The opening ceremony of the United Nations General Assembly’s 77th session took place in the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine war. Russia's decision to abort its invasion of Kyiv marked the beginning of the conflict’s second phase.
We have now reached the third stage with Moscow taking two interrelated steps: First, the Russian government announced that referendums would be held in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia on joining Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin proceeded to announce a partial mobilization to defend those regions and threatened to use nuclear weapons against the West. With the Russian leader insisting that he was “not bluffing,” Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairperson of their country’s security council, issued a thinly veiled threat to say that Russia would take over the occupied areas and could use strategic nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles to defend them.
The threat of nuclear war attracted renewed attention in the wake of those statements.
Undoubtedly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was asked about the Russia-Ukraine war in all his meetings in the General Assembly’s margins. Hosted by the Political, Economic and Social Research Foundation (SETA) in Washington D.C., his meeting with the U.S. think tanks was no exception.
Was it not possible to end the war, which is making the world a more dangerous place? Can Erdoğan, who met Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) Samarkand Summit last week, do anything about it?
Obviously, the Turkish president has been the world’s best hope for peace as the only NATO leader in touch with the Russian head of state and for engaging in active and peaceful diplomacy amid the latest crisis. Indeed, it was Türkiye that made possible the grain deal and the exchange of 200 prisoners of war.
Neither Ukraine nor Russia, however, are willing to give up.
At this point, Kyiv believes that its counteroffensive has yielded results. Moscow just played the nuclear card in an attempt to annex the Ukrainian lands under its occupation. With the exception of Türkiye, no country is trying to end the fighting.
In an interview with Turkish journalists, including myself, Erdoğan, who understands the difficulty of facilitating a cease-fire and restoring peace, called on all world leaders to make a joint effort: “Anyone that has any amount of credit with Mr. Putin needs to raise those issues and push for that opportunity. Likewise, with (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy ... Treating those leaders negatively won’t yield the desired results. Quite the contrary, I believe that it would lead to more deaths and destruction.”
Two contrasting views are prevalent in Western capitals about the future of the Russia-Ukraine war. The mainstream view, which informs the current policy, maintains that Vladimir Putin's announcement of a partial mobilization is a "sign of failure." Those who agree with this thought advocate for a war of attrition to force Russia on its knees – for as long as Ukraine keeps fighting. As such, they believe that the fighting could only end with Putin's removal from power.
The second group fears the devastating results of Putin’s threat of using nuclear weapons – which he has been making since the war’s initial months. Accordingly, they believe that Putin’s war in Ukraine is unlike the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The supporters of this approach try to come up with ways to find an “honorable way out,” which Türkiye expects.
Either way, that the world talks about the possibility of nuclear war so frequently suggests that there could be plenty of problems ahead.
In truth, anyone who expects a coup to remove Putin from power or highlights Russia's ability to cope with economic sanctions is actually saying that the war will prolong.
Another important point that Erdoğan raised in his interview with reporters was related to the United Nations Security Council reform. Recalling U.S. President Joe Biden's offer to increase the number of permanent and non-permanent members, he made no attempt to conceal his satisfaction with the appreciation of his recommendation for many years. The Turkish president also said that he was in favor of countries taking turns to fill 20 seats every two years.
What caught my attention was that Erdoğan, who opposes permanent membership, counted Türkiye, together with Japan and Germany, among the nations demanding permanent membership.