Any conflict and fighting will eventually end in peace, on conditions which will depend on the outcome and the balance of forces on the battlefield. From the very beginning of the Russian SMO in Ukraine, Turkey began to assume the role of an active mediator in the peaceful settlement of the conflict, the cessation of human casualties and destruction.
In fact, on February 27, 2022, Turkey has been initiating Russian-Ukrainian negotiations to resolve the conflict, Istanbul has become a meeting place for diplomacy and discussions on various topics related to the SMO and its consequences (including the issue of prisoner exchange, unblocking sea communications for the export of Ukrainian grain, defining the boundaries of compromises, etc.). The intensity of the negotiation process continued until May 2022, and then there was a decline due to the disposition on the battlefield and changes in the approaches of the aforementioned Ukraine.
It must be admitted that, thanks to the position of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on maintaining friendly relations with the authorities of both Russia and Ukraine, refusing total participation in anti-Russian sanctions, as well as the personal experience of the negotiator, Turkey has taken the place of the main mediator in the Russian-Ukrainian dialogue. At the same time, Ankara managed to overtake countries such as Israel and Belarus in this sphere.
An important achievement of the Turkish side on the negotiating platform was the signing in July 2022 of an agreement between Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the UN on the export of grain from the remaining Ukrainian ports via the Black Sea to foreign markets, as well as repeated POW exchanges.
It is clear that the diplomatic way of resolving the Russian-Ukrainian contradictions has lost its relevance at this stage due to the radical attitude of the Kiev regime, which relies on military-technical and political assistance from the United States and NATO countries. During a briefing on February 24 this year, timed to the anniversary of the conflict, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky defined for himself the “formula of peace” by returning to the Russian-Ukrainian border in 1991 and withdrawing Russian troops from the liberated territories. The Russian side, represented by its President Vladimir Putin, has repeatedly noted that “there is no way to return to the previous system.”
The world has changed after February 24, 2022, and Russia agrees to a peaceful settlement of the conflict only on the condition that Ukraine and the West cease hostilities, guarantee the safety of residents of Donbass and localize the threat to the security of the Russian Federation.
It seems that all these approaches of Moscow and Kiev are well-known, there have been no special changes in the position of the parties, positional and offensive fighting continues along the entire front line. Nevertheless, a new element in the resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation was China’s statement on the need for a political settlement of the present conflict and the establishment of a fair peace while preserving the sovereignty of the two countries. This declaration was followed by a visit to Moscow by the head of the Commission on Foreign Affairs of the CPC Central Committee Wang Yi, and subsequent negotiations of this Chinese high-ranking official with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As a result, Beijing presented a 12-point Chinese plan for the settlement of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. There is no need to annotate this Chinese declaration, which contains both constructive and contradictory approaches to the parties to the conflict. In particular, what Beijing means by preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine as of February 2023, or how the “termination of unilateral sanctions” should be understood (if sanctions on the same military supplies should be imposed on Ukraine, then this is one approach; if we are talking about the cessation of hostilities and the peace process, what is the point of sanctions against Russia at all then?).
Naturally, the Chinese peace plan is still being discussed as a kind of project or declaration of intent. However, the fact that China has started talking about a peaceful solution to the crisis, taking into account its weight on the world stage, already makes almost all world actors think and understand the importance of ending collective pressure on Russia with the return of the “cold War mentality.” China in its plan has clearly defined the need to exclude: a) the security of one country at the expense of the security of other countries; b) the expansion of military blocs (in this case, NATO); and c) the formation of camp-on-camp confrontations.
Such diplomatic activity of China cannot leave aside Turkey. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in February this year, Turkey was forced to temporarily suspend its activity in the foreign sphere. Nevertheless, President Erdoğan does not intend to abandon active diplomacy on the Russian-Ukrainian track, which was expressed in the recent telephone talks between the Turkish leader and the heads of Ukraine and Russia after the visit of the Chinese guest to Moscow.
However, Turkey has not yet presented its detailed plan for establishing a “fair peace” between Russia and Ukraine. Unlike the Chinese 12-point project, there has as yet not been a Turkish counterpart. The whole problem is that in Moscow and Kiev, the parties perceive the theses of a “fair peace” differently, in fact, “red lines” have already formed, which the leaders cannot bypass. As a result, the fighting continues, and the losses and destruction keep piling up.
Turkey cannot, as a member of NATO, declare the cessation of NATO’s advance to the East. Turkey has repeatedly stated its commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine (including the Crimea). Turkey, one way or another, supplies the Armed Forces of Ukraine with its Bayraktar UAVs, Karpi APCs and other means. All these factors cannot sit well with Russia. Meanwhile, Erdoğan keeps his distance from participating in all anti-Russian sanctions, approves trade with Russia, offers to respect and not isolate Russia, accepts new profitable energy projects from Russia (for example, the gas hub). The latter does not sit well with Ukraine and its Western allies led by the United States.
The Russian-Ukrainian negotiation process has already passed several stages, starting in 2014 with the Minsk format. Alas, the negotiations in Minsk were not crowned with success because of the position of Kiev and the United States, which led to the SMO. In the spring of 2022, in the midst of hostilities, thanks to the initiatives of President Erdoğan, the Istanbul format of Russian-Ukrainian negotiations was outlined, but after May of the same year, this process, having not formed in the logic of formal diplomacy, lost some momentum and initiative. Today, the 4th point of the Chinese settlement plan invites the parties to start peace talks, naturally, in China. Beijing, following the recommendations of the father of Chinese reforms Deng Xiaoping (“stay in the shadows and do not stand out”), rarely comes up with such high-profile political initiatives in the international arena. In fact, the PRC offers the Beijing format of negotiations instead of the discredited Minsk format, which was used by the West as a time of peaceful respite before a new war.
Russia does not choose the former or the latter mediator, but Moscow has the right to assess the potential of partners in the peaceful resolution of the ongoing conflict with respect for the interests and security of the Russian side based on the actual proposals and positions of world players. Russia develops pragmatic diplomacy, accepts compromises where and when they are justified and meet national and universal interests (including the export of Ukrainian grain, the exchange of prisoners of war, humanitarian assistance to civilians in the conflict zone). At the same time, Russia cannot make concessions in matters of national security and protection of the rights of the Russian population to please anyone’s interests.
Since the Chinese plan has so far been rejected (or not accepted) by Washington and Kiev, Ankara still has chances to develop diplomatic activity in the Russian-Ukrainian negotiation processes. Recep Erdoğan is well versed in the intricacies of international diplomacy, and the traditional flexibility of Turkish politics creates conditions for increasing Turkey’s role in such situations. And yet, the outcome of the peace continues to depend on the developments on the battlefield.