Russia’s military operations in Ukraine have violated international law, norms, and all peaceful principles. It is interpreted that the attacks on Ukraine have led to a new bipolar world order between democratic and autocratic countries in the international system. Experts also state that Russia’s attacks on Ukraine have caused great damage in the international system. EDAM Director Sinan Ülgen emphasizes the mentality of “all countries are sovereign, but some countries are more sovereign” as the base of Russia’s existing policy regarding Ukraine. On the other hand, Western countries started to impose sanctions against the Russian administration after the attacks on Ukraine. In addition to the sanctions, British energy giant British Petroluem has decided to end its partnership with the Russian energy company Rosneft due to Russian attacks. Recent developments point out that a new trade regime may emerge, like the sanctions imposed on Comecon, the economic union of the Warsaw Pact, during the Cold War years of Western countries. On the Ukraine War, we talked to Sinan Ülgen, a former diplomat and EDAM Director, on many issues, from the change in Russia’s role in the international system to the changes in Turkish Foreign Policy and Turkey’s F-16 orders on the Ukraine War.
What do Russia’s demands on Ukraine show us about the current perception of the Putin government related to the international system?
In the current situation, Russia’s military operations in Ukraine trample down international law, norms, and all peaceful principles.
Russia’s demands and discourses on Ukraine constitute an explanatory example of Putin’s perspective related to the international system. One should note that the Putin government, which is conducting a military operation in Ukraine today, has a revisionist perspective. The international system we have today was started after the Second World War and continued in the Cold War Era and it is a reciprocal system based on multilateral legal agreements and norms. If we look at the multilateral legal agreements and foundations of the international system, we must remember the United Nations Charter, the founding treaty of the United Nations. Then, we should refer to the Helsinki Final Act, which was signed at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1975 for similar purposes. With the end of the Cold War period, we can cite the Paris Charter, which was also signed within the OSCE in 1990, and the 1999 Istanbul Charter, which is a slightly revised version of this document. All these documents create the main framework that constitutes the norms of interstate relations of our period and international law. The essence of this main framework is to respect the sovereignty of countries and to respect their territorial integrity. In other words, the parties should not violate their territorial integrity by force of arms and should not show of strength. In the current situation, Russia’s war on Ukraine, even if it does not name it, tramples international law, norms, and all peaceful principles.
How do you evaluate the discourses of Russia about Ukraine in terms of international system?
Russia’s current Ukraine policy says, “all countries are sovereign, but some countries are more sovereign”.
It is clear from the discourses of Russia that, it almost proposes a new international system that aims to bring Europe back to the 19th century. For this reason, I emphasized that Russia adopts a revisionist attitude at the beginning of our talk. The basis of Russia’s revisionist approach is the policy of separating Europe into spheres of influence. In other words, through military operations Russia is trying to impose its claim on the Western alliance that, it has a sphere of influence in Europe that goes beyond its borders. As a requirement of its policy of separating into spheres of influence, Russia wants some countries to renounce their national sovereignty, as we have seen in the example of Ukraine. Particularly, Russia aims to gain a kind of veto right by violating the sovereignty of the countries on which it wants to establish an influence in domestic and foreign policy decisions. For example, Russia’s opposition to Ukraine’s NATO membership is a primary example of this situation. Therefore, essentially, Russia’s current Ukraine policy means “all countries are sovereign, but some countries are more sovereign”. If we evaluate the policy of creating spheres of influence historically, it is a policy that we are familiar with from the 19th century European balance of power. At that time, different countries had created spheres of influence by increasing their areas of influence. We saw the results of these revisionist policies with the outbreak of the First World War in the 20th century. After the two world wars, drawing lessons from the past, the international system chose to establish a new world within the framework of international norms and international law. Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, on the other hand, serves the purpose of reconstructing the 19th century European balances by winding back the clock. I would also like to add that, in all this discourse, Russia may have legitimate security concerns that the West need to evaluate. But war is not the way to resolve these security concerns. The way to solve the security concerns of countries is diplomacy and international negotiations. The Western alliance has already proposed this option.
How can Russia’s revisionist attitude, which aims to create spheres of influence in Europe, cause changes in the international system in the medium and long term? How can the conflicts be mutually stopped?
We are not far from the Cold War years, but I would like to emphasize that we have entered a more permanent conflict period compared to the Cold War Period.
As far as I see, the aim is to bring a pro-Russian government to power in Kiev and then end the war. There is no room left to seek reconciliation. In terms of the international system, this revisionist attitude of Russia is not acceptable and will not be accepted. As long as Russia maintains its current stance, there will be conflict between Russia and the West. It is no longer possible to find a solution in the short term with Russia, which is attacking Ukraine in this way. Because of this controversial atmosphere, some experts make analogies that we have entered the Cold War era. Perhaps we are not really far from the Cold War years. I would like to emphasize that we are entering a period of permanent conflict.
In what way will Western countries’ holistic implementation of financial, trade and energy sanctions affect Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Going back a week before the crisis, we saw that the West did not respond to Russia militarily in the Ukraine crisis. Biden government and NATO countries refused to give military guarantees to Ukraine. At this stage, one can debate the decisions on whether to give military support to Ukraine. After all, Ukraine is not a NATO member. Therefore, it does not fall under the definition of Article 5 of NATO. In a sense, Ukraine is paying the price of NATO membership, which it could not achieve in the past. Naturally, it should be emphasized that the deterrence package implemented with sanctions did not achieve success in the short term. With the increasing attacks of Russia on Ukraine, they proceeded into another stage of the game. In the new process, with the sanction regime it has introduced, the West has now turned to the goal of permanently weakening Russia in the medium and long term.
Will NATO countries be able to coordinate the implementation of sanctions holistically?
It is likely that Western countries will prevent trade with many eastern countries, as they did during the Cold War years.
Yes, they took a common stance to a large extent. As of today, we still have not seen and understood the entire sanction regime. They implement a new set of measures each day. When we look at the proposals made so far, we see that some countries are more assertive. For example, Germany, behaving perhaps unexpectedly agile of itself, suspended the licensing process of the Nord Stream 2 line. I think, after the suspension, the possibility of re-activating it in this environment is not high. On the other hand, Britain and America announced some sanctions against Russia’s financial system. I think these will gradually get heavier. In the coming days, we will see the commercial side of the sanctions. Probably, Western countries will prevent trade with Russia, as they did during the Cold War years. During the Cold War, Western countries imposed an export ban on Comecon, the economic union of the Warsaw Pact, in many product groups, technology being the first place. I think we will return to a similar sanction regime. The aim of this will be to damage the Russian economy in the medium and long term and to limit its production capacities. We will initially see that technology products will be subjected to the export ban. Later, some raw materials may also become a part of the export ban. Therefore, export bans centered on financial sanctions and the trade regime will have a significant impact on the Russian economy. The sanctions imposed today may not have had an impact on Russia in the short term because they have a reserve of around 650 billion dollars at the Central Bank. In the short term, Russia can protect itself from the devastating effects of sanctions with the reserves it holds. In the long run, however, things do not look bright for the Russian economy. There is a will in the Western alliance to gradually intensify trade and financial sanctions against Russia.
At the NATO summit held on April 3, 2008, by the Heads of State and Government, the admission of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO membership was approved in principle, but no progress was made in the bureaucratic processes. Today, Ukraine’s NATO membership was on the agenda again. Will the power differences in international politics in the last 14 years on this issue cause a change?
There was a membership map defined as the Membership Action Plan (MAP) given by NATO to Ukraine and Georgia. NATO countries had formalized their open-door policy by giving these plans to Ukraine and Georgia.
The obvious reason for the lack of progress in bureaucratic processes was the uneasiness among NATO countries on this issue. In 2008, the US administration had a very clear support for the NATO membership of Ukraine and Georgia. However, some European countries avoided this process, thinking that Ukraine’s NATO membership would be a provocative move against Russia. Therefore, a by-road was found in the differentiation between the USA and some European countries. This by-road was the course of action for membership defined as the Membership Action Plan (MAP) given to Ukraine and Georgia by NATO. NATO countries had formalized their open-door policy by giving these plans to Ukraine and Georgia. Of course, Russia’s operations against Georgia in 2008 constituted a situation contrary to its territorial integrity. After this event, Georgia’s membership became difficult with the discussions on which borders it would become a NATO member. A similar situation happened to Ukraine with the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014.
In retrospect, the window of opportunity opened for NATO membership of Ukraine and Georgia in 2008 did not materialize due to different political-bureaucratic approaches within the alliance. Today, Ukraine unfortunately pays for it, although it is not their fault. Secondly, it should be noted that returning to the conditions of 2008, the different views within NATO were not the only reason. Different parameters independent of NATO were also in play. For example, Ukraine has a very severely politically divided society. In this context, in 2008, unlike today, the support of the Ukrainian people for NATO membership was at the level of 40%. These relatively low support rates also led to discussions about NATO membership in Ukraine’s domestic politics. We basically observed that the support of the Ukrainian people to NATO increased after the annexation of Crimea. In parallel to this, after 2014, Ukraine’s political rapprochement with the European Union and its intention to sign a free trade agreement resulted in Russia’s intervention. If we remember, Ukraine’s rapprochement with European countries at that time resulted in the poisoning of then President Viktor Andriyovich Yushchenko.
How does the Ukraine issue will affect Turkey’s current foreign policy and its relations with the European Union and NATO? Is it possible to sustain the strategy of compartmentalizing the relations which was pursued in previous years in Turkey’s foreign policy?
At this point, it is difficult and even impossible to maintain the relations between Turkey and Russia in the same way.
If we look shortly at the bilateral relations from the past to the present, Turkey and Russia have actually accomplished a very difficult task. Despite the existing problems, they managed to deepen their cooperation in some areas. The relations between Erdogan and Putin also play a big part. Despite other problems in bilateral relations, we saw that they conducted relations with the understanding of compartmentalization. At this point, I think it is difficult and even impossible to maintain the relations between Turkey and Russia in the same way. As a country that defends international law, norms, and the territorial integrity of countries, it is not possible for Turkey to remain unresponsive to the great destruction that Russia inflicted on the international system. Turkey will be expected to take this into account while developing its relations with Russia in the new period. On the other hand, Turkey still needs Russia’s diplomatic power and diplomatic cooperation. 35% of the total natural gas that Turkey imports comes from Russia. A similar dependency exists in many European countries. On the other hand, when we evaluate Turkey’s relations with Russia, it has a different situation from other NATO countries. Turkey has a different dependency on Russia unlike the alliance member countries especially due to Idlib and its surroundings in Syria. We know that there is a security dependency in the Northeast of Syria, like Idlib. Turkey needs to create a realistic and new balance policy by considering these dependencies. The balance policy that was previously carried out with Russia will no longer exist. As a result of the destruction inflicted by Russia in the international system, it is imperative for Turkey to make a new balance policy that is more critical towards Russia.
How did Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affect Turkey’s Black Sea security?
The invasion of Russia is not over yet. For Turkey, beyond the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, a much larger geostrategic equation now is the risk of occupation of the entire Ukrainian Black Sea coast. One of the current military operation targets of Russia is to increase the level of influence in the Black Sea. Therefore, Russia aims to gain control by occupying the coastline from Crimea to Odessa. If this happens, Ukraine’s connection with the Black Sea will be cut off. With Ukraine out of the equation in the Black Sea, Turkey may be left alone with Russia. Of course, this is not a desirable outcome in terms of Turkey’s security paradigm.
Which parameters are decisive in the current situation related to the implementation of the 19th clause of the Montreux Straits Convention? How will the Montreux Convention shape the processes during the war?
In my opinion, although it is difficult, Turkey will close its straits to the passage of war ships based on Article 19.
Article 19 of the Montreux Convention defines a situation in which Turkey is not a party to the war, but when there is war in the region. In this context, Montreux brings an obligation. This obligation is the closure of the straits to the passage of warring parties’ ships. This is the choice Turkey is facing now. As a matter of fact, yesterday, Ukraine officially demanded the operation of Article 19 from Turkey with the agenda of closing the straits. From the point of view of the contract, this demand is legitimate. In my opinion, although it is difficult, Turkey will close its straits to the passage of warships based on Article 19. However, this is not an absolute closure, there are exceptions determined by the contract.
What are the exceptions according to the Article 19 of the Montreux Straits Convention?
First, to allow some warships in the Black Sea to return to their original ports. Therefore, even if the Straits are closed, Turkey must allow the passage of the Russian warships of the Black Sea fleet, provided that they return to the port. Secondly, warships can return to the Black Sea for repair and maintenance services. Where Article 19 is implemented, it is a must to also apply these exceptions. Turkey must first take a decision in pursuant of the convention. It is important whether its decision will trigger the Article 19. On the other hand, when we look at the contract under the current conditions, another alternative is Article 21 which can be put on the agenda depending on the imminent threat of war against Turkey. There is a possibility that Turkey may also rely on Article 21, but of course it is more difficult to justify it now. As of today, Turkey has no intention of being a party to this war, and I do not think that this war between Russia and Ukraine will grow to engulf Turkey.
You mentioned that Turkey could follow a new balance policy. With new developments, can the CAATSA sanctions, which negatively affect Turkey’s prospective economic and commercial agreements with US and EU companies, be lifted due to the growth of the Ukraine crisis?
After the recent developments, Biden administration and Congress may adopt a more flexible stance.
Yes, I think CAATSA sanctions will be indirectly affected by current developments. However, CAATSA’s solution also depends on the creation of a solution for the S-400 systems. In December 2020, the Congress introduced a special definition in the National Defense Budgeting Act about Turkey’s keeping of the S-400s. According to this definition, the United States demands from Turkey to dispose of the S-400s. After coming to power, Biden administration did not make any changes to the National Defense Budgeting Law. In other words, we do not observe any policy changes in the USA regarding the S-400. My prediction for the solution of the S-400 issue is to return to the stage before the enactment of the National Defense Budgeting Law in the changing security conjuncture in the region. A solution of keeping the systems in Turkey but not making them operational, was previously offered to Turkey during the Trump era. Turkey found this unfavorable and did not make a commitment in this regard. As far as I can see, if there is to be a solution to the S-400 issue, this will be the main formula. So not with today’s formula. No government will now accept the disposal of this system in Turkey. This has become a difficult political threshold. If there is to be a solution in the S-400s, the American side may need to step back a bit from its definitions in the National Defense Budgeting Act. To date, we see that the Biden administration has acted timidly and has not made any changes to the law. However, after the recent developments, the Biden administration and Congress may adopt a more flexible stance. Depending on the negotiation of the S-400s in the formula we have stated, the CAATSA sanctions may be lifted.
On the one hand, the USA’s CAATSA sanctions are in effect, on the other hand, within the scope of the NATO alliance, Turkey supports patrols with F-16s in the Baltic and Polish airspace. Isn’t it also a problem for NATO that the US doesn’t provide spare parts and supplies that are critical to keeping the F-16s operational? Additionally, is there any change in the status of the F-16s that Turkey has requested in advance?
I think the implicit F-16 spare parts embargo will also be lifted.
There are two dimensions regarding the arrival of F-16 war planes in Turkey. First, a covert embargo applies to F-16 spare parts for Turkey. Secondly, there is a request already communicated to the US administration regarding the modernization of Turkey’s existing F-16 fleet and the purchase of new F-16s. To start with the latter, Turkey’s request for the purchase of a new F-16 is welcomed by the US administration and negotiations are continuing. After the positive conclusion of negotiations with the US administration, the approval of the Congress will also be needed in terms of bureaucratic functioning. In my opinion, the recent war between Ukraine and Russia and Turkey’s attitude will facilitate the approval of the Congress for the purchase of F-16s. I can’t say it’s guaranteed, but I hope. I do not think that the USA will say no to this demand because of the recent developments. Parallel to this, I think the implicit the F-16 spare parts embargo will also be lifted.
Pursuant to the agreement signed by the Pakistani army with ASELSAN in 2018, it was agreed to sell 30 twin-engine T-129 ATAK helicopters for 1.5 billion dollars, but the transaction did not take place. How does the lifting of existing sanctions contribute to the exports of Turkey’s defense industry, which has made progress in recent years?
The main problem experienced in the sale of 30 twin-engine ATAK helicopters was that the helicopters were subject to sanctions because their engines were American made. So, we must go back to the CAATSA framework again to analyze this issue. If solutions are provided within the framework I mentioned and CAATSA is lifted, the way for the Turkish defense sector will also be cleared. With the lifting of the sanctions, Turkey would become an industry that can develop export links without facing any restrictions again.
In the survey of Metropoll research company in January 2022, it was revealed that 39.4% of the participants preferred closer relations with China and Russia in Turkey’s foreign relations, while 37.5% prioritized closer relations with the European Union and the USA. How do you interpret the trend towards current perceptions in the foreign policy of Turkish society?
I find the current trend quite worrying. We can talk at length about the main reasons for this trend. But if we are to give a short answer, there is a deep crisis of trust between Turkey and the West. Especially after the coup attempt, the government’s loud Western criticism and rhetoric seems to have also affected the preferences of the voters of the ruling party. When we look at the voting pattern, obviously there is a change in the preferences of the voters who mostly voted for the ruling party. For example, there is a serious change in the AKP base, which previously supported the European Union process. I think these data reflect a temporary conjuncture. Eventually, the government also made a significant change in its foreign policy from the beginning of 2021. They have taken more calm, prudent steps to remove past destruction. At the same time, I do not consider it as a permanent phenomenon and feeling that a Russia acting like a bandit would have broad support in Turkey. I hope I am not wrong.