Turkey's policy towards Ukraine: Crimean crisis

To understand Turkey’s position Crimean crisis requires a comprehensive approach to tackle this lingering predicament from various angles by focusing on multiple factors. Otherwise we risk of being partial and may miss important points.

Turkey's policy towards Ukraine: Crimean crisis

Levent Basturk

The crisis in Ukraine started with the street protests against the then President Yanukovych, who had abandoned the idea of initiating the EU membership process after signing a financial aid agreement with the Russian government. After Yanukovych’s departure from Kiev, the Crimean peninsula emerged as another crisis point, which entered a new stage after Russia’s annexation, following the referendum held in Crimea autonomous republic by the Russian dominated Supreme Council of Crimea, in-turn rejected by the international community. Although Turkey goes up against the declaration of Crimean annexation by Moscow, yet Turkey’s stance on Crimean crisis differs significantly from its Western allies.

To understand Turkey’s position Crimean crisis requires a comprehensive approach to tackle this lingering predicament from various angles by focusing on multiple factors. Otherwise we risk of being partial and may miss important points.

People’s will decides a government’s fate

The Turkish government did not view anti-Yanukovych demonstrations in Kiev independent of anti-Morsi, pre-planned protests in Cairo last summer. Turkish Prime Minister RecepTayyip Erdogan took a firm stand against the coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi from power. On every occasion, he persistently repeated his view that those who came to power with ballots should go by ballots only. He expressed the same theme many times within the context of the Gezi protests and December 17, 2013 operations, against his government carried out by the Gulenist infiltrators within the Turkish justice and security apparatuses. From this angle, the way Yanukovych was ousted, regardless of his mistakes, was not acceptable to the Turkish government.

Erdogan heavily criticized the US and EU for not calling a coup in Egypt and accused them with not being sincere with their democratic commitments. Erdogan firmly believed that there was a foreign conspiracy involved both in anti-Morsi demonstrations in Egypt and in the Gezi protests in Turkey.

The alleged conversation – with curse words used for the EU- between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt appeared on Youtube on February 2014 was a clear proof of the American cooperation with the elements of the opposition to Yanukovych.

Furthermore, On March 5, a wiretapped telephone conversation of Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and and European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Aston was leaked on Youtube, discussing the issue of sniper-rifle fire during the protests in Kiev. Speaking about a doctor named Olga who was on the scene, Paet told Ashton, "The same Olga told that, well, all the evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers from both sides among policemen and then people from the street. So that there is, now a stronger and stronger understanding that behind the snipers it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition."

Turkish officials, facing the similar challenges, Yanukovych had to dealt with, clearly would view these conversation as a proof that there was a foreign involvement behind these street protests against the governments considered not favorable in the West. Including this detail in its background, for Ankara, the crisis in Ukraine-Crimea was not limited with the Russian violation of the Ukrainian sovereignty.

The historic legacy of Turco-Russian Wars since 1568

There were at least 13 wars between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, predecessors of Russia and Turkey respectively, between 1568 and 1917. In each encounter between them, Russia was the instigator and, most of the time, the victor. Being threatened and attacked by the Russians for centuries, the Turks had developed a deep distrust of the Russians. Moreover, there is a common perception that Moscow threatened Ankara immediately after the World War II, a development that determined Turkey’s participation in the NATO. Such a legacy has its imprint on Turkey’s perception of its big Northern neighbor and the distrust of the Russians made Turkey, one of the most committed Cold War allies to the United States.

Turkey’s new foreign policy orientation and Russia

During the post-Cold War era, Turkey and Russia have largely refrained from acting according to adversarial mindsets of previous era. In fact, the rapprochement between two countries happened during the Cold War years and Turkey became one of the largest recipients of the Soviet aid despite being in the opposite political and military camp. Starting from the early 2000s, Turkey’s search for a proactive, multidimensional, and constructive foreign policy increased the emphasis made on the importance of Turkey-Russia relationships.

With its new foreign policy approach, Turkey tried to re-consider its priorities and interests without being solely limited with its Western allies. On the other hand, in the absence of ideological adversaries, Kremlin was not bothered by Turkey’s growing economic and cultural presence in Russia’s conventional sphere of influence. A commentator even argued that Russians might have even welcomed Turkey’s growing involvement in Central Asia as a means of relatively balancing China’s expanding influence there.

Despite some disagreements between Turkey and Russia over Syria, Iran and other issues, they were able to maintain very balanced relationship till recently. Now, the Crimea crisis has constituted the biggest challenge for Turkey in its Russian policy since the Cold War.

Complex Interdependence between Turkey and Russia

Russia is Turkey’s second largest trade partner after Germany. Annual trade between them now amounts to some $40 billion. Turkish Prime Minister RecepTayyip Erdogan said recently Turkey was planning to increase its trade volume with Russia to $100 billion by 2020. Turkey is very much dependent on Russia for its energy imports. It purchases over 10 percent of its oil and about half of its natural gas from Russia.They are also cooperating for Turkey’s planned nuclear energy program. Mutual large investments have also grown in some sectors, including Turkish construction companies’ involvement in building infrastructure for the Sochi Olympic Games. In 2013, Russian investment in Turkey has also reached to 843 million dollars.

The interdependence between two countries, which provides more leverage to Russia than Turkey clearly shapes Ankara's foreign policy toward Moscow. Turkey tries to be careful in its dealing with Russia by avoiding any direct criticism of the Russian authorities in public. Both countries are on conflicting poles in Syria. By blocking international action against the Al-Assad regime in Damascus, Russia effectively had a negative outlook on Ankara's support to the Syrian opposition. Despite the Russian support to Assad that undermines Turkey’s policy in Syria, the Turkish government kept its criticism of Moscow limited with the criticism of the veto power in the UN Security Council or to problem solving incapacity of international system. Turkey’s dependency on steady supply of Russian gas and oil makes the country vulnerable to Russia when there is a conflict of interest between the two sides.

Relations with Ukraine

The Turkish government takes its relations with Ukraine into consideration independent of its relations with Russia. Because Ukraine is a useful buffer with the big neighbor in the North, its independence matters to Turkey. Ankara may have objections to the way Yanukovych lost his power as an elected leader. However, there is another government installed in the country, which did not come to power via a military coup. Turkey-Ukraine relations are conducted and maintained within the framework of a strategic cooperation agreement and recorded important progress in recent years. Besides, it is not rational for Turkey to oppose a government openly and directly supported by its allies in contrast to their silent position taken in Egypt.

Crimean Tatar as a factor in analyzing Turkish Ukraine-Crimea policy

Crimea lies only 173 miles from the Anatolian coastline, across the Black Sea.It is home to a community of Turkic Tatars, Muslim indigenous people of the peninsula and ethnic and linguistic kin of Anatolian Turks. They had suffered mass deportation at the hands of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the 1940s.

Crimea formed a part of the Ottoman Empire before it was ceded to Russia under the terms of the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca, signed after the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774. After the annexation, the czars settled many Russians in the peninsula to solidify their rule. Besides, religious and political persecution of the Tatars led to their mass migration to the Ottoman territories. Crimea's population was still 39 percent Tatar at the onset of World War II. After the war, Joseph Stalin fastened Crimea's Russification by deporting the entire Tatar population to the Siberia, alleging that they had collaborated with Nazi Germany.

Not allowed to return to their homes before, many Tatars have returned to Crimea since the collapse of communism. According to the most recent official Ukrainian census, in 2001, the Tatars constitute 12 percent of Crimea's population (ethnic Russians and Ukrainians constitute 59 and 24 percent of Crimea's population, respectively).

The Tatars are, and they're in deep uneasiness with the sudden takeover of the regional government by strongly pro-Russian factions.The Tatars strongly refuse the reconstruction of Russian rule to Crimea. Crimean Tatar leader Refat Chubarov, recently said that memories of their sufferings on the hands of Russians leave the Tatars with no choice but to reject the return of Crimea to Russian control. Following the ouster of Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych on February 22, many Tatars took part in anti-Russia rallies in Crimea, otherwise a bastion of pro-Russia sentiments. On February 26, two Tatars were killed and thirty-five injured in these rallies.

Although Turkey’s leverage over the course of events is limited most of the time, yet it has a history of defending the interests of its ethnic kins, as observed in Bulgaria, Iraq, Syria Azerbaijan and Greece. That’s why, it is expected that Turkey cannot remain indifferent to the concerns of the Crimean Tartars.There is also a large Tatar diaspora living in Turkey is concentrated in certain provinces, including Eskisehir, Ankara, and Konya. They too are putting pressure on the government to do whatever it can in the Crimean crisis.

Turkey's foreign minister visited Ukraine and met the representatives of the Crimean Tatar leadership. And Prime Minister RecepTayyip Erdogan spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone to discuss some matters including the concerns of the Crimean Tatars.

At present, the Russian side is making some promises in the direction that the new era of the Russian rule will empower the Crimean Tatar community. On the other side, there are some cases of violence toward them. In the first week of March, many Tatars living in the historic city of Bakhchysarai found their doors marked, reminding the initial stage of the Great Exile of the Stalin era.

NATO factor

As we mentioned that Turkey’s multidimensional foreign policy approach is based on the assumption that the country may have some divergences in terms of its interests and goals with its alliance partners. However, this does not mean that Turkey does not need to concert its foreign policy with its allies. Turkey shares the same point of view with other NATO countries in terms of the Ukraine’s territorial integrity and invalidity of the referendum to decided the fate of the peninsula.

Applicability of the rule of self-determination

By claiming “the right to self-determination”, the Russian majority’s declaration of independence from Ukraine or unity with Russia is not a positive step by many countries, including Turkey. Turkey is not sympathetic to open the way to the use of this principle in each ethnic conflict as a conflict resolution method. Turkey, like many other countries are worried about the “domino effect” of what happened in Crimea. They argue that referendums like this place territorial integrity of certain countries at risk and have destabilizing effects on the region.

How Ankara behaved

Due to Turkey’s positioning itself on the side of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and refusal of referendum that opened the way for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it is completely wrong to conclude that Turkey’s policy toward the Ukraine/Crimea crisis is pro-Western. There are two basic reasons compelling us to disagree with this view. First of all, Turkey’s approach to the crisis since the beginning of uprising against Yanukovych on November 2013 was not aligned to those of its Western allies, which we explained above. Secondly, Turkey did not consider Putin’s move toward Crimea as a sign that he lost his hopes with respect to Ukraine and attempted to secure strategically valuable Crimea for Russia.

Strong emphasis made by Turkey on the territorial integrity of Ukraine was not indifferent to Russia’s interests in Ukraine. Turkey definitely attaches importance to strategic relations with Russia. In addition to accepting Russia’s national interests in its region, the Turkish government did not officially condemn the Russian action in the Crimean peninsula. This is obviously a factor that should be counted on when analyzing Turkey’s approach to the overall issue.Ankara has also not followed the United States and the European Union in imposing sanctions on Russian officials ın order to support this action. Furthermore, Davutoglu categorically said that Turkey would not let “another power” –most likely referring to the EU or Washington - create a Russia-Turkey conflict over Crimea, emphasizing on veracity of crisis concerning all the countries. He has also argued that instead of trying to isolate Moscow, the West, along with Ukraine, should negotiate a mutually acceptable compromise with due respect to Russian interests.

While stressing on the Ukraine’s territorial integrity and a solution within the parameters set by international law, both FM Davutoglu and PM Erdogan indicated that finding a solution to the crisis was first and foremost an obligation for the Ukrainians. Moreover, they also laid down the emphasis on the necessity of forming a common ground that would guarantee peaceful co-existence of Tatars and Russians, constitutive components of Crimea, with the Ukrainians.

The strong emphasis on the Ukrainian territorial integrity by the Turkish authorities is important from several angles. First of all, this is a natural consequence of the necessity of finding solutions to international problems within the framework of international law. Besides, it is also related to Turkey being an important member of NATO. It should not be expected from Turkey to take completely radical stance at odds with its Western allies on an important regional crisis. Third, Turkey is against the use of the principle of self-determination carelessly to the extent that it can have destabilizing effects. Fourth, Turkey feels obligated to harmonize its interests with the wish of the Crimean Tatar community. Fifth, historical legacy of the previous centuries are still alive in the collective memory. Thus, Turkey needs to swim intelligently in the strategically significant Black Sea, where global powers are trying to fish in troubled waters…

Last Mod: 07 Nisan 2014, 14:27
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Bianca - 5 yıl Before

Very balanced, and very insightfull analysis. There are a few sins of ommission, though. One is the ruthless attempt by Turkey's western "partners' to destabilize its government and plunge the country into chaos and anarchy. The other, Crimean Tatars. Most young Tatars do not care about history, and are looking forward to joining Russia and look for opportunities in wealthy Tatarstan. Jobs, education, opportunities are there, not in failed Ukraine. You are young only once.