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 started to mount in the bilateral relations with one side, Ankara would typically do a one-eighty to pursue a rapprochement with the other.
However, these days while reading the headlines, one can hardly fight the impression 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 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, 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 that Turkey’s interests often diverge from Russia’s.
To make the matters worse, Kiev is using its newly establish ties to sow seeds of discord between Moscow and Ankara, that 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 in the issues of the Crimea rejoining Russia back in 2014 and the Crimean Tatar question have been effectively used by Ukrainian elites to further complicate the Russian-Turkish discussions of hydrocarbon matters.
The Kiev regime, that has gone completely haywire over the future loss of revenues from the transit of Russian natural gas to Europe, which resulted in it sending representatives of anti-Russian Crimean Tatar organizations to Turkey to promote the notion about “those pesky Russians” that “somehow managed to annex the Crimea”. Those activities are aimed at the derailing of the construction of the South Stream pipeline and the preventions of further negotiations about even more strings of it getting built.
From Ankara’s perspective, Moscow’s actions in the 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 erratic as the one now occupied by Europe and the United States. In 2014, the Turkish government refused to impose sanctions against Russia and, which is 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 inhabitant of the peninsula. After the events of 2014, some of them left the 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 structure 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 that was designed to represents those traditions and customs that Crimean Tatars hold dear. 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 keeps 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 are not making Moscow particularly happy.
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 so 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 Turkey, which has surpassed the 3 million mark already. This diaspora consists of Turks who’s ancestors migrated to Turkey from the Crimea. They occasionally draw attention to the problem of the Crimea, by staging anti-Russian demonstrations. The last of them was held in the end of April at the 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, those 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 that were accusing Moscow of the “occupation of the Crimea.” Unsurprisingly ,those were attended by Ukrainian political figures together with the representatives of the Turkish authorities.
Similar assemblies would soon take place in Kiev, where Ukrainian oligarchic are desperate in their attempts to prevent Russia from constructing any alternative gas pipeline that would allow Russia’s 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 the 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.