Old rivals or regional partners: Russia, Turkey and Crimea

Despite Ankara’s instinctive reaction to protect Tatars in Crimea, it’s reluctant to damage its relations with Moscow.

Erdogan is unlikely to endanger the stability of Turkish-Russian relations, writes Adilgizi [Getty Images]

The Crimean crisis, which erupted as Ukraine was caught in a new power struggle between Russia and the West, has presented Turkey with a dilemma.

While Turkey is deeply concerned about the Russian military incursion into the peninsula, it is reluctant to risk facing a military confrontation with Russia. This could explain why, since the start of the Crimean crisis, Ankara’s rhetoric on the crisis was simply repeating its position that the territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, following a conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, emphasised that Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and political unity need to be protected. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu echoed the same view during a visit to Kiev shortly after the beginning of the crisis and during a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York on March 12.

Clearly, Turkey is reluctant to assume a more aggressive stance on the Ukrainian crisis.

Lucrative bilateral trade

Ankara’s attitude is problematic for Moscow, which claimed that its military incursion into Ukrainian territory is both a necessary and legitimate step to protect ethnic Russians in the peninsula. Despite historical struggles between the two dominant Black Sea powers, Turkey and Russia have recently put geopolitical conflicts aside to promote economic ties.

Despite reiterating its opposition to the secession of Crimea, it is unlikely that Ankara will directly confront Moscow given its dependence on Russian energy and trade. Approximately 60 percent of Turkey’s energy demands are supplied by natural gas flowing from Russian pipelines. The two countries enjoy commercial relations with annual bilateral trade estimated to be around $40bn.

Other vital areas of economic cooperation range from an increasing flow of Russian tourists visiting Turkey’s Aegean beaches to investment in the construction sector. Economic relations between the two countries have been characterised by large investment projects, such as Turkish construction companies involvement in building infrastructure for the Sochi Olympic Games. In 2013, Russians investors poured $843m into Turkey. This resulted in the two countries adopting an amiable rhetoric of declarations of friendship.

Historical powers and regional rivals

The historical rivalry between Turkey and Russia has long been focused on the peninsula, which faces Turkey’s northern Black Sea coast. Economic benefits, however, have not been able to stop Turkey from voicing its opposition to recent developments. The region is home to a sizable minority of ethnic Turkic Tatars, who suffered mass deportation at the hands of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the 1940s.

Furthermore, Crimea formed part of the Ottoman Empire before it was ceded to Russia under the terms of the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca, which was signed after the Russian victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774. Crimea was Russian territory until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev placed the region in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. When Ukraine declared independence in 1991 following the break-up of the USSR, the new country inherited Crimea.

In order to be in a position to confront Russia over Crimea, to heal historic wounds and support their Crimean ethnic kin, Turkey – first – needs to recover from its internal woes. And this is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Turkey’s Crimean Tatars

The one element at play, which may yet stir Turkey towards a stronger reaction, is the 300,000 Crimean Tatars, who are thought to make up some 12 percent of the peninsula’s population. The Tatars have been vocal opponents of a return to Russian rule, given the brutal treatment to which they were subjected when Moscow controlled Crimea.

Similar to Russia’s historical role as defender of the Slavic peoples, Turkey has a history of defending the interests of its ethnic kinspeople, be it in Russia, Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan.

Turkey is home to an estimated 5 million citizens of Crimean Tatar. Ethnic heritage could well have an effect on the Turkish leadership’s policies. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is in desperate need of attracting support, after recent corruption scandals have negatively impacted the government’s popularity.

Several press reports, however, hinted at  a possible Turkish intervention in Crimea. According to one report, FM Davutoglu promised Mustafa Abdulcemil Kirmoglu, former chairman of the Mejlis (assembly) of the Crimean Tatar People, that Turkey would “get involved” if the Crimean Tatars came under threat.

However, Turkey would not be willing to disturb the military equilibrium in the Black Sea until its “red line” is crossed – that being a breach of the Montreux Convention, which prevents non-littoral states’ warships from passing through the Turkish Straits. The Soviet Union disputed the 1936 treaty on several occasions in its desperation to remove the limits on the movements of its Black Sea Fleet.

At the same time, the domestic turbulence in Turkey, the result of recent corruption scandals, has discouraged international investors and weakened Turkey’s economy. Russian economic input becomes more vital than ever to Turkey.

In order to be in a position to confront Russia over Crimea, to heal historic wounds and support their Crimean ethnic kin, Turkey first needs to recover from its internal woes. And this is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Lamiya Adilgizi is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, reporting and blogging for Today’s Zaman, Turkey’s best-selling English daily. She is also a staff writer for the Turkish Review academic journal.