ISTANBUL, Turkey — When it comes to the crisis in Crimea, the autonomous republic Russia invaded on February 24, Turkey is in an unusual position. On one hand, it has a $35 billion trade partnership with Russia, the ear of Vladimir Putin, and custodianship of the Turkish Straits, through which millions of barrels of Russian oil and gas are shipped every day. On the other, it’s been a member of NATO for 62 years and holds deep historic and cultural ties to 250,000 Crimean Tatars likely to get caught in the crossfire if the situation escalates.
So why is Turkey not playing a bigger role in the current diplomatic standoff?
Possibly in part because of the complexities of the competing allegiances. Turkey has a lot of reasons to want to keep Russia happy. Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, visited members of Ukraine’s government in Kiev last weekend and spoke with a former head of National Tatar Parliament in Crimea, but publicly he hasn’t been particularly supportive of the new Ukrainian government. “It would be a big mistake if it [Ukraine] shuns Russia while it develops its ties with Europe,” Davutoglu said on Monday.
“Turkey needs Russian gas, Russian tourists. And there is a historical fear concerning Russia and USSR; since the time of the Ottomans, Turks are hesitant to enter in conflict with Russia,” said Bayram Balci of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That doesn’t mean Turkey isn’t sympathetic towards the Crimean Tatars — but the ties to Russia are fairly strong.
Meanwhile, Western nations are wary of looking to Turkey to help solve the crisis due to the government’s increasingly undemocratic activity at home. Turkey’s ruling AK Party is in the midst of a deepening corruption scandal, and with local elections slated for March 30, politicians are focused on issues closer to home.
“The primary issue for the government,” said Kemal Kirisci of the Brookings Institution, “is to perform as well as possible in the upcoming elections against the background of what’s happening internally.”
In theory, Turkey holds a trump card in its hand, one having to do with geography.
One of the reasons Russia intervened in Crimea is that it needs to secure its only year-round warm-water naval port at Sevastopol, which it had previously leased from Ukraine until 2042. As Christian Le Miere, a maritime security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote last month, “the base at Sevastopol has allowed Moscow to exert influence over the Eastern Mediterranean, Balkans and Middle East.” That’s influence Moscow very much wants to keep exerting: It needs its Black Sea Fleet.
But it also needs to be able to get its fleet — along with plenty of other goods — to the places that matter. And that means it needs passage out of the Black Sea and into the Mediterranean. There’s only one waterway that offers that year-round: the Turkish Straits, comprising the Bosphorus in Istanbul and the Dardanelles 135 miles further south.
The Turkish Straits is Russia's only year-round passage to the Middle East, Africa, and the European countries lining the Mediterranean. Russian warships have been bringing weapons to the Syrian government through these waters. According to SovEcon, a Russian agriculture consultancy, Russia also ships millions of tons of grain to markets in the Middle East and Africa every year, much of which goes through the Straits. Around 2.9 million barrels of oil — much of it Russian — passed through the Straits each day in 2010 according to the US Energy Information Administration, making it a crucial route for Russian exports.
The controversial Montreux Convention signed in 1936, which various countries have since wished to update, both enshrines a principle of free passage for commercial purposes and puts Russia among a favored category of countries: Though there are restrictions on the passage of military ships through the straits, powers bordering the Black Sea are exempt from them.
Is Turkey shifting westward?
That doesn’t mean Turkey has always followed Moscow’s interpretation of the Convention. In 2008, Turkey allowed a flotilla of NATO warships carrying humanitarian aid to Georgia to traverse the Straits during Russia’s war with Georgia, infuriating Moscow, who accused Turkey of flouting the terms of the agreement.
Just last week, a US warship sailed through Istanbul en route to the Black Sea. Nilufer Oral, a maritime law expert at Istanbul Bilgi University, told GlobalPost that this will likely result in Russia sending a note verbale or diplomatic protest communication to Turkey. In a sign of further tensions, Turkey scrambled eight fighter jets on Tuesday after a Russian surveillance plane was spotted flying along Turkey’s Black Sea coast. A second US warship passed through Istanbul Friday afternoon.
Crimea’s vote on secession from Ukraine has been set for March 16, meaning the crisis there is likely to continue, and experts believe Turkey could end up playing an increasingly visible role as mediator.
“Ankara could adopt a position in the Crimean conflict similar to its stance in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia, another of Ankara's Black Sea neighbors, with Turkey playing a balancing game between NATO and Russia,” wrote Soner Cagaptap of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last week.
“The first inclination of Turkish policymakers,” says Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, “is to wish this crisis away. This is an uncomfortable situation for Turkey; It is involved in a balancing act. But Turkey would want to play the role of mediator because of its longtime relations with both the West and Russia.”
Ulgen says Turkey hasn’t been asked to step up yet because diplomatic channels remain open between the Kremlin and Washington. With the vote on Crimea’s secession from Ukraine, that may soon change.