Is Turkey the biggest beneficiary of the Russo-Ukrainian war?

Is Turkey the biggest beneficiary of the Russo-Ukrainian war?

CIUS weekly report on media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 26 November–2 December 2022

Four publications (Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, The Conversation, and National Review) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in the press during the past week (26 November–2 December 2022). The sample was compiled based on their impact on public opinion as well as on their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. These three publications represent centrist and conservative viewpoints on the political spectrum.

This report covers only the most-read and relevant articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective publications themselves in the past week. Its scope covers promoted articles on home pages and articles from special sections on Ukraine, with the hashtag #Ukraine, from the paper editions of the publications, and about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.

Topics featured in the selected articles:

  • Ukraine’s current affairs: Ukrainian forces are well equipped by the West to fight in winter; Ukraine’s cities prepare for harsh winter with no electricity; the resistance of one village helped stop Russia’s advance in the south;
  • The world and Ukraine: only political will stands in the way of the US easily boosting Ukraine’s air defence capability; Biden is ready to speak to Putin only once Russia retreats from all of Ukraine; Turkey’s key foreign policy objective is to balance between Ukraine, Russia, and the West; making Russia accountable for its crimes will be a challenging international task; the longer this war lasts, the more the warring sides are prone to use their most lethal means; Western devotion to the rule of law in international relations may prolong the war;
  • Russia at war: Putin’s regime may survive a military defeat in Ukraine.

The most common arguments:

The Ukrainian army is better prepared for winter military campaigns. Amy Mackinnon (Foreign Policy) opens her article with the statement that “winter may slow down Ukraine’s advances, but Kyiv is better prepared than Russia’s ragtag forces.” During recent months, the Ukrainian army has been receiving military equipment and humanitarian aid from Western states that are designed for conducting operations in sub-zero temperatures. In turn, “Russian officials have acknowledged that they didn’t have adequate gear to equip the hundreds of thousands of troops called up in a partial mobilization announced in September, which is likely to compound the failing morale of Russian troops as the mercury dips.” Mackinnon argues that superiority in equipment will allow Ukraine to continue increasing its momentum and putting pressure on the Russian forces, who are likely to have to fall back on defensive measures. However, offensive operations are harder to perform in winter, because the “lack of leaves on the trees leaves troops and tanks exposed, while water-logged terrain may force them to move by roadways.” Moreover, Russian military strategy under Putin has proven to be unpredictable at times. It’s entirely possible, for example, that the political objective of conquering desired parts of Ukraine would prompt the Kremlin to order its army out of the trenches and onto the battlefield. Currently, Russia is benefitting from the shortened front line and is working on reinforcing its positions in occupied lands and restocking ammunition. It is also persisting in weaponizing winter by “pounding Ukraine’s energy and heating systems with missile strikes in recent weeks, causing power outages across the country as it seeks to undermine public morale and pile pressure on the Zelensky government.” 

Ukrainian city of Dnipro braces as winter is coming. Liz Cookman (Foreign Policy) reports from volunteer headquarters in Dnipro, a safe haven city close to the front, where a conversation takes place about how to continue supporting people in need due to the lack of electricity: “Outside, little is visible of the city other than the gleam of car lights. The power cuts also take out the internet and water, meaning there is no heating, and after a few hours the residual heat begins to dissipate.” The volunteers point out that they will not be able to effectively organize paperwork, deliveries, and collections when their laptop batteries are drained. Furthermore, heavy containers of food are likely to rot in warming refrigerators, as with electric elevators out of power there will be no option to move them between warehouses. Cookman assumes that conditions will probably get worse: the Kremlin decided to weaponize winter in Ukraine, which means that its bombardments of critical infrastructure will continue. Not to mention that “almost half of the country’s power infrastructure has already been damaged by the attacks. Ukraine’s energy system could be close to collapse. Heavy rain and frost are further hampering repair work.” People living in standalone houses in Dnipro find themselves in a better situation, as they can burn firewood to stay warm over the winter. However, cutting down trees in the city is illegal, and the price of firewood has soared. Most restaurants, bars, and shops are closed; only those with generators can continue serving customers. That being said, as Cookman highlights in several parts of her article, “officials and civilians taking to social media echo the same message: that they would rather live in the dark than live under Russia’s control.”

Russia retreats from southern Ukraine having failed to conquer one village. Stefanie Glinski (Foreign Policy) reports from Posad-Pokrovske village in Kherson oblast, which played a pivotal role in the liberation of Kherson and the defence of Mykolaiv, two major cities in Ukraine’s south. Soldiers of the 28th and 59th brigades have been stationed there since the beginning of the escalated Russian invasion. Glinski writes that while the front actively moved around the village, it never entered Posad-Pokrovske itself; the village was a Ukrainian island in the Russian occupation zone. This resistance came at a cost: “around 80 percent of the houses in this village were destroyed. Shells and shrapnel litter the area. Gas pipes are broken and electricity lines cut. The school was bombed, as was the gas station. Even the trees are burned.” Glinski emphasizes more than once in her article that the defenders of Posad-Pokrovske prevented a swift move of Russia’s armoured vehicles toward Mykolaiv in the first days of the invasion; they also created a foothold for the advance toward Kherson during Ukraine’s subsequent counteroffensive. Glinski interviews local residents who returned to Posad-Pokrovske after it became a relatively safe place and highlights that their losses are tremendous—from houses destroyed beyond repair to totally ruined businesses. That being said, the residents are doing their best to prepare for winter and remain proud of the contribution of their village to Ukraine’s war effort. 

US could easily do much more to help Ukraine defeat Russia. Robert Zubrin (National Review) criticizes current US support for Ukraine and portrays it as utterly insufficient. Being unable to defeat the Ukrainian army on the battlefield, Russia resorted to bombing civilian infrastructure across the country. This strategy is indisputably genocidal in its intent as winter approaches, similar to the multi-pronged Holodomor deployed by the Kremlin against Soviet Ukraine in the 1930s. However, unlike a century ago, without any major effort the US could easily save Ukrainians from harsh conditions and economic decline by providing means of air defence: Patriot air-defense units, F-16 fighter aircraft, A-10 and A-29 ground-attack aircraft, and Apache helicopter gunships. Zubrin argues that the US possesses all this weaponry in overabundance, has an established history of supplying it to non-NATO members, and has even considered disposing of some of it. However, according to Zubrin, “President Joe Biden has chosen not to send any A-10s, A-29s, or Apaches. Instead, he has sent two NASAM 20-mile-range air-defense systems, with six more promised by next August. Two anti-aircraft units are not enough. Next August is way too late.” Zubrin concludes that “we could readily stop Putin’s blitz and save millions of lives. We could readily win this war and restore the deterrent credibility of the Western alliance. Biden, however, has chosen not to do so. The administration’s fecklessness is criminal.”

Washington is open to talks with the Kremlin under the condition of Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. Ari Blaff (National Review) summarizes the results of a joint press conference of US President Joe Biden and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on 1 December 2022. In his speech, Biden argued that “the war in Ukraine can only end if Russia pulls out of Ukrainian territory entirely.” Blaff deduces from Biden’s speech that “the U.S. would encourage the Ukrainians to hold out until Putin relinquishes all Ukrainian territory, including those eastern regions he occupied through proxies in 2014.” At the same time, Biden informed the public that he was open to negotiations with Putin in consultation with the US’s allies in NATO. However, for that to happen, the Russian President would need to acknowledge his mistakes and seek genuine conflict resolution. For his part, Macron opined that “a good peace is not a peace which will be imposed on the Ukrainians by others…A good peace is not a peace which will not be accepted in the mid-to-long run by one of the two parties.”

Turkey’s foreign policy is pro-Ukrainian but not anti-Russian. Robbie Gramer and Anusha Rathi (Foreign Policy) write about the diplomatic skill of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in navigating the foreign policy of his state in a narrow strait of acceptance by Ukraine, Russia, and the West. On the one hand, Turkey supports Ukraine’s war effort by providing weapons, condemns the Russian invasion, and speaks for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. On the other hand, Turkey has opened markets and increasing trade with sanctioned Russia as well as worked on becoming a regional hub for the export of Russian energy resources. “Within the NATO alliance, there’s a broad view that Erdogan is looking out for himself first and foremost, whether or not that happens to fall in line with the alliance’s interests.” Gramer and Rathi argue that such diplomatic flexibility has allowed Turkey to serve as a trusted mediator between Ukraine and Russia, as evidenced in both a brokered grain export deal and an exchange of prisoners from Azovstal. Erdogan seems to perceive himself as the only person who can bring Putin to the negotiation table. Gramer and Rathi cite Western experts on Turkey who argue that its “Ukraine policy is pro-Ukraine but not anti-Russia…Turkey supports Ukraine militarily, is neutral politically, but keeps ties with Russia open economically.” It is in Turkish national interests to benefit from Russia’s war failures and weaken its presence in the Black Sea littoral by supporting Ukraine, yet without becoming a foe to both Russia and the West. Therefore, the authors conclude that NATO and Ukraine will continue trusting Turkey regardless of its often irritating amity with Russia. 

Georgios Giannakopoulos (The Conversation) supports the arguments voiced by Robbie Gramer and Anusha Rathi (Foreign Policy), adding that “over the past 100 years Turkish leaders have pivoted between a relationship with the West and one with Russia to win or extend economic, geopolitical or social power.” Giannakopoulos provides examples from the 1920s, 1940s, and 1990s to demonstrate that Ankara, the Kremlin, and Western capitals have always kept a distance from each other but never crossed the line of hostility. Today, apart from trying to mitigate the impacts of the Russo-Ukrainian war, Turkey needs cooperation with the Kremlin in order to address tensions with the Kurds in Syria and across the Middle East. 

Setting up a court to prosecute Russia’s crimes in Ukraine will be a very challenging task. Victor Peskin (The Conversation) writes that “the EU will work with the United Nations in the hopes of setting up a special court that would investigate and prosecute Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders for the crime of aggression in Ukraine.” At the same time Peskin highlights that such efforts may not lead to desired success, as throughout history “there has been a mixed record of arresting and prosecuting senior political and military leaders allegedly responsible for atrocities.” For the prosecution of political leaders to take place, they should be ousted from power as well as be extradited by the replacement governments to international authorities for prosecution. Peskin scrutinizes the case of Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia—from committing his first war crimes in the 1990s to his death in prison in 2006—and presents it as a potential playbook for Putin. However, Peskin also notices that without the proper resolve of the new national governments, former high-level war criminals can escape justice: “The International Criminal Court, for example, has not been able to persuade the Sudanese government to hand over former president Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes committed in Darfur in the 2000s.” This may also become the case with Russia after Putin is deposed. Peskin concludes that for justice in the case of Ukraine to be served, after Putin’s defeat Russians should stop perceiving him and his henchmen in any kind of positive light. The role and task of the international community here resides in making Russians acknowledge the crimes of their current leadership and transparently investigate all misconduct authorized by Putin. 

Russo-Ukrainian war will probably last long and set a precedent for future wars. Christopher Blattman (Foreign Affairs) argues that the majority of interstate wars over the past two centuries have been transient and lasted up to four months. For a war to become long-term, three strategic reasons should fall in place: “when leaders think defeat threatens their very survival, when leaders do not have a clear sense of their strength and that of their enemy, and when leaders fear that their adversary will grow stronger in the future.” The Russo-Ukrainian war seems to be imbued with all three reasons: Putin is afraid of his downfall in case of retreat (while Zelesky is concerned with social backlash after a flawed peace deal), Russia has yet to fully exploit the potential of mobilization (while Ukraine is still waiting for more weapons from the West), and Russians are afraid of Ukraine’s strengthening (while Ukrainians believe that a peace deal now would be an invitation for Russia to attack in the future). To this, Blattman adds the factor of ideology: “Russian President Vladimir Putin denies the validity of Ukrainian identity and statehood. Insiders speak of a government warped by its own disinformation, fanatical in its commitment to seize territory. Ukraine, for its part, has held unflinchingly to its ideals. The country’s leaders and people have shown themselves unwilling to sacrifice liberty or sovereignty to Russian aggression, no matter the price.” Blattman raises the hypothesis that Ukrainians and Russians are fighting not only because new geopolitical architectures need to be set up but also due to their mutually incompatible values. In this respect, the Russo-Ukrainian war is not unique, as it has many similarities to, for example, the US War for Independence or wars against European colonizers in Africa or Asia. Compromises and trade-offs are not feasible or acceptable. Not to mention that in the contemporary Western-dominated world order, the rule of law is regarded as superior to the rule of force. Blattman concludes that “the West has grown steadily more rights-based over time: it has become obligatory in many countries to abide by and defend certain liberal principles, whatever the consequences…But if this tendency makes the West less inclined toward realpolitik—trading rights and principles for peace, or cutting deals with unpalatable autocrats—wars such as the one in Ukraine may become more frequent and more difficult to end.”

The longer the Russo-Ukrainian war lasts, the higher the risk of its escalation. Michael Brendan Dougherty (National Review) justifies the position of analysts who approach the Russo-Ukrainian war in terms of political realism. He observes that the sides involved—Russia, Ukraine, and the West—continue increasing the stakes and expect each other to “tap the floor and beg for negotiations to end the conflict.” However, this is unlikely to happen. Russia cannot accept defeat; it’s trying to change the tide today by constant bombardment of Ukraine’s infrastructure and may resort to nuclear strikes if the survival of Putin’s regime becomes endangered. Ukraine cannot pull back, either; the war is taking place on its territory and its people are suffering from cold and hunger on the eve of winter. NATO and the West are overly engaged in the conflict and are working on scenarios of Russia’s transformation after Putin, some of which are very bold and envisage the dismembering of the federation. Dougherty concludes that because of numerous imponderables “realists are looking for sensible off-ramps. Because it would be very easy for this conflict to grind on until its resolution can end only with a humiliation for NATO—abandonment of Ukraine, closing the open-door policy into NATO, or destabilizing the Russian state, with all the geopolitical and nuclear dangers that entails.”

Putin’s regime in Russia may be stronger than it appears to an external observer. John Mueller (Foreign Affairs) defines the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “debacle” and a “massively counterproductive failure”: “having expended enormous blood and treasure, Russia has emerged weaker, more isolated, and more reviled than ever, while Ukraine, armed with increasingly sophisticated weapons and buttressed by a newly strengthened national identity, moves ever closer to the West.” In this light, many scholars speculate that Putin’s days are numbered; unsurprisingly, leaders who suffer major war defeats are usually removed from power. Mueller disagrees with this assumption and suggests that Putin’s regime remains rather safe. The history of authoritarianism demonstrates that their rulers can survive defeat: Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt was not ousted after the 1967 defeat by Israel, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq remained a dictator after the 1991 Gulf War. Also, there are numerous examples when leaders of democracies continued to govern after being defeated: Ronald Reagan was re-elected as US President in 1984 after he had sent US marines to Lebanon in 1982, where many of them were killed. In Russia itself, Boris Yeltsin was re-elected as president after a disastrous war in Chechnya that nearly led to the secession of the republic. Today, Putin can easily invent “victory” by declaring that the objectives of the invasion of Ukraine were achieved, and the Russian population would likely accept this declaration. In turn, NATO may put Ukraine’s application to the alliance on hold and focus on cooperation with a formally neutral Ukraine; this would not only abate the tension with the Kremlin but also confirm Putin’s invented “victory.” Mueller concludes that the West should not be overly focused on removing Putin from power as a means to end the war, as this focus may have the opposite effect. 

Media Monitoring Service

Media Monitoring Service (MMS) critically assess dominant narratives, including a special focus on disinformation, in selected key Canadian and US publications regarding contemporary Ukraine. The purpose of MMS is to inform experts and the general public about how Ukraine and Ukraine-related events are covered and reported on and to alert them to contentious ideas and claims that may be perpetuated in the media to Ukraine’s detriment. Read more

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