The ongoing crisis between Ukraine and Russia was exacerbated once again on March 26, 2021, when 4 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the attack by Russian separatist forces in Donbass in the East of Ukraine. It is also known that Russian armed forces are deployed close to the Ukrainian borders. This shows that war drums beat to action in the region. At the same time, diplomatic efforts continue in the region.
Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM) presents the opinions of leading experts and academics in their fields to evaluate the increasing tension in the Ukraine-Russia line and the regional and global reflections of this tension.
Assoc. Prof. Nuri KORKMAZ (ANKASAM Consultant on EU and Balkans)
Stating that the events between Ukraine and Russia can be associated with Joe Biden’s presidency of the United States of America (USA), Assoc. Prof. Nuri Korkmaz said, “At the Munich Security Conference, Biden said that the United States has returned. It is perceived that the U.S. does not want European countries to cooperate with Russia and cannot accept it. Therefore, the U.S. is trying to exacerbate the crisis through Ukraine to which European countries can easily react. In doing so, it tries to deepen the Russian-European Union (EU) polarization. Washington believes that it would have the support of the EU. That is why Washington loudly expresses its support for Ukraine.”
Korkmaz said, “The reason why Ukraine is crying out loud is due to the presence of the Russian military power in the region and the almost complete loss of control of the Donbass Region. Ukraine is bolder towards Russia, relying on US support. However, both Russia and Ukraine have stated that there will be no war between Ukraine and Russia because the marriages between the two countries are extremely high and they share a common history. Yet, the question comes to mind: With the US involvement in a war that seems to be between Ukraine and Russia, can the issue turn into a war between the West and Russia? Certainly, Moscow would not want a war in which NATO would be involved.”
Reminding that one of the issues that should not be forgotten in this crisis is the situation in Crimea, Korkmaz said, “The West decisively wants to end the Russian annexation in Crimea for the first time since 2014. Western states consider the annexation illegal and desire it to be ended. Perhaps Russia will not be the only major actor in the region in the future. The U.S. is making a serious weapon supply to both Greece and Romania. However, countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Poland do not want to come to the point of war in such crises. Considering the economic difficulties in all countries with the pandemic process, they definitely do not want a war with Russia. At the same time, regarding the expectations of Russia in Transnistria, the USA’s arms shipment to Romania puts this country in danger. In such case, Romania becomes an obvious target. Moreover, in the event of a certain war, NATO is very limited in what it can do.”
Prof. Mehmet Sait DİLEK (Atatürk University-International Relations)
Stating that a reflection of the geopolitical struggle between the NATO-EU duo and Russia in the post-Cold War period is also seen in the Ukrainian example (NATO Military Exercises-Eastern Partnership Proposal), Prof. Mehmet Sait Dilek said, “While the Western states are getting closer to the borders of Russia, sometimes with the policy of engagement and sometimes with the expansion strategies, as the country with the largest surface area in the world, Russia’s geopolitical sensitivities and security concerns have been prioritized through the doctrine of the immediate surrounding. Hence Kremlin has followed a foreign policy strategy that challenges the West through the examples of Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.”
Evaluating the Russian-Ukrainian tension in general terms, Dilek said, “It is striking that the risk of war is increasing day by day with the intervention of the Russian Army in the Crimean Peninsula where Russophone influence was strong with an unidentified/hybrid model and in the Donbass region (Donetsk and Lugansk) located in the east of Ukraine. Turning the internal crisis in Ukraine into international, annexing Sevastopol and Crimea to Russia in violation of international legal rules and Ukrainian domestic law, and that the U.S. and the EU continued to suppress Russia through economic sanctions; the Minsk Agreements were signed on the possibility of the tensions turning into a big war in the line of contact between the pro-Russian groups operating in the Donbass region and the Ukrainian forces, and finally, despite these agreements, the ceasefire conditions were not fulfilled.
Finally, Dilek added, “After all, it is inevitable that tensions will continue in the East Ukrainian land under these conditions. That is why the parties should adopt a rational and a dialogue friendly model to prevent the current situation to exacerbate. With the positive and multilateral diplomacy method, it will be possible to establish an environment of peace in Eastern Ukraine with a ceasefire first and then a final agreement.”
Assoc. Prof. Oktay BİNGÖL (Retired Brig. Gen.)
Emphasizing that the crisis between Ukraine and Russia has been continuing for a long time, Retired Brigadier General Oktay Bingöl said, “The crisis started after the expansion of NATO and the European Union (EU) towards the vacuum created by the collapse of the USSR. The crisis, which started with the membership of the countries in the region, continues. Especially with the discussions on the membership of Georgia and Ukraine to NATO in 2008, Russia’s concerns about containment by the West in the region increased. As a matter of fact, Russia first made a military intervention against Georgia in 2008 and occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia.”
Stating that Ukraine constitutes another concern for Russia as it thinks that is contained by the West, Bingöl said, “Belarus and Ukraine are two countries that give Russia a strategic depth in Europe and they are important in this respect. Baltic countries were also important to Russia’s vision; but these countries became members of NATO and the EU after 1990, before Russia could recover. Moscow has no problem with the stance of Belarus for now. However, Ukraine wants to join NATO and the EU. Moscow, on the other hand, regards this as the loss of strategic depth. Russia perceives direct neighbors with the EU and NATO as a threat because it sees it risky for the security and continuation of its regime.”
Emphasizing that since the 2000s, Russia frequently resorted to acts contrary to international law in its foreign policy and its interventions in neighboring countries and these actions were not based on Russian expansionism but they should be interpreted through the strategic defense approach. Bingöl said, “There has always been analyzes, evaluations and discourses that Russia is trying to re-establish the Soviet Union or the Russian Tsarism. However, I think these do not reflect the truth. Russia acts with defensive motives, survival problem and with the aim of keeping the federation together. Thus, Moscow perceives the movements of the West as containment and therefore a threat. However, because Russia has nuclear weapons, the West cannot take very heavy measures. Indeed, economic sanctions by the Western states also puts Russia in a problematic place. However, these measures are not enough for now to remove Russia from the lands it annexed. The important point is that as Russia gets weaker, it will have no choice but to leave the regions it occupied.”
Referring to the economic capacity of Russia, Bingöl said, “The annexation of Crimea, the support of separatist groups in Ukraine and the government in Syria, the involvement in Libya and the policies implemented in Georgia cost a huge economic and military expense to Russia. Moscow does not have the power to keep its interests in the Middle East and Africa, both in Syria and Central Asia, through occupation and military intervention. It can be powerful in terms of weapon but that does not make up for everything. The economy must also be strong. Russia does not have a strong economy that can afford so many costs. Therefore, examining this issue only in Ukraine would bring wrong conclusions.”
Finally, Bingöl concluded, “Russia is in a troubled situation both economically and in domestic politics. Russia has an economy dependent on energy exports. Price changes in natural gas and oil put Moscow in a difficult position. Therefore, considering all these, it should not be thought that Russia could do any further. In other words, as stated in the news, it is not very realistic for Russia to have a build-up of 100,000 soldiers on the Ukrainian border. Besides, Russia does not have a large number of soldiers that can pile up in one region. There is a shortage of personnel in the army and people do not want to enlist. Most of the news in the press are allegations made by both the West and Russia for propaganda purposes. However, neither Moscow nor Washington can risk war.”
Halil Akıncı (Ambassador, Retired)
In his statement, Ambassador Halil Akıncı said, “The Ukrainian Cossacks took an oath of allegiance to the Tsar of Russia in a meeting where the Tsar’s representative was also present in the city of Preyaslav in 1654. Later, the oath was turned into a treaty and the Tsar started to use the title of ruler of “all the Russians” after this date. Crimea was given as a “gift” to Ukraine due to the 300th anniversary of the treaty in 1954. Therefore, Russia could not accept the Slavic State, which joined it voluntarily, to become a rival by making a different geopolitical choice. That is why Moscow has tried to tame Ukraine, which is trying to get closer to the West, with various measures, and when it comes to NATO membership, it has encouraged separatists to take the land (Crimea).”
Akıncı also added, “The West, aiming to balance Russia in the Black Sea, even though the U.S. could not afford direct aid or war, did not hesitate to provoke Ukraine. Therefore, it seems that the crisis between the two countries will continue for a long time.”
Emphasizing that the permanent tolerance that Russia can give Ukraine is Finlandization, Akıncı said, “In this formula, Moscow does not interfere with the economic relations of the regime that it chose, as the Soviet Union did with Finland at the time; however, it does not allow the country to join a group or alliance against it.” Stating that it is a very remote possibility for the two states to get in war directly, Akıncı emphasized that Russia will continue to accumulate deterrent soldiers and send “volunteers” to the border, and in turn Ukraine will try to protect its territorial integrity.
Akıncı, “Turkey should not legally recognize the principle of annexation. The existence of an independent Ukraine is very important for balance in Black Sea. There is no justification for Russia’s hidden/open sanctions on tourism and on other areas to harm us as well as being self-righteous to engage in the occasional use of weapons against Turkey in Syria, Libya and the Mediterranean. Turkey must find a way to deal with the consequences as it happened with the shooting down of the Russian warplane and put a brave front on Russia. This kind of behavior of Russia would undermine the trust of Turkey, it should be explained to Russia that the problem areas should be cast aside and the relations need to be improved on the agreed issues. In this regard, Turkey should not debate Montreux regime that secure peace and stability in the Black Sea for many years and should continue to carry out strictly, independent of other relationships and approaches.”
Deniz Berktay (Journalist and Eastern Europe Specialist)
Journalist Deniz Berktay, in his statement on the subject, said: “I regard the statements that there will be a war between Ukraine and Russia as hasty evaluations despite everything. There are two problematic regions between the two countries. The first is the Crimean Peninsula. Taking advantage of the chaotic environment in Ukraine in 2014 when pro-Western groups overthrew the Former President Viktor Yanukovych and seizing the power, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, which was of great importance for itself and the Russian Black Sea Fleet was using the Sevastopol Naval Base on lease. Russia defends that Crimea has become its own land and refuses to negotiate this issue. However, there is no armed conflict in Crimea. The second matter is Donbass. Immediately after the annexation of Crimea, in the east of Ukraine, in the Donbass region, where pro-Russian tendencies are strong, pro-Russian separatist groups captured two provincial centers with the active support from Moscow. These centers are still under the control of separatists. Ukraine lost 14 thousand soldiers and civilians in the clashes between the security elements of Ukraine and separatist groups in the region. Despite a ceasefire in Donbass in July 2020, tension has escalated again recently.”
Stating that Russia continues to build-up troops in the border region and Moscow defends this situation with the claim that Ukraine is preparing an operation to re-annex the region to its own territory, Berktay said, “However, Kiev administration does not intend to take back its occupied lands with a sudden attack. The Ukrainian authorities also see that direct confrontation with Russia would be a disaster and they express this in various ways. From the perspective of Moscow, it is true that Russia intervened in Ukraine and seized some regions in 2014. However, it is unlikely to take the same action today. The first reason for this is that Russia took advantage of the revolution and chaos in Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea. Today, there is no such chaos in Ukraine. Second, as the Ukrainian officials said before, the army had almost no power during that period. Geographically similar to Turkey, there were only five thousand soldiers ready to go to war in the country. Now, Ukraine has 254 thousand well-trained soldiers. If Moscow declared war today, even if Ukraine lost the war, it would wear out Russia a lot. Third, unlike Crimea and Donbass, the population in the inner regions of Ukraine is quite distant from Russia. Therefore, if the Russian Army entered the inner regions of Ukraine, it would also have problems with the local people here. In the event of such a development, Russia would become an openly occupying state in the face of the whole world. This would have heavy economic repercussions. That is why Moscow would not risk such a costly adventure without believing that its own existence is threatened and that there is no other choice left.”
Berktay concluded, “The escalation of the tension between Ukraine and Russia is undoubtedly linked to the United States, which sent warships to the Black Sea and is uncomfortable with the status of Montreux. These struggles are also a reflection of the power struggle between Washington and Moscow. With the Biden administration, the struggle for power between the U.S. and Russia has become evident in the former Soviet geography. This struggle could continue in various ways and as a reflection of this, we can witness some conflicts in the countries of the region. However, the probability of starting a hot war is very low for the reasons I have mentioned.”
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