‘Turkey waiting for Russia, West on Ukraine problem’

‘Turkey waiting for Russia, West on Ukraine problem’

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
‘Turkey waiting for Russia, West on Ukraine problem’

Three prominent themes of Turkey’s foreign policy are its NATO membership, its ethnic and religious policies and Realpolitik, under which energy considerations fall, Aybet (L) says. HÜRRİYET Photo / Levent KULU

Turkey’s policy vis-à-vis the crisis in Ukraine is a balancing act that has enabled the country to avoid taking sides, according to an expert.

“Turkey knows this is something between Russia and the West and particularly Germany, and it will keep quiet and let them work it out,” said Professor Gülnur Aybet.

If Turkey manages well, it could come out as a winner, she added.

Has the Russian approach to the crisis in Ukraine come as a surprise?

I think one should have expected it, but the timing came as a surprise. I thought Russia would wait a little longer after the Sochi Olympic Games. But it was obvious that eventually something would happen with regards to Crimea. Vladimir Putin’s policy is one of seeing how far opportunities lie in restoring Russia’s grandeur and influence in its neighborhood ... not necessarily in getting back all the territories of the Soviet Union but at least in exerting that same kind of influence in its own backyard. You might say that after the Cold War ended, Russia became a successor state to the Soviet Union; Russia got the strategic nuclear weapons, they kept the U.N. Security Council seat.

But Putin likes to play the world stage in the way Soviet Union did, but he also has a separate agenda of being a regional power as well. Having some control in its immediate back garden is important to him. Second, Russia has always been wary of NATO and EU expansion – much more wary of EU expansion. This is because the EU has always been a normative power. With the case of Ukraine, you almost see a return to what was happening in 1989 with the fall of communism, with all of these liberal dissident movements moving to embrace the EU.

So Russia is more afraid of values compared to military might.

Values can put people on the streets; weapons can confront another army. You can threaten another military power with military power, but with normative power, Russia is not quite sure how it works; it does not have the same kind of normative power over its near abroad. Russia is much more a Realpolitik power. It exerts influence through power. It does not understand institutional normative power, which is what the EU is.

Russia has been always too wary about normative expansion coming too close to its borders. And with Ukraine, there is a pro-Russian element, so Russia can claim self-determination.

On one hand, there is the imperative of doing something to curb Western normative expansion into these areas; on the other, there is more of a long-term strategy, testing the waters and seeing how far it can go. The West is being playing a very similar game; if they wanted to, they could introduce very crippling sanctions from day one. They did not.

Why not?

Because the EU is still dependent on Russian gas. And they don’t want to exacerbate the situation. They thought, “If we wait and see what happens, there might be a window for dialogue,” but the Russians are not seeing an opportunity for dialogue entirely based on sanctions. They see it as normative pressure by the West lecturing Russia what to do. Russia is interested in being a benign regional power with its own norms. The Soviet Union was about “this is our ideology, anyone against it is a traitor and we have to use force to maintain that ideology.”

Look at the language Russia is using: “We are the champion of self-determination.” When they went into Georgia, they said it was for humanitarian intervention. They are redefining international norms in their own terms.

But that does not resonate in the West, which doesn’t believe Russia is doing it for benign reasons.

The West would see it that way because the West believes their norms are supreme. They are the norms that created the international liberal order in 1945, they are the norms that maintained the liberal order after the Cold War. So they are the victors, but it is a normative battle. So they have always assumed that people in these countries will embrace EU norms, as well as a democracy and free-market economy rather than Russia’s definition of being the paternalistic regional actor with its norms of self-determination.

On the other hand, Russians don’t see anything benign about Western norms. But I think we have reached a point now in the international world order where there is a struggle between Realpolitik and the liberal international order as we have known it from 1945 onwards.

I don’t think one will win over the other, but they are both equally strong at the moment; this is why this is very confusing for Russia and the West and countries like Ukraine caught in the middle. Turkey is also right in the middle of this struggle. It is caught between the norms and belonging to the international liberal order and regional Realpolitik. Current Turkish foreign policy straddles the two.

That’s how you explain Turkey’s stance on Ukraine?

The reaction at the moment is based on Realpolitik; there is a very large trade volume with Russia. Turkey is using the Montreux convention [regulating passage through the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus] by strictly adhering to it. Montreux is a good back-up as it protects you against taking one side or the other. International law is always a good cover. Montreux does give Turkey that safety net to play it safe with regards to Russia. But we have the Crimean Tatars. Turkey also has a local regional policy of its own norms based on religious and ethnic identity; its role as a regional player is being protective of these peoples. That puts Turkey in an extremely difficult position. I guess when PM [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan phoned Putin, he probably said, “Look, now we have the trade deal; Europeans are looking for alternative gas that would cross through Turkey, but we are also supporting you. In the short run, you can help out by giving some assurances about the Crimean Tatars.”

And Putin declared the restoration of the rights of all the peoples of Crimea, including the Tatars. That was actually a big move in assuring these people we are not like the old Russia. But then they had an issue with the leader of Tatars, Mustafa Abdulcemil Kırımoğlu; they refused him an entry. But probably they have an issue with just him; he has been going around visiting Western states. The West has not been helpful there. They knew they won’t intervene in Crimea but they kept rallying the Tatars. This sort of thing encourages people in the wrong way. If Putin decided to crack down, NATO was not going to lift a finger to protect this people. Luckily it has not happened, but the West has been careless.

On the one side, Erdoğan was so emotional about the Muslim Brotherhood but so cool-headed on the Tatars.

It is Realpolitik. Turkey straddles between playing a regional normative role and regional Realpolitik and being a member of the Atlantic alliance. Turkey is running its foreign policy on these three spheres:

It belongs to the transatlantic community, then there is the ethnic, religious and local normative Turkey, and then there is pure Realpolitik, and energy falls under Realpolitik. Let’s face it, we are a big energy importer. NATO and the EU is normative, but not the U.S. Turkey is managing a juggling act between these three spheres, and it juggles very skillfully but it is puzzling for people.

So what is the basic message that has been given to the Tatars, because Kırımoğlu has just been honored with the Medal of State in Turkey.

It’s been like “we really care for you; you are very close to us, et cetera.” But on the other hand, they have been less encouraging about rights under self-determination; the West has been saying you should be standing up for your rights, you should be pro-EU. The Turkish discourse never mentioned the Crimean Tatars’ right to be pro-EU. It has played the ethnic card very skillfully, not encouraging Tatars to take up arms against the Russians. That has been very influential in the way they responded; if they had seen a more belligerent Turkey they might have gone against the Russians.

Turkey has been good also at keeping a low profile and letting Putin work this out with the West. This is a game Turkey is not a part of. Russia will be watching, looking at Germany very closely. Turkey knows this is something between Russia and the West and particularly Germany, and it will keep quiet and let them work it out.

Can this crisis serve the interests of Turkey, especially with the energy factor in the equation?

The U.S. president has said, “Our priority is to find alternative energy routes for Europe.” The first thing that comes to mind is the one crossing Turkey. This is going to play out to the advantage of Turkey, as long as they keep their head low and let Putin work out its differences with the West. Sticking to Montreux allows them to be neutral. As long as Turkey can balance this very carefully in not upsetting Russians too much, it’ll come out a winner. Putin and Erdoğan have a very good understanding on how to manage these tricky situations. They are really on opposite sides on Syria. Has it ruined Turkish-Russian relations? No, and that’s remarkable. They’ll deal with this the same way.



Professor Gülnur Aybet is currently the head of the Department of International Relations at Özyeğin University.

She received her BA in economics and public administration from Royal Holloway, University of London, an MS in international relations from the University of Southampton, an M Phil in war studies from King’s College, University of London, and her Ph.D in international relations from the University of Nottingham.  

Prior to joining Özyeğin University in 2013, she taught at the universities of Nottingham and Kent in England, and Bilkent University in Turkey. Aybet has been a principal investigator in many research projects funded by the British Academy, NATO and the Turkish Foreign Ministry. She was a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, where she was also a senior associate member of the college.