The Crimean peninsula’s intrusion into a crisis of Russian creation after losing a political ally in Ukraine is not new to the Russians, nor to other countries in the region.
Russia now appears to be maneuvering to mobilize backers in Crimea to carry out an annexation project as soon as possible. Yet, the international community—especially the West—has rushed in to reject the Russian intervention and is prepared for a confrontation with more than one possible outcome.
Twenty-five years after Ukraine became independent, the Russians seem to want to put this to an end and teach a lesson not only to the Ukrainians, but also to anyone who attempts to jeopardize their interests in Crimea or underestimate Russia’s return to the heart of the regional and international scene.
Moscow, which has always brandished its veto in the UN Security Council to protect the Syrian regime, has repeatedly said it will not hesitate to use this card to protect itself once again. Yet, it also moved on the ground in a bid to show it is serious in curbing any attempt to push it away from Ukraine.
Crimea is Moscow’s back garden and Ukraine’s weak spot, yet it is also an opportunity for international players, most prominently the US, to step into the crisis and reach the Black Sea Basin waters, the international players’ old–new dream.
What, then, will Turkey do?
Shortly after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s quick visit to the Ukrainian capital, Turkey sought to organize a large satellite video conference for nine ministers concerned with the issue in a bid to ease the situation. Turkey is conscious of the gravity of the escalations in Ukraine, not only for the Turkic Tatar minority in Crimea, but also for its wider regional policies and interests as a whole.
Ankara’s position is that the region has failed to achieve its dreams of security, independence and stability following the end of the Cold War. But it also sees that targeting Ukraine in this manner will mean also targeting relations with Eurasian countries in general, thereby threatening security and stability there as well—particularly when Russian troops have begun their military operations in Ukraine, completely indifferent to warnings made by the UN Security Council, Europe and the US.
Davutoğlu speaks of turning Crimea into another Singapore if the crisis is settled by diplomatic means. Yet, there seems to be more progress so far in militarizing the Crimean peninsula than in achieving Ankara’s proposal. Turkey will sooner or later find itself in a position where it will have to decide on a stance towards such developments. Who, then, will Turkey side with, and how will it proceed from here?
The Crimean Tatars do not want a return to the tragedies they experienced on several occasions, specifically 70 years ago at the hands of the Russians. They do not want to see a repetition of the genocides, the expatriation or their loss of identity ever again. This is why many of them are demanding “mother Ankara” protect them against the effects of Russia’s new policy in a region that has enjoyed self-governance since the early 1950s— which it continued to enjoy even after Ukraine separated from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Publicly, Ankara urges Moscow to be cautious: not only, it says, will Russia’s interests be jeopardized in Crimea, but also those of virtually everyone else—especially if the situation escalates with NATO, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the European Council taking action. Secretly, however, Turkey hopes to avoid the consequences of a regional “circle of fire” that could expand to destroy all Ankara has managed to accomplish in the past few years.
The Russian military base in Crimea not only aims to protect Russian interests in Ukraine, but also to safeguard its base to serve as a safe passage to the Black Sea waters and the warm waters in the Mediterranean basin—also establishing a connection between its Ukrainian base and its base in Tartus, Syria.
Here, some have started to talk of China achieving a Turkish agreement to deny NATO troops passage through Turkish straits in the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. Yet, Turkey’s Western partners will not accept this possibility so long as Turkey is committed to protecting its allies’ interests and adopting their stances and decisions, even if Ukraine is not a NATO member.
This time, other voices from Moscow are publicly discussing the possibility that Russia may relinquish the region to Turkey in case Ukraine’s political and geographic maps change. According to many Turks, no one will get caught in such a trap as long as Ankara and its Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu say the price paid by the Tatars in Crimea and the burden they shoulder is more than enough to justify their protection without any exploitation or confrontations between Moscow and Kiev.
Turkish options in the Crimean crisis are limited despite the numerous and variant possible scenarios.
The country’s AKP government, which has adopted a policy of reviving relations between Ankara and the Turkish diaspora around the world, will not easily throw away the Tatar minority in Crimea in order not to repeat the same mistake committed previously by İsmet İnönü, a Turkish secularist and Ataturk’s successor, who never moved a muscle to rescue the Crimean Tatars from the massacres committed against them by Soviet troops in revenge for some of the Tatars backing the German occupation Crimea—then part of the Soviet Union—during World War II.
Ankara is well aware that it is facing a difficult test once again, particularly with Davutoğlu’s “Strategic Depth” theory proposed several years ago losing prominence, and with many today seeking to transform it into a “Strategic Hole” theory—one digging a hole for Turkey in Crimea.
Ankara is facing exceedingly difficult options in view of the increasingly complicated scene in the region.
There is also the matter of Turkey’s vast trade relations with Russia. Turkey is one of Russia’s largest trading partners, with annual bilateral trade between the two countries estimated at 40 billion US dollars, not to mention Turkey’s crucial need for Russian energy. So what will Turkey do if it fails to strike a balance between protecting its relationship with Moscow and giving in to Western pressure?
Will Ankara sound a note of discord if NATO demands it opens its straits for warships, even though the Montreux Convention allows it to reject this?
There is also the matter of Turkey’s relationship with the US. The latter tried years ago to convince the Turks to give it strategic leverage in the Black Sea, a demand Ankara rejected to avoid Russian resentment. But the situation this time is totally different: Washington seeks to protect the new government in the Ukraine, and it will not let Turkey threaten or jeopardize such an option even if the price is to anger the Russians or disavow numerous commitments and guarantees of keeping the Black Sea Basin free from any foreign intervention.
Other issues to contend with are the upcoming elections in Turkey— now less than a month away—and the numerous internal political crises that will push Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to cooperate with both Washington and Brussels to calm fears and the anger regarding the numerous draft laws and constitutional amendments he has made during his confrontation with the Gülen movement. That is, if Ankara really does wish to win over the US and the EU and prompt them to take its side in the future.
Turkey rejoiced at the Soviet Union’s dismantlement in the late 1980s, for it felt a security threat had disappeared. Turkey was also happy with Russia retreating from its position on amending the Monteax Convention in order to use Turkey’s straits following a long strategic truce in the Black Sea.
But Turkey is also conscious that it will be difficult to continue with a policy of “trying to please everyone” once the situation is further aggravated.