Conflicting reports are coming out of Mariupol concerning Russia’s promise to allow more humanitarian access to the besieged city. Despite claims by the Russian government, many obstacles remain. Today, a convoy of buses sent to Mariupol for the purpose of evacuating residents from the city was halted by Russian troops in Berdyansk on their way to Mariupol. There has been no comment from the Russian defense ministry on the matter, though earlier in the day the ministry released a statement claiming a humanitarian corridor would be established on Friday morning from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia. This comes at the request of the French and German governments which have been working for some time now on expanding efforts to evacuate the heavily damaged city.
After over a month of combat operations in Ukraine, the Russian military continues to function without a theater commander. Instead, the campaign is being run from Moscow in a centralized manner reminiscent of the old Soviet days. This could also explain why Russian forces have struggled in the Ukrainian campaign. With no theater commander, the amount of coordination between different services and combat arms is likely minimal. Requests for air support or fire strikes (Russian term for artillery fire missions) must climb the ladder. Even in the digital age, this process takes time. Needless to say, combat commanders on the ground in Ukraine are fighting the war with their hands tied behind their backs as a result.
Ukrainian and Russian negotiators are set to resume talks in Turkey on Friday. Turkish President Erdogan has been making an effort to set up face-to-face talks between the foreign ministers of the two warring nations, yet there has been no sign that either diplomat will be involved in Friday’s discussions.
After yesterday’s twin suicide bombings that killed 90+ people including 13 US troops, air operations have resumed, and the evacuation is again underway. The operation has reached its final phase with the United States planning to remain until 31 August if necessary. Many other Western nations have brought their operations to a close or will do so by the weekend. Canada, Spain and Germany have both ended evacuation flights. France will halt its operation today. As many nations wind down their respective operations, Turkey is in discussions with the Taliban over the future of Kabul airport once international forces depart. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said his government’s talks have centered on Turkey running the airport. For the short term at least, Kabul’s airport needs to remain operational if Afghanistan’s new leaders are to have a functional relationship with the outside world. Turkish troops and equipment have been a part of NATO’s commitment.
In the United States, the Biden administration is contending with heavy blowback after yesterday’s suicide bombings. President Biden’s handling of the Afghan crisis has come under close scrutiny and received significant criticism from the US public. Last night after Biden addressed the nation he followed up by taking questions from the reporters on hand. Unfortunately, the president started off with a shocking admission: “Ladies and gentlemen, they gave me a list here. The first person I was instructed to call on was Kelly O’Donnell from NBC.” That statement ignited a firestorm on social media with many people wanting to know just who is calling the shots at the White House. Biden has long relied on a list of pre-selected reporters, however, yesterday’s admission, coming hours after the deaths of 13 US soldiers struck a decidedly sour note with some. Biden did state last night that the US is committed to completing the evacuation and promised ISIS-K will be targeted in the future.
Concerns of a new refugee crisis are rising in Europe after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Six years after the 2015 migrant crisis that came dangerously close to splintering the EU, the continent is faced with the prospect of another one not far off. European leaders are keen to avoid a repeat of 2015, although the stars appear to be lining up in a similar fashion now. The Syrian Civil War was the impetus for the large influx of asylum-seeking refugees to Europe. With Taliban control of Afghanistan now complete and atrocities already beginning there, anxiety is growing on the continent. The message European governments want to convey to fleeing Afghans who have Europe in mind is: if you are determined to leave, go to neighboring countries, don’t attempt to come here. This applies to all Afghans except for those who helped Western military forces during the 20-year war.
Earlier this week, as Afghanistan descended into deeper chaos, European Union officials told interior ministers that the key to avoiding a new refugee crisis is to prevent a humanitarian disaster from occurring. Without a large amount of humanitarian aid, Afghans will start moving in large numbers. Meanwhile, Austria has suggested setting up deportation centers in the nations neighboring Afghanistan to speed up the deportation process for those who are denied asylum.
In Southern Europe, Greece has made it very clear it does not want to see a repeat of the 2015 crisis that saw a number of its islands in the Aegean Sea become the entry point to Europe for hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other Arab refugees. Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi has said Greece won’t accept being the “gateway for irregular flows into the EU,” and that the Greek government considers Turkey to be a safe place for Afghans. Ankara has differing thoughts on that, not surprisingly. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned in a speech Thursday that “Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe’s refugee warehouse.”
As European Union nations bicker and Brussels attempts to organize itself, Great Britain has declared it will welcome 5,000 Afghan refugees by the end of the year and has plans to resettle 20,000 more over the next three years.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his nation’s largest ever natural gas discovery today. It is a 328 billion cubic meter field in the Black Sea that could be part of a bigger reserve. Erdogan has hinted that the gas could start being extracted by 2023. The field, if as large as Turkey claims, will also give Ankara the advantage when the time comes to renegotiate its existing natural gas import agreements. Turkey presently relies on imports to cover almost all of its energy needs. Energy import bills have been a consistent drag on its currency for years. In 2019 Turkey paid out $41 Billion on energy imports, these payments putting a large dent in the nation’s currency reserves.
Most importantly, the find will have a positive effect on the Turkish economy down the line. The Turkish Lira is responding positively to the news, a marked contrast from the unprecedented slide it has endured lately. It won’t last, however. Turkey’s economic troubles are too broad to be solved by a major natural gas find. Rising inflation, and interest rates, record unemployment, and a recession are some of the obstacles the Turkish economy is trying to overcome right now.
Erdogan also said today that Turkey will increase exploratory operations in the Mediterranean. There are presently ongoing territorial disputes with Greece and Cyprus concerning Turkish operations in contested waters. Last week’s collision between Turkish, and Greek warships seems to have cooled tensions for the time being, and forced all of the involved parties to take a deep breath.
Turkey’s reach has been exceeding its military, and diplomatic means in recent months. Erdogan’s efforts to deepen its footprint in the Mediterranean, and Middle East is placing his nation in real danger of becoming overextended at some point in the not-too-distant future. The occupation of northern Syria, decisive intervention in Libya’s civil war, and seeking economic advantage in the natural gas-rich waters of the Eastern Mediterranean are the better-known Turkish adventures of late. There are others going on in places like the Horn of Africa, and in the Persian Gulf region too. Erdogan has been assertively going after perceived threats and enemies to Turkey, while simultaneously prowling after economic interests that hold the prospect of a jackpot level payout down the road.
Unfortunately for Erdogan, there are two factors coming into play which threaten to hinder, or perhaps entirely derail Turkey’s ambitions at some point. As mentioned in the above paragraph, Turkey is running a very real danger of overextending itself in the near future. The Turkish armed forces are stretched thin. Since the failed coup in 2016 Turkey’s military has lost thousands of capable officers to show trials, and purges. Operations in Syria and Libya are costing billions of dollars, and Turkish troops are taking losses in both places. In short, the Turks cannot afford a new military commitment now or in the near future.
The second factor working against Turkey’s regional ambitions is the absence of a clear vision. Ankara’s moves certainly haven’t been guided by ideology, or political alliances on the international front. This is where Turkish actions, and ambitions become confounding as it is working with its allies and friends on some fronts, while directly opposed to them on others. Syria and Libya are two prime examples. Turkey’s military incursions into Syria were frowned upon by many of its NATO allies. However, many of those same nation-states fully support Turkey’s intervention in Libya. In recent years Ankara has deepened the relationship between Turkey and Russia at a time when tensions between Moscow and the West has skyrocketed. The Turks committed to buying SA-21 surface-to-air missiles from Russia which forced the United States, to cancel the sale of F-35 Lightnings to Turkey.
Compounding Turkey’s burgeoning issues on the foreign front is the current state of the Turkish economy. Turkey is working to prevent a currency crisis in the face of economic turbulence brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. That topic will be touched on later in the week as we hopefully have the opportunity to expand the discussion on Turkey.