No Crimean Wars for Turkey

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Though it would wish otherwise, Turkey cannot avoid being implicated in the Crimean crisis. The peninsula’s 260,000-strong Tatar population, roughly 15 percent of total Crimean population, creates a strong bond.  Ethnically, linguistically and by way of religion (Sunni Islam) Tatars are very close to Turks. Several millions of Turkish citizens can claim Tatar roots thanks to the successive migratory waves since the Russian Empire took over the Crimean Khanate, an Ottoman vassal, in 1783.  Yusuf Akçura, one of the founding father of Turkish nationalism, was a Tatar too, (though coming from the Volga region rather than Crimea).  These days, the Turkish press abounds with articles and op-eds calling for the government to take a tough stance and protect the Tatar minority, largely favourable to the new government in Kyiv, from Russia’s incursion. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu heeded the call pledging to extend protection.

The second reason Ankara takes interest in the ongoing crisis is Turkey’s sense of belonging the Black Sea region, however blurry it might be.  Although its foreign policy has been firmly tied with the Middle East for the past five years or so, Ukraine is seen as a neighbouring country. A change of the territorial status quo in the area is not to be taken light heartedly. It’s not solely the long-standing concern about its own territorial integrity which is at stake but potentially other tension points across the post-Soviet space such as Nagorno-Karabakh.  As the independence referendum tabled by the Crimean Parliament for 16 March draws near, prospects for secession are becoming all too real.  Turkey will no doubt have to respond and denounce the outcome of the referendum. The question is how far it is prepared to go in a concerted push-back action against Russia. 

For a host of reasons, I don’t think Turkey is prepared to join  a full frontal clash. The record shows that its attitude towards Putin is biased towards accommodation. During the 2008 war in Georgia, Ankara did its utmost to tone down tensions between Moscow and NATO and prevent escalation from occurring. It’s not only the personal chemistry binding Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and President Vladimir Putin, helping them sweep under the carpet differences over Syria each time they confer. On a more structural level, the network of economic ties between the two countries is exceptionally dense. Turkey is heavily dependent on energy imports from Russia as well on proceeds from construction and tourism. The bulk of bilateral trade worth more $30 billion per annum is down to gas piped by Gazprom to meet Turkey’s growing demand. Turkish contractors benefitted a great deal from the Sochi games – completing work to the tune of $1,6 billion, including hotel, shopping malls, a media centre. 

In short, there’s much for Turkey to lose in a major confrontation between the West and Russia. One shouldn’t be surprised to hear Turkish President Abdullah Gül fretting at the prospect of a new cold war. Or indeed to have Ankara reacting in a rather restrained manner to disclosures that Russian secret services had been busy assassinating Chechen activists on its soil. If Turkey were a EU member it would fall within the group of those arguing for engagement over sanctions. Just like Greece or Cyprus, ironically enough. 

Thus the news this week that Turkey allowed the US destroyer Truxtun to pass through the straits without delay or protest should not be seen as a declaration of allegiance. At most it’s a whispered hint of loyalty to the West in this unfolding conflict. The destroyer was en route to a pre-planned exercise with the Bulgarian and Romanian navy, after all. Turkey will continue to walk the tightrope of being a dependable part of NATO while keeping relations with Moscow friendly. More active support from Turkey on NATO efforts to counter Russia in Crimea will only come when, or if, all Ankara’s other options have been eliminated.

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