The standoff between Ukrainian and Russian ships in the Sea of Azov has somewhat predictably resulted in the US vetoing a Russian authored UN Security Council draft resolution criticising Kiev’s provocation while Ukraine’s leader Petro Poroshenko has used the incident to justify a declaration of martial law. It goes without saying that the clearly premeditated incident has heightened tensions in the region while the reactions from all sides ranging from Russia to the United States have also been so dress-rehearsed that there is little worth commenting on in respect of these reactions at this point in time.
But one nation whose response was not only less predictable than that of others and possibly also deeply helpful was that which came from Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently addressed major international issues in a speech that covered the dispute with Greece (and Israel and Egypt) over East Mediterranean energy rights as well as the terror situation in Syria. When turning to the recent confrontation in the Sea of Azov, the Turkish President stated,
“We call on our Russian and Ukrainian friends to solve their problems through dialogue as soon as possible and make the Black Sea a sea of peace. Turkey would like to see brother nations Russia and Ukraine side by side, not facing off, when the world is faced with serious threats”.
It is of note that Turkey should comment on an issue which geographically is rather close to home as of course the northern coast of the Black Sea was once part of the Ottoman Empire prior to the region becoming known as Novorossiya (New Russia) in the mid 18th century. Beyond this, Turkey has long ensured peace in the Black Sea, notably when the founder of the Republic of Turkey Ataturk proposed and oversaw the implementation of the Montreux Convention of 1936 which guaranteed the free passage of all ships belonging to nations with a Black Sea port through the Turkish straits in both times of peace and crucially in times of war. The peace promoting Montreux Convention contrasts with the provocative London Convention of 1841 which was imposed on Ottoman Turkey and forbade non-Ottoman ships from entering and exiting the Straits during times of war. This itself was part of a concerted effort by Britain and also France to foment tensions between Russia and Ottoman Turkey in the 19th and early 20th century. The number of tragic wars fought between Russia and Ottoman Turkey at the time is a testament to how successfully Britain and France were able to meddle in the affairs of the two neighbouring empires.
Today, while Russia and Turkey are close partners and while Turkey has uniquely managed to sustain good relations with Kiev in the aftermath of the events of 2014, it is Russia and post-Soviet Ukraine that are now the major regional rivals in the Black Sea region. That being said, while the Russian and Ottoman Empires of the 19th century were both formidable global powers, today Russia is once again a superpower while Ukraine is without a doubt the sick man of the region both economically and militarily.
As Turkey is one of the few nations of geopolitical importance to maintain positive relations with both Moscow and Kiev, if there is any country that could successfully mediate in the current Russo-Ukrainian stand-off, this country would clearly be Turkey. By comparison, the Normandy Format in which Germany and France (two openly pro-Kiev states) have attempted to mediate in the conflicts between Moscow and Kiev, has been such an abject failure that its existence is hardly even mentioned anymore.
That being said, mediation in the situation is still next to impossible as for Russia, the incursion on its borderlands of uniquely hostile neo-fascist forces will not long be tolerated, while Kiev’s ideologically framed policies have long meant that pragmatism and compromise are words that have exited the Ukrainian vernacular.
That being said, if Russian and Ukrainian officials were at least in the recent past happy to sit before their French and German hosts in attempts to solidify some sort of de-escalation process in respect of bilateral relations and the war in Donbass (a war in which Russia is not fighting but instead offers civilian aid and occasional political support to the Donetsk and Lugansk Republics), one should think that they at least in theory should be even happier to sit with Turkish mediators as Turkey has never approached the conflict with the kind of zeal and fanaticism with which most European nations have done.
Of course, with protests in Kiev against Poroshenko becoming increasingly commonplace and with his popularity rating hovering in the single digits, it may be that a kind of soft internal regime change may take place in Kiev before such a peace conference could even be arranged. That being said, Turkey has nothing to lose by proposing a bilateral Russo-Ukrainian summit hosted in Istanbul for the purposes of at least discussing matters that could perhaps lead to even a minor de-escalation.