Following Russia’s decision to diplomatically recognize the Donbas Republics, tensions flared up between these and the forces of Kyiv. Leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics have demanded support from Moscow arguing they were under attack of Ukrainian forces.
Upon this request, Russia has started a military operation in the Donbas Region. While the US, United Kingdom and the European Union declared to impose sanctions on Russia, stating Moscow’s actions were ‘violating Ukraine’s sovereignty’, Ukraine itself demanded from Turkey to close the passage to ships through the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits into the Black Sea. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg meanwhile stated the alliance had no plans to send soldiers to Ukraine.
United World International expert Elif İlhamoğlu interviewed Ismail Hakkı Pekin, retired Lieutenant-General and former Head of Military Intelligence at the Turkish Armed Forces’ Chief of Staff on Russia’s recognition of the Donbas Republics, the following military operation and Ukrainian demands concerning the straits.
‘Russia has taken a security measure against NATO’
How would you assess the Russian decision to recognize the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in Eastern Ukraine?
We must first understand that the issue here is not between Russia and Ukraine, but between Russia and the United States. NATO has been expanding east towards Russia and was about to take over Ukraine as well. The United States attempted the so-called ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine back in 2004, but it backfired, and Yanukovych did not sign Ukraine’s decision to enter the EU in 2013. However, the United States continued to insist on taking over Ukraine. Bringing Ukraine into NATO means containing Russia and cutting it off from its sea access. Russia is already struggling to reach the North Sea from the Baltic, and now it is being pushed away from the Black Sea through Ukraine. They are trying to contain Russia by cutting off its sea access. Russia is well-aware of this threat. Zelensky promised to take back the Crimean peninsula and the Lugansk and Donetsk regions before the elections, and has the West covering its back. Russia considers this crisis a matter of survival. Russia has now gained a certain positional advantage: it has aimed to prevent NATO from expanding further towards the East. Russia issued an open declaration to the United States and NATO regarding security concerns: “Stop NATO expansion to the East, take back your weapons, and do not let Ukraine join NATO,” Russia declared. However, the United States continued its plan in Ukraine, as a result of which, Moscow announced its decision to recognize the two self-declared republics in Ukraine. After that declaration, Zelensky stated that the two sides would resolve this issue through dialogue. A war is not expected for the time being.
Russia has benefited from the disorganization in the West, and the cracks that are forming among Western nations. France and Germany have had very different approaches, which Russia has been able to take advantage of. It sent a very clear message to the US, promising it could do even more. Russia made it clear how much it desires to take part in building European security. Moscow also aims to create some diversions within NATO and snap off the Transatlantic bonds. The United States, on the other hand, wants to keep using NATO for its own hegemonic ambitions. That is why they have been trying to persuade Europe to join them in combating the Russian threat. The United States is also trying to use this threat to increase its arms trade with Europe.
‘Kyiv Government cannot stand longer, it will be overthrown’
How do you evaluate the military operation Russia has started after recognizing the Donbas Republics? In your opinion, what is the operation’s target? Is there any possibility that the operation widens to cover all of Ukraine?
The main ground operation takes place in the Donbas region. But if Russia wants to control and gain the Donbas, it needs to take the Ukrainian defense forces and units out. For that reason, they are attacking the navy in Odessa, the commanding posts around Kyiv and airports that might be used against it. The airports where the UAV are situated are attacked. Russia eliminates Ukraine’s defense systems. They have to do that in order to get the Donbas.
There are two targets: Firstly, they want to achieve insurance that Ukraine will not gain NATO membership. Secondly, they want to break down Ukraine’s defense capability. Ukraine will not be able to stand this situation much longer, and with great probability, a pro-Russian government will be established. The West is in no position to have a say in that matter anymore. This change seems likely to take place, whether the West approves or not.
In summary, Russia eliminates Ukraine’s defense by destroying its counter-attack capable units, air force and vehicles and the UAVs. Most probably, Ukraine will have no conventional defense capacity any more within a few days. And Ukraine will not be able to resist very much against this situation. Moreover, there is reporting that 1.5 million people are already feeling the country, with a possible 5 million more seeking refuge within the Ukraine.
‘Turkey should follow an active neutrality policy’
Turkey described the decision and later the operation as ‘unacceptable’ and stressed the Ukrainian territorial integrity and national sovereignty. How would you evaluate Ankara’s announcement? How will this situation affect Turkey?
Turkey is a member of NATO, but it can still pursue a policy of active neutrality. The Turkish stance regarding this issue is correct right now. It is important to insist on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries. So, how should we establish these relationships? We have many exports to Russia, and we import their natural gas and oil, we build nuclear power plants with them, and we have strong tourism relationships as well. We also have strong relations with Ukraine. The statement that Turkey made regarding this situation is appropriate. Turkey should follow an active neutrality policy. I think it should consider enforcing the conditions mentioned in the Montreux convention. Of course this is a slow process. If we look at the entire situation as a process that began with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there are many tough battles to note in this history. However, the first round is now over, and Putin has the advantage. Russia always considers such issues both strategically and geopolitically. We have seen that Putin is not bluffing. The negotiations can now begin. The autonomy of those two republics can be accepted even though Ukraine is opposed to it. Ukraine will not become a member of NATO. The issue of Crimea may be suspended for negotiations. The diplomatic process can begin and peace can be achieved.
Meanwhile, in reference to the debates on the Montreaux Convention: Turkey should act in accordance with the Convention. The United States wants to include the Black Sea into the borders of NATO. They then want to push Russia to the north and achieve a NATO sphere of influence from the Caspian Sea to Central Asia. Turkey rejected this plan. This is one of the main reasons for the deterioration of relations between Turkey and the US. Turkey must continue its decided stance on that matter.