Cause for cautious optimism thanks to Istanbul talks
A meeting held in Istanbul last Tuesday between delegations from Russia and Ukraine opened the way for cautious optimism, but the future of the military confrontation remains uncertain. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu believes that the most meaningful progress so far was made last week. This may be true to a certain extent because there were concrete statements made by both sides that can be interpreted as progress.
The Ukrainian delegation showed flexibility during the meeting by potentially agreeing to adopt an internationally recognized neutral status and to give up its aspiration of becoming a member of NATO.
Another concrete Ukrainian proposal was the establishment of a group of seven countries — composed of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Turkey and Germany — to guarantee the country’s neutrality. This may look attractive at first sight, but it entails risks as well because Ukraine’s neutrality is a sensitive issue. The neutrality of countries such as Switzerland and Austria proved to be successful because there was a general consensus on their neutrality. The Ukrainian case is slightly different as Russia and the US have conflicting approaches to its neutrality. The commitment of the guarantor countries may suck them into a conflict with Russia — a position they would not like to be in.
Ukraine has also shown flexibility on the question of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A period of 15 years has been agreed to conduct consultations. This looks like a period to let the question fall into oblivion.
The situation regarding the two self-declared breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk is a bit more complicated. It is unclear whether Russia will attempt to extend its claims to the entire Donbas region or if it will confine its ambitions to the two disputed areas. A reciprocal flexibility may resolve this relatively less controversial issue.
The biggest surprise in the Istanbul meeting was the attitude of the delegation from Moscow. Russian state tradition requires it to act with maximum circumspection. But a statement by Alexander Fomin, the head of the Russian delegation in Istanbul, surprised observers by describing the talks as positive, as previously Russia had refrained from making encouraging statements about the negotiations.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova joined Fomin in making positive remarks after the Istanbul meeting. She thanked Turkey for the leadership role it has played in attempting to defuse the crisis. She also pointed out that Turkey had adopted a balanced and independent attitude, whereas the West had imposed one sanction after another on Russia. Ankara has also remained faithful to the provisions of the Montreux Convention and kept its airspace open to Russian civil aviation.
The biggest surprise in the Istanbul meeting was the positive attitude of the delegation from Moscow.
Zakharova added that “Russia did not share Turkey’s position on the Crimea and Ukrainian crisis and expressed its views openly during the meetings. However, the Turkish government and people did not join anti-Russia feelings that have amounted to hysteria in the Western countries.”
One can see in Zakharova’s statement Russia’s attempt to keep Turkey on its side at this critical juncture. Were it not for the present circumstances, Moscow would have paid little attention to Turkey’s Crimea policy or its equidistant attitude between itself and Ukraine.
Another positive comment came from Vladimir Medinsky, the chief Russian negotiator. He said that the Russian delegation received a “clearly articulated position” from Ukraine during the Istanbul meeting and that the negotiations were constructive. Medinsky further underlined that they received written proposals from Kyiv confirming its readiness for a neutral, non-aligned and non-nuclear status, along with a refusal to produce and deploy all types of weapons of mass destruction and a ban on the presence of foreign military bases and foreign troops in Ukraine. He announced Moscow’s plans to militarily and politically de-escalate. He even gave more concrete details by pointing out that the military de-escalation would take the form of a significant reduction of military activities in the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas.
Despite these encouraging words, it looks as if Russia is still keeping its cards close to its chest. Firstly, because it says that the two presidents — Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky — would only meet if the foreign ministers of the two countries agreed to do so. This has to be understood as meaning there is a long way to go to reach an agreement. Secondly, the news of the Russian withdrawal from the specified areas is that it is fragmented. The assessments of the Ukrainian and American military authorities are that Moscow’s move has been confined to a cosmetic repositioning of its army in certain places. As long as Russia believes it has the upper hand in this conflict, it will attempt to reap its rewards.
Peace in the Ukrainian crisis may not be just around the corner, but there is room for cautious optimism.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar