Look north from Turkey’s Black Sea coastline to Crimea, whose turbulent history belies the tranquillity of its steppes, lakes and mountains.
After Russia’s 2014 incursion into Crimea aimed at regaining control of the peninsula, in “To understand Crimea, take a look back at its complicated history” (The Washington Post, 27 February 2014) Adam Taylor wrote:
“Given that Crimea has a modern history intrinsically linked with Russia, contains the largest population of ethnic Russians within Ukraine, and harbours a significant portion of Russia’s navy in Sevastopol, Crimea is clearly an important place… Add a minority Crimean Tatar population (12 percent in 2001) that has pretty good reason to be wary of Moscow, plus a lot of Ukrainians, and the situation could easily look explosive.”
Since then, Crimea and the city of Sevastopol have become part of Russia’s Southern Military District, the parliament of Crimea has approved a new Constitution, Crimea has officially switched over to the Russian rouble as its only form of legal tender and changed its phone codes from the Ukrainian to the Russian numbering system.
In July 2015, Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, declared that Crimea had been fully integrated into Russia. But this new status is not internationally recognized. Crimea and the city of Sevastopol are still considered by Ukraine, the European Union, and the United Nations as part of Ukraine.
Many believe that Russia’s intentions have little to do with protecting the ethnic Russian population living in Crimea and far more to do with turning Crimea into a fortress on the Black Sea in case of conflict (imagined or otherwise) with the European Union.
In “Vladimir Putin may believe time is ripe for another invasion” (The Guardian, 10 August 2016), Luke Harding described the situation as threatening, raising suspicions that Russia may be about to invade again:
“The situation in Crimea looks ominous. Russia’s FSB spy agency said on Wednesday that it had foiled a series of attacks by armed Ukrainians on the peninsula. Minutes later, Vladimir Putin accused Kiev’s pro-western government of choosing terror over peace. Meanwhile, largely unnoticed by the outside world, Russia has been stealthily shipping military vehicles to Crimea.”
What has this to do with Turkey? After the heavily repressed abortive coup against Turkish President Erdoğan, Russian President Putin lost no time in extending the hand of friendship. Erdoğan flew to St Petersburg and both countries miraculously agreed to restore their yearly bilateral trade target of $100 billion and to resume charter flights from Russia to Turkey. The Turkish leader also said he is ready to build a natural gas pipeline with Russia and to negotiate a deal for it to construct Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.
What is the political quid pro quo? Russia supports Turkey during the period of international unease following the coup and at a time when Turkey desperately needs to demonstrate its democratic credentials if it is to become a member of the European Union – despite a recent threat to reintroduce the death penalty. Turkey is a country in which human rights are routinely abused and where dozens of journalists languish in jail. Amnesty International has documented torture, free speech violations, the denial of minority rights, unfair trials, and an abysmal failure to protect women.
And Russia? If, as now seems likely, President Putin decides to take over the whole of Crimea as a prelude to further aggression against Ukraine, Turkey will look the other way. It might even plead neutrality and deny NATO access to military bases in the region. Such a manoeuvre must have been high on the agenda of the leaders’ recent meeting.
Putin’s aim is to reinforce Russian domination of the Black Sea region as part of a broader geopolitical strategy to destabilize Ukraine and Europe. The Baltic and Georgia have long been in his sights. Now watch out for “threats to Russian citizens and foreign tourists” in Crimea and “attacks by Ukrainian terror cells” as pretexts for Russia to offer Crimea protection, stability, and everlasting peace.