined to Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries.
Turkey, partly because of disorientation and partly for the sake of playing a positive role, has volunteered to be part of the conciliation efforts in one of the most complex confrontations between the West and Russia, but does it possess the needed clout? It will again become a special case in this crisis. It is a NATO country, though many congressmen in the US consider Ankara to be a liability for the alliance rather than an asset. On the one hand, its role as a major NATO country will tilt the balance according to whichever position it takes in the conflict. On the other, it has vested interests in reconciling Russia and NATO. It cooperates with Russia in many areas, but it also cooperates with Ukraine in the military industry field. Armed drones manufactured by Turkey are pounding pro-Russian forces in the Donbas region. This position offers Ankara additional opportunities in terms of contributing to a solution, but a mediator’s role in such a complicated crisis requires tact and refined diplomacy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accepted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s invitation to visit Turkey on a date that has not yet been fixed. Putin will not miss the opportunity to dilute NATO solidarity and distance Ankara from Washington. Turkey may have volunteered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, but Moscow has shown little interest in such an initiative. Russia may prefer to sort this problem out with Washington, even by excluding other NATO allies. Turkey will find itself between a rock and a hard place. Turkey’s strategic importance in the eyes of the US may increase as a result of this crisis, but all the options it may choose are laden with risks.
– Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.