Back in April, Russia attempted to shut down traffic in some parts of the Black Sea, and our State Department condemned the move as an “unprovoked escalation”. This triggered a public debate about whether Russia or the United states was causing trouble in the region, but I don’t think either was the case. If you look at what Ukraine and Turkey have been doing over the past year, it’s pretty obvious that they are the ones who’ve been staging for war.
Back in October of 2020, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy and Turkey’s President Erdogan announced their intentions to regain control of the Donbas, and to deoccupy Crimea and Sevastopol. This announcement was provocative for three reasons.
- It established a policy of abandoning a political solution for the Ukrainian civil war, which could have… and actually did… nullify the Minsk peace accords. In one fell swoop, Zelenskyy and Erdogan annihilated a pathway to peace that was actually working out at the time, and had taken years to forge.
- It established a policy of pursuing a military solution to the Crimea issue, which had never been done before.
- Perhaps the most dangerous provocation: It explicitly threatened to take over Russia’s naval base in the Black Sea, which would open up an entirely new area of conflict.
Russia has used Sevastopol as a naval base for their Black Sea Fleet for centuries, and there is no way they’re going to give it up without a fight. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union and Crimea was made part of Ukraine, agreements were drawn up to treat Sevastopol as an autonomous breakaway state that remained under Russian control. In the past, any attempt to wrest Sevastopol from Russia has always been perceived as an act of war, and there is no reason to believe it would be viewed as otherwise today.
On 16 Oct 2020, after signing military cooperation agreements of undisclosed terms, Zelenskyy and Erdogan released a joint statement to confirm their effort, “… towards de-occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, as well as restoration of Ukraine’s control over certain areas in Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.”
On 18 Dec 2020, more details about the Turkey-Ukraine joint security agreement were revealed, and most of it focused on the Black Sea and repatriating Tatars to Crimea. By the end of December, the emerging Ankara-Kiev strategic axis became obvious.
With Ukraine’s Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories, Erdogan began working on a framework for the Turkish government to build 500-1000 apartment buildings for the Crimean Tatar diaspora. 100 of these buildings are to be in Kyiv, but the rest would be in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts, which were once part of the Ottoman Empire’s Crimean Khanate.
Ukraine ordered warships from Turkey and secured patrol boats from the United States. It was also revealed that, in October 2020, Ukraine had sealed a defense package from the United Kingdom for the development of “missile boats”, and had contracted the UK Ministry of Defense to build Ukrainian naval facilities.
Erdogan also re-started the controversial Istanbul Canal Project, which has long been criticized as a threat to global peace and a violation of the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits.
On 11 February 2021, while members of the UN Security Council argued about who (the United States or Russia) was exacerbating tensions in Ukraine, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs issued a warning that measures put in place by Zelenskyy to fight the COVID pandemic not only violated Minsk agreements, but were also creating a humanitarian crisis that would inevitably lead to unrest and reignite the civil war (it did).
Zelenskyy countered calls for a return to Minsk protocols with arguments about the measures doing nothing to deter Russian aggression, calling instead for sanctions against Russia. The Under-Secretary-General pointed to previous reports from Special Monitoring Missions that found no Russian military presence in Donbas, and which stated that those who “indulged in fantasies about Russian aggression” could not be trusted as honest mediators.
Ukraine had previously insisted that there was no water crisis in Crimea, but stated that if there were one, they would be prepared to restore Crimea’s water supply. But when the UN reported that Crimea was on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe due to the water shortage, Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs said that “Ukraine will not supply water to Crimea until it returns to Ukraine”.
On 01 March 2021, the DOD announced that it was sending military aid to Ukraine, as mandated by Trump’s 2021 NDAA, but Biden’s administration was withholding more than half of the package, due to non-compliance issues on Ukraine’s behalf.
On 23 March 2021, Zelenskyy formalized the Ukraine-Turkey military pact (forged in October) by signing an executive order to de-occupy Crimea and Sevastopol.
On 26 March 2021, the Ukrainian government released a joint statement of UN nations condemning Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and called on the international community to support it’s territorial integrity.
On 02 April 2021, Erdogan warned Putin that the United States was sending warships through the Turkish Straights to the Black Sea to support Ukraine. Shortly afterward, a noticeable surge of Russian troops in Crimea and the Russian-Ukraine border began.
On 06 April 2021, John Kerry met with Russia’s Foreign Minister in India, purportedly to discuss climate change.
On 14 April 2021, the US Department of Defense denied that it was sending warships to “support Ukraine”, and cancelled “routine maneuvers” in the Black Sea. President Biden re-affirmed our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, but called on all parties to deescalate and return to Minsk protocols. He proposed detente with Russia, and was criticized for not advocating for Ukraine’s NATO membership.
On or about 16 April 2021, Ukraine leadership once again rebuffed calls for deescalation and a return to Minsk protocols, arguing that NATO was the only thing that would stop Russian aggression. They threatened to arm themselves with nuclear weapons if they are not granted membership, despite failing to comply with basic NATO standards (including human rights issues).
On 19 April 2021, it was announced that Putin accepted Biden’s invitation to meet virtually for Biden’s Earth Day Summit.
Notwithstanding President Biden’s call for deescalation and detente with Russia, the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee (chaired by Senator Menendez) announced that it had drawn up legislation to increase military aid to Ukraine, to “send a strong signal of support to our friends in the region”.
On 22 April 2021, Putin attended the Biden’s Earth Day Summit, and Russian troops began withdrawal from the Russia-Ukraine border.
On 23 April 2021, it was leaked that the Biden administration did not believe that Russia was staging to invade Ukraine.
On 25 April 2021, Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that Biden’s request for an in person meeting with Putin was, “… positively perceived and is being considered now.” The Kremlin announced that, “A final decision on the meeting had not been made but it could happen in June.”
On 27 April 2021, Biden replaced warships that were previously committed to support NATO maritime security in the Black Sea with a single Coast Guard patrol boat.
While the press behaves as if Russia’s latest moves have come out of nowhere, Ukraine and Turkey have been provoking confrontation for months. And while both Presidents Biden and Putin are being portrayed as bellicose, their actual moves show that they are both more inclined toward detente.