BACKGROUND: By seizing and annexing Crimea, Russia not only made itself the dominant force in the Black Sea, it also regained control over the Crimean Tatar population there. Although these are two issues of differing magnitude for Turkey they both carry significant resonance in the country. Indeed, at NATO's September 2014 summit, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that "The illegal annexation of Crimea will not be recognized" and asserted that ways must be found to prevent the isolation of the Crimean Tatars.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu repeated that non-recognition clause in November 2014. More recently, Çavuşoğlu reiterated that the mounting pressure on the Crimean Tatars was unacceptable, condemning the arrest of the vice chairman of the Crimean Tatar Majlis (parliament) Ahtem Ciygoz and demanded an immediate end to the rising pressure on the Crimean Tatars.
The Turkish foreign minister even announced that Turkey would send an informal delegation to Crimea to examine alleged human rights violations, specifically pointing to Russia's past promises to improve the cultural and political rights of the Crimean Tatars.
Yet beyond these steps Turkey has taken no significant action to strengthen its security in the Black Sea, nor has Turkey contributed to strengthening Western and NATO cohesion in the region. Instead it has rushed to embrace Moscow's Turk Stream proposal for a direct gas pipeline through the Black Sea to Turkey that would make Turkey dependent on Russia for about 70 percent of its natural gas consumption.
Set against Russian repressions against the Crimean Tatars, the war against Ukraine – along with intensified Russian naval and other military buildups in Crimea, to the point of introducing nuclear-capable missiles there – Turkey's inaction begs for an explanation. It is worth asking what this lassitude or passivity says about Turkey's real, as opposed to rhetorical, foreign policy and what the implications of this passivity are.
Given the prominent role that Ankara aspires to have in regional and world affairs what does the Turkish passivity in relation to the developments in the Black Sea region, and specifically regarding the case of Crimea, say about those avowed aspirations?
IMPLICATIONS: Any student of Turkish history knows that the appearance of strong Russian military forces in the Black Sea spells trouble and announces a threat, if not the actuality of war for Turkey. Turkey would not be able to stave off a Russian military aggression relying only on its own resources. Yet there is no sign that Turkey has taken a leading role in NATO deliberations to oppose the Russian designs in the Black Sea region; nor are there any signs that Ankara is about to undertake any new major security commitments or even launch a major defense program. Turkey has signed major energy deals with Russia that will make it even more dependent on Russia, and which allows Russia to do an end run around Western sanctions and continue threatening Ukraine and the Balkans with energy boycotts.
The new Russian-Turkish energy deal conforms to the long-held and deeply rooted obsession of Turkish leaders that Turkey be the energy hub of Eurasia; however, given today's energy market and the globalization of gas production to the point where Turkey has besides Russia gas transiting from Azerbaijan, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, the question arises whether it really is a necessity to undermine the sanctions against Russia, display contempt for Turkey's Western allies while further increasing Turkish dependence on Russia?
Turkey could instead have chosen to compose its differences with Israel, if not with Cyprus, which does not pose a threat to vital Turkish interests, to secure future gas deliveries from Israel's gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Furthermore, Turkey maintains it continues to give priority to Azerbaijan's gas coming from the Caspian in the Trans-Anatolian pipeline (TANAP.) Yet, the deepening energy relationship with Russia has as a direct outcome that TANAP and TAP (Trans-Adriatic pipeline) to the Balkans is deemphasized.
Turkey's choices – the new energy deal with Russia, as well as the passivity in the face of Russian expansionism in the Black Sea region – coincide with increasing signs of domestic authoritarianism under Erdoğan; the Turkish president seems to be consciously emulating Russian President Vladimir Putin's style of leadership and policies.
And perhaps this is what ultimately explains Turkey's actions as well as its lack of action. But arguably, this is not simply a question of emulation although that does appears to be the case as well. More fundamentally, Turkey, like the European countries, appears to be both cognitively and psychologically unprepared to accept the irrevocable fact that Russia is prepared to use force to rearrange the map of Eurasia and thus to undertake serious defensive buildups to strengthen its security. Simply put, Turkey appears to be afraid of Russia, a fear that has deep historical roots.
Arguably, the Turkish fear of Russia – coupled with the spectacle of Putin's success and the ineptitude of the United States and the European Union in dealing with the Ukrainian crisis – leads Turkish leaders to believe themselves in some measure to be isolated and exposed. And the regime of Erdoğan does not hide its disdain of the West; beholding the spectacle of Putin's successes and harboring ambitions to realize Turkey's supposed destiny as a key pivotal state and energy hub, the Turkish leaders see the better part of discretion to refrain from doing anything that could provoke Russia.
The situation of the Crimean Tatars may offend Turkish nationalist sensibilities; but the relationship with Russia, and the fact that Putin is a role model, is what counts for Turkey.
For the foreseeable future it thus appears that the Turkish government will therefore not offer anything beyond rhetoric for the Crimean Tatars, nor join Western sanctions, or take a strong role in countering Russia's military buildup by its own means or in conjunction with NATO allies.
The combination of fear, admiration for Vladimir Putin, and mounting disregard if not contempt for Europe and the United States portend a further estrangement of Turkey from the West. The vision that animates the foreign policy of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is – if not necessarily anti-Western – non-Western; it postulates that Turkey, as it sets about to explore geopolitical possibilities in its "strategic depth" (the title of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's influential foreign policy treatise) will fulfill its destiny to become a leading world power.
Yet there is nothing that suggests that a Turkey that has dissociated itself from its Western allies and "diversified" its strategic relations, with a partnership with Russia, has accrued any geopolitical benefits; there is no case to be made that Turkey has strengthened its influence in the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, or in the Middle East.
For the Crimean Tatars it is already becoming clear that Turkey is a weak reed. Reports from their midst indicate growing awareness and disappointment that they cannot count on Turkey to offer them any support. And indeed, other reports indicate a growing fear on their part that they will not be able to escape Russian control and that Crimea will remain under Russian control for a long time to come. That outcome can only presage growing repression if not worse.
Meanwhile, Russia's comprehensive military buildup in the Crimea comprises land forces, air, air defense, and naval forces not to mention nuclear capable missiles. This military arsenal represents a threat not only to the Balkans but also enables enhanced Russian power projection into the Middle East, increasing Russia's ability to challenge Turkish interests in Syria and Cyprus.
The increase in Russian military capability in the Black Sea also further strengthens Moscow's hand in relation to Turkish energy interests. For now Ankara insists that it still remains committed to the TANAP project with Azerbaijan, despite its recent Turk Stream pipeline deal with Russia. But Russian energy pressure on Ankara and Baku will likely grow, as Russia successfully asserts it power in Ukraine.
CONCLUSIONS: Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars are the casualties of the new Russian expansionism; but the geopolitical and military assertiveness of Vladimir Putin's Russia has had yet another casualty: Turkey's pretentions of being a world power in the making.
The Turkish fiasco in Syria had already exposed Ankara's regional dreams as a dangerous illusion. And Turkey's inability and unwillingness to stand up to Russian neo-expansionism – something history should have taught Ankara to be extremely wary of – serves to further underline that Turkey's erstwhile reputation for conducting a strong independent foreign policy was never deserved.
Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons)