The Russian invasion of Crimea and the growing crisis in the Ukraine have shown that the world may not be too far away from another Cold War.
Described as “the biggest crisis in Europe in the 21st century” by the British Foreign Secretary William Hague, further escalation of the situation poses serious risks for the West.
Further political instability on its door-step is a worrying development for Turkey too.
The current stand-off has already moved both European Union foreign ministers and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to meet in emergency sessions. Both the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the US president Barack Obama spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has also visited Kiev at the weekend to defuse the crisis in the Ukraine.
Russia’s breach of its sovereignty is seen as a declaration of war by the new leaders of the Ukraine. They mobilized their troops and called their reservists.
NATO, which already called on Russia to stop its military activities and threats, announced that it will hold a meeting under Article 4 of the Treaty following a request by Poland.
The G7 cancelled preparations for the G8 summit which was scheduled for Sochi in June.
The British foreign secretary William Hague has said they were considering economic sanctions against Russia. However, an official document revealed by the BBC showed that the UK government does not intend to curb trade with Russia or close London’s financial centre to Russian businesses.
Whilst showing strong support for Ukrainian sovereignty, world leaders are pushing for a diplomatic solution.
Russia is justifying its aggression by saying it was necessary to protect Russian citizens living in Crimea. So far, the only major world power seemingly agreeing with this claim is its Shanghai Cooperation Organization partner, China.
Despite its earlier intent to join the Shanghai Cooperation organization, NATO member Turkey has sensibly chosen to stand firmly with the West.
Foreign minister Mr. Davutoğlu says that Ukraine’s territorial integrity, welfare and stability are the fundamental principles for Turkey. Two leading opposition parties also see the territorial integrity of the Ukraine as their priority.
Whilst the biggest concern for the West is the possibility of Russia annexing eastern parts of Ukraine, Turkey’s immediate worry is the fate of the Crimean Tatars. Turkey’s sensitivity regarding the Crimean Tatars has historical roots.
Over the centuries, Crimea has changed hands many times. It was a part of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries, then the Crimea was first annexed by Russia in 1783. The 1853-1856 Crimean War, fought between Russia and the Ottoman Empire (allied with Britain and France), cost at least 750 thousand lives.
Under Russian rule, the Turkish speaking Muslim Tatars remained the dominant force on the peninsula. During World War II, the Crimean Tatars were seen as collaborators with the Nazi invaders. Stalin’s brutal mass deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia and Siberia resulted with almost half dying from hunger, thirst and disease.
In 1954, Moscow transferred Crimea to the Ukraine. It was only after the 1980’s when Tatars started to trickle back to their homeland and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they began to settle in significant numbers in Crimea. Although today they make up only about 13-15 percent of the population on the Peninsula, Tatars consider themselves as the indigenous people of the land.
For the past 20 years, Turkish governments have been closely involved in encouraging and helping the re-establishment of the Tatars in Crimea, by providing financial, political and cultural support.
There is also a sizeable Tatar community in Turkey with strong cultural links to Crimea. Like Abkhaz and Chechen communities in Turkey, they act as an effective lobby for keeping Crimean issues on the foreign policy agenda. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with nearly 50 representatives of the Crimean Association on Monday and reassured them that Turkey will always stand by the Crimean Tatars.
Despite calls from its own ethnic Tatar population and from the nationalists to take a firm line against Russia, the Erdogan government seems to remain cautious. It does not want to find itself in a conflict with Russia. Turkey is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas and Turkish companies do a sizeable volume of business inside Russia.
Turkey’s policy of keeping channels of communication open both with Russia and Ukraine is a sensible one.
Whilst the 2008 Georgian experience shows clearly that appeasing the authoritarian Putin regime is largely futile, diplomacy on the Ukrainian crisis has not yet been exhausted. Together with economic sanctions, including freezing of Russian assets, a united and firm approach to Russia now may prevent a military escalation.
Again, keeping Georgia in mind, the criteria of a diplomatic success must be not only the prevention of further escalation, but also the reversal of the Russian aggression.
This post is also available in: Turkish