The conflict between Ukraine and Russia over the territorial integrity of Ukraine in the contested Donbass region has been increasing since Russian forces annexed Crimea in early 2014.
Since 2014, at least 13,000 people have been killed in the ongoing conflict. Moscow and Kiev have long accused each other of failing to implement a peace deal over Donbass. Whilst low-level clashes had been continuing in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces, on 26 March, four Ukrainian soldiers died in a shelling in a village in the Donetsk region.
NATO and the US – and later the EU – issued their statements of support to the Ukraine. “We reaffirm our support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders”, stated the spokespersons for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France and the German Federal Foreign Office in a joint statement regarding the situation in Ukraine.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration has been discussing Ukraine’s membership aspirations with officials in Kiev. “We are strong supporters of them, but that is a decision for NATO to make”, Psaki said.
Stating that deploying troops to Ukraine would “escalate tensions” near its borders, Moscow has warned NATO. The role of the Turkish state in the Ukrainian crisis has also been discussed.
Ankara bought the Russian S-400 missile defence system despite opposition from the US, which has warned that Turkey cannot have both the S-400 anti-aircraft defence system and US F-35 fighter jets. Turkey has also been acting in alliance with Russia in northeastern Syria, especially in Idlib. Consequently, Turkey’s attitude over the tensions between NATO and Russia over Ukraine has been a topic of discussion, especially given that Turkey and the US are NATO allies. Turkey has also, at the same time, been establishing closer links with Russia.
Another hotly debated issue surrounds Turkey’s new mission in leading NATO’s Rapid Deployment Force. With this key NATO mission, Turkey’s 1st Army elite battalions, with some 4,000 highly trained and US- approved officers along with some 6,000 elite operators and military personnel who currently operate mainly in the Istanbul region all the way to the Bulgarian borders, will be entrusted with intervening in Ukraine.
In other words, in case of an emerging NATO-Russia conflict, Turkey will lead the military powers that will intervene in the region on behalf of NATO and the Turkish military will constitute a significant part of this power. This is a new development that might turn Erdoğan and Putin to active opponents in a ‘hot’ conflict. Even though Ukraine is not an official member of NATO, it has been accepted as a strategic ally of NATO.
Turkey has signed a number of defence agreements with Ukraine that seek to modernise Ukraine’s post-Soviet military systems up to NATO standards. As some critics have expressed the view that Turkey is seen as a tool against Russia (in the same way that it was used during the Cold War), its role in the Ukraine crisis is being discussed extensively.
International commentators closely following the conflict state that Ankara faces a delicate situation in the Donbass region. Many conclude that Turkey might have to review its policies with the US and with the EU – especially with regard to its position in North and East Syria – in order to come out of the emerging Ukrainian conflict with the ‘least damage’.
Whilst Russian President Putin has openly declared that Moscow will not allow a Ukrainian military intervention in Donbass, Ukraine’s possible reclaiming of control of Donbass could eventually mean the direct involvement of Turkey. As Turkey has strategic partnerships with Moscow and Kiev in military affairs and has also has publicly opposed Crimea’s annexation based on its historical ties with Crimea (which was part of the Ottoman Empire until the 18th century), Turkey’s role in the Donbass region might end up detrimentally affecting its relations with Moscow.