Escalation in Crimea threatens Erdogan – Putin rapprochement

With tensions rising between Russia and Ukraine, Erdogan may find himself  forced to decide which side of the fence he sits on. That may entail falling out of love with Russia all over again.

Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met in St. Petersburg to rebuild the bridges they had ceremoniously burned just six months ago. This was the third step towards a rapprochement since falling foul of each other over the downing of a Russian fighter jet in Turkish airspace in November last year. In the final days of June, Erdoğan apologised to the family of the Russian pilot and expressed his desire for the restoration of “friendly ties”, while Putin was one of the first to offer his support to Erdoğan following Turkey’s attempted armed coup.

But how sustainable is this new relationship? The character traits of both leaders and their governments – including projection of strength at any cost, an uneasy relationship with immediate neighbours, and paranoia of a shrinking sphere of influence – suggest a volatile alliance. And, indeed, agitation on the border of Crimea and mainland Ukraine just days after their meeting could force relations into dangerous waters again.

A thorny issue

During the six month hiatus in Russian-Turkish relations, worries began to surface in Russia over the possibility that Turkey and Ukraine might build closer relations in defence of the Crimean Tatars – a Turkic people indigenous to Crimea who have been the subject of heightened persecution since the annexation. In 2015 Erdoğan hosted Tatar leaders in Turkey, expressing his solidarity with the Tatar people and vowing never to recognise Moscow’s illegal annexation.

Ukraine has repeatedly attempted to engage Turkey to help protect the rights of Tatars and its territorial integrity, while Moscow has sought to reassure Ankara that Tatar rights were being preserved. It is unclear how well Russia has done in this respect, given its decision in April this year to ban the Crimean Mejlis as an extremist organisation and exile their leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev.

At the NATO Warsaw summit in July, Erdoğan met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to express his “support for Ukraine's territorial integrity” and condemn “the oppression of Crimean Tatars in the occupied Crimea”. But his support so far has been limited to intermittent rhetorical gestures, and the fact that this meeting took place just days after his apology over the Russian jet incident indicates his unwillingness to pick a side on the issue.

Coming to a head

But Erdoğan's hand may soon be forced. Last week Russia closed a number of key border checkpoints between Crimea and mainland Ukraine, prompting a large amount of confusion. In an all too familiar scenario, Crimea was locked down, with entry and exit barred to residents of the peninsula.

Russia claimed that the Crimean border had been closed due to terrorist plots aimed at destabilising Crimea. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko fired back, stating that such claims were a “fantasy” and a “provocation”. Poroshenko subsequently put his troops on combat alert, while Russia shipped over new air defence missiles.

Russia’s agitation in Crimea has probably been carefully calculated as a means of further bolstering public support for the war in the Donbas in advance of the forthcoming Duma elections, just as Putin used fearmongering about the threat posed to ethnic Russians by Ukrainian fascists in advance of the Crimea referendum. By constructing what is seen as a plausible threat against Crimea, Putin might be able to give his own popularity ratings another boost before Russia goes to the polls. But the unrest also provides Russia with an excuse to further beef up its military presence on the peninsula. This should worry both Europe and Turkey.

The Crimean Tatars are not the only source of tension between Putin and Erdoğan. Also at play are Turkey’s security concerns in the Black Sea region, which are exacerbated by increased Russian presence, the proxy war over Nagorno-Karabakh, which flared up again just a few months ago, and the Russian imposed safe-zone for Kurds in Syria to protect them from Turkish air operations.  

While both leaders were happy to kiss and make up last week it is unclear how long the rapprochement will last. There are plenty of things bringing Putin and Erdoğan together, but there are also plenty that have the potential to push them apart. In particular, if any new conflict breaks out between Russian controlled Crimea and mainland Ukraine, Turkey may have to do what it least desires – pick a side and stick with it.

This article was originally published by The Moscow Times.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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