Turkey’s Crimea policy under Putin’s hostage
Some two million Crimeans will vote on Sunday (March 16) in a referendum that will decide whether this strategically very important peninsula will secede from Ukraine to be annexed by Russia; that is, of course, if last-ditch diplomatic efforts do not bring about the cancellation of the vote.
The Russian-majority region of Ukraine, Crimea, will likely decide for independence on Sunday in a move to increase tension in an already unstable region because of aggressive Russian policies striving against a Western expansion towards its borders and area of influence.
The developments concerning Crimea are not too different from the scenario Russia had imposed on Georgia in 2008 by recognizing the independence of two Georgian autonomous regions, Abkhazia and Ossetia. Just as it did against Georgia, Russia is threatening Ukraine and Western countries that it could militarily intervene in Crimea in the event that ongoing unrest in the country would damage Russian interests and its military presence. Thousands of Russian troops have been deployed on the Ukrainian border in a show of hard power.
The U.S. and Russian foreign ministers, John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, were in London to find a formula before everything was too late, but it seems difficult to stop the referendum. The United States and the European Union are talking about imposing sanctions on Russia, further deteriorating ties between the West and Russia. The situation is described as the lowest point in ties between the two parties since the end of the Cold War. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is giving no signal for defusing the tension by dragging his feet for a political solution.
Within this complexity that could launch a Cold War-era-like tension in the region, Turkey’s position seems to be problematic from various aspects. Staying indifferent to months-long resistance of Ukrainian people that led the toppling of the pro-Russian government, it was interesting to see Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu rushing to Kyiv to meet the interim government. But among other messages, one thing he said in the aftermath of his visit was quite identical: “A power may attempt to turn the Crimea issue into first a Tatar-Russian and subsequently a Turkish-Russian crisis. We will not let this happen.” He also claimed, “Crimea is first and foremost a problem for Ukraine and by extension the world.”
Why will there not be a crisis or disagreement between Turkey and Russia if the situation of the nearly 350,000 Crimean Turks worsens? How will Turkey keep its promises toward the Crimean Turks that it will be the guarantor of their lives and property security? Is it still going to consider this a first and foremost problem for Ukraine and, by extension, the world? How long will Turkey act as if Russia has no responsibility for this instability that could quickly turn into a civil war?
If not naïve, this explanation of the Crimean issue is a sign of misreading the entire problem. Crimea is a problem created by Russia as an obvious effort to retaliate after the ousting of former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych. It’s trying to de-stabilize the entire Black Sea region by escalating the tension, which obviously will work toward its advantage.
Crimea’s seceding from Ukraine, accompanied by other conflict areas such as Ossetia and Abkhazia, could potentially drag the Black Sea into a fire, something Turkey should have been wary of. Turkey has fought along with Russia to keep NATO out of the Black Sea for the last two decades, but that has only helped Russia consolidate its power for own national interests.
It’s true that Turkey has strong economic and energy relations with Russia and the two countries regard each other as their best partners. However, this does not apply to foreign policy issues, as they find themselves on rival positions on many of the issues concerning the global balance, such as Syria and Cyprus. It’s sad to observe that economic and energy ties with Russia are casting a dark shadow on Turkey’s foreign policy decisions.