Turkey’s balancing act with the US and Russia
For decades, Turkey’s relations with the US and Russia have been a zero-sum game: When its relations with Russia improve, its American ties decline. The same rule also applies to Turkey’s relations with NATO and Russia.
Ankara is now eager to adopt a slightly more independent policy within NATO, but this policy pushes it into a corner. NATO, mainly on Washington’s instigation, presses Turkey to adopt a more clear-cut policy and properly determine the position it wants to hold in the NATO-Russia balance. Moscow, for its part, does not expect Turkey to adopt such a clear-cut policy. It is happy with Ankara’s slightly independent policy, as long as this does not encroach on its interests.
At present, the most sensitive issue in Turkey’s relations with Russia and NATO is the Ukrainian crisis, which has two chapters: The annexation of Crimea and Turkey’s military cooperation with Ukraine.
Turkey, together with the majority of the international community, including certain former Soviet states, condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has refused to recognize it. Western countries oppose the annexation because it is a breach of the international rule covering the inviolability of borders.
Turkey has an additional reason to be interested in the peninsula’s annexation. Crimea was originally inhabited by Tatars, who have close ethnic, linguistic and cultural ties with Turks. In 1944, the Soviets expelled 200,000 to 250,000 Tatars from their Crimean homes and forcibly resettled them in various Central Asian republics. For 45 years, they were banned from returning.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry last month issued an unnecessarily provocative statement on this subject, which read: “77 years after the exile, Crimean Tatar Turks are challenged by the hardships created by the illegal annexation of Crimea. Turkey will continue to stand by its kinsmen in their struggle to overcome their aggrievement, attain peace and prosperity, and to protect their identities.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova strongly reacted to this statement, saying: “If this rhetoric continues, we should also pay attention to similar problems in Turkey. We do not want to do that, so I hope the Turkish Foreign Ministry will listen to us today.” This must be a clear reference to Turkey’s Kurdish problem.
At present, the most sensitive issue in Turkey’s relations with Russia and NATO is the Ukrainian crisis.
A few days later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “encouraging aggressive Ukrainian initiatives in Crimea is tantamount to encroaching on the territorial integrity of Russia.” He then called on Turkey “to take into account Russia’s legitimate concerns.”
The Tatars have suffered untold hardship, but this problem also existed when Crimea was part of Ukraine, and Turkey was then quietly conducting negotiations with the Ukrainian authorities in order to restore their rights and properties. Whether Crimea’s annexation by Russia caused additional hardship to the Tatars is questionable. Independent of the unacceptability of the annexation, we do not know whether they would be happier as Ukrainian or Russian citizens.
Because of Crimea’s importance to Russia’s naval strategy, it is unrealistic to expect that Moscow will retract its annexation. Therefore, if Turkey wants to contribute to the protection and improvement of the Tatars’ cause, the most reasonable policy would be to cooperate and negotiate with Russia.
Another controversial issue that spoils Turkish-Russian relations is Turkey’s sale of armed drones to Ukraine, along with its political support to Kyiv in the sensitive Donetsk and Luhansk conflict. Lavrov, commenting in Cairo on the sale of Turkish drones to Ukraine, said: “We strongly recommend that all responsible nations which we are in contact with —among them Turkey — that they analyze the situation, the never-ending statements by the regime in Kyiv. We warn them against feeding these militaristic sentiments.”
Moscow in April showed its unease with Turkey’s attitude by suspending commercial flights between various destinations in Turkey and Russia, using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse. They were originally suspended until June 1, but this was last week extended to June 21. Any further suspension would cause considerable damage to Turkey’s tourism industry.
Ahead of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s scheduled meeting with US President Joe Biden at the June 14 NATO summit, Turkey felt the need to make some gestures, however cosmetic, to rebalance its relations with Russia. One of them was Turkey’s move in NATO forums to tone down the alliance’s criticism of Belarus for its forced landing of a passenger plane in Minsk to detain Roman Protasevich, an opposition journalist. This attitude has to be perceived as a goodwill gesture to Moscow, which supports the Belarus regime. A second gesture was Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s statement that the Russian experts helping Turkey operate its S-400 missile defense system were being sent home. However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said they had returned because their mission was over. Biden was probably not impressed by these cosmetic gestures.
Ultimately, everything will be adjusted according to the bargaining between Erdogan and Biden on June 14.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar