Previously, Turkey had little to no difficulties in playing two of the opposing geopolitical powers, namely the US and Russia, against each other. When tensions began mounting between bilateral relations with one side, Ankara would typically perform a one-eighty to pursue a rapprochement with the other.
However, these days, while reading the headlines, it might appear that Russia has suddenly become Tayyip Erdogan’s most trusted ally. He and his supporters are up in arms against the US, which they have recently branded as Turkey’s archenemy. The EU, and especially Germany, has long been on Turkey’s bad side. On the other hand, Russia has proven time and time again that it’s a trustworthy partner—whether in Syria, in the support it provided Erdogan in his feud against Fethullah Gülen and his movement, or in Turkey’s aspirations to become an energy heavyweight.
Yet, it’s been noted that appearances can be misleading. Ankara’s so-called pivot to Moscow is, in actuality, consistent with a broader trend in Turkish foreign policy of late. It is a bid to assert autonomy in foreign affairs, rather than a step towards a lasting alliance with the Kremlin.
This notion can be proven by the rapidly strengthening ties between Ankara and Kiev, which Ukraine tries to exploit to the best of its abilities to cause harm to Russia, which means that Turkey’s interests often diverge from Russia’s.
To make matters worse, Kiev is using its newly establish ties to sow seeds of discord between Moscow and Ankara, who have spent a considerably amount of time working their way around sensitive topics they haven’t reached a mutual understanding on. The differences in the positions of Moscow and Ankara regarding the issues of Crimea rejoining Russia back in 2014 and the Crimean Tatar question have been effectively used by Ukrainian elites to further complicate Russian-Turkish discussions over hydrocarbon matters.
The Kiev regime, which has reacted poorly over the future loss of revenue from the transit of Russian natural gas to Europe, resulted in it sending representatives of anti-Russian Crimean Tatar organizations to Turkey to protest Russia’s repatriation of Crimea. Those activities are aimed at derailing the construction of the South Stream pipeline and the prevention of further negotiations over future stages being built.
From Ankara’s perspective, Moscow’s actions in Crimea violated international law and constituted an act of illegal annexation. In spite of this, Turkey’s position on this matter hasn’t been nearly as confrontational as that occupied by Europe and the United States. In 2014, the Turkish government refused to impose sanctions against Russia and, even more significant, signed an agreement on the construction of the game-changing Turkish Stream pipeline.
Ankara positions itself as the primary defender of the Crimean Tatars – a group of Turkic people who’s ancestors were the original inhabitants of the peninsula. After the events of 2014, some of them left Crimea and moved to Ukraine. Others stayed home and received Russian citizenship.
However, Turkey has been going out of its way to back its ethnic kinsmen. Turkish dignitaries have used every occasion to demonstrate support to the exiled leaders of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar community’s umbrella organization which the Russian authorities blacklisted as an extremist organization in 2016.
In October of the same year the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) opened the doors of the Cultural Center in Kiev, designed to represent and promote the traditions and customs of Crimean Tatars. Turkish authorities would also meet with the leaders of the Crimean Tatars in Ukraine. Erdogan has held discussions with such figures as Refat Chubarov and Mustafa Jemilev during the recent Congress of the Crimean Tatars. It’s curious that for a couple of years this Congress has been hosted by the Turkish side, which continues declaring its non-recognition of the so-called “annexation” of the peninsula. Moscow doesn’t seem to be concerned over Turkey’s position on the matter, as Ankara has its own business interests on the peninsula and it plays its hand accordingly. However, Turkey’s active support of such Crimean Tatar organizations that are recognized as extremist in the Russian Federation do not sit well with Moscow.
In any case, for Erdogan the factor of Ukraine and the issue of Crimea and the Crimean Tatars are among the political tools that Erdogan is always willing to use to gain leverage in his negotiations with Russia’s political figures.
Turkey’s government has also been providing assistance to the Tatar volunteer battalion involved in the blockade of the land connections to Crimea (though Ankara has been particularly careful not to send any arms). In March 2017, Turkey went as far as to ban ships that are sailing under its flag from visiting Crimea.
The situation is being aggravated even further by the huge diaspora of Crimean Tatars residing in Turkey, which has surpassed the 3 million mark already. This diaspora consists of Turks who’s ancestors migrated to Turkey from Crimea. They occasionally draw attention to the problem of Crimea, by staging anti-Russian demonstrations. The last of such protests was held in the end of April at Gazi University in Ankara. This demonstration was followed by a conference discussing the concerns of the Crimean Tatars, together with an exhibition depicting the destruction of Khan’s Palace in Bakhchisaray. In early May, a series of “Crimean Nights” was carried out in Ankara and Istanbul. These festivities were followed by a demonstration in connection with the 74th anniversary of the deportation of Crimean Tatars in the USSR. Under the guise of cultural slogans, a number of anti-Russian assemblies would take place accusing Moscow of the “occupation of Crimea.” Unsurprisingly, those were attended by Ukrainian political figures together with the representatives of the Turkish government.
Similar assemblies would soon take place in Kiev, where Ukrainian oligarchics are desperate in their attempts to prevent Russia from constructing any alternative gas pipeline that would allow Russian hydrocarbon giants to bypass Ukraine all together while maintaining the level of gas supplies that Europe has been demanding.
It must be pointed out that it’s important not to exaggerate the significance of ties between Kiev and Ankara. Ukraine could never replace Russia as Turkey’s main interlocutor in the former Soviet sphere. Further still, Moscow has points of leverage that Kiev obliviously lacks. First, its military is deployed around Turkish borders, in Syria, in Armenia, and in Crimea. And second, Turkey’s remains dependent on Russian energy imports and is vulnerable to trade embargoes.
Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”