All about geography
Because of its location, Turkey is again at the center of other country’s problems
Geography is once again causing havoc for Turkey’s foreign policy. Last week’s escalation of the brooding standoff between Russia and Ukraine has raised the specter of a war on Turkey’s northern flank and brought its alliances and treaty obligations – with NATO and the Montreux agreement governing the Turkish straits – into question. How does the incident affect Turkey and what role can it play in de-escalating the situation?
Th s nc dent puts Turkey n a precar ous pos t on. Can you talk about why Turkey s caught n the m ddle of all th s?
On the one hand, Turkey has good relations with Ukraine. In addition to good economic relations and historical sympathy for the Ukrainians, there is a group of Tatars that live in Ukraine in whose well being Turkey has an interest. Furthermore, in this particular instance, the major alliance system that Turkey belongs to - NATO is supportive of Ukraine against Russia. On the other hand, Turkey’s relationship with Russia has been expanding and what started initially as economic relations has been acquiring political and strategic dimensions. Turkey these days, for instance, has better cooperation with Russia than it has with the U.S. in Syria. Turkey has also decided to buy the S400 missiles from Russia which is a strategic decision.
This Ukrainian incident creates difficulties in Turkey’s external relations. To take one example, the Russian Federation has not taken too kindly to the presence of NATO warships in the Black Sea during the conflict between Russia and Georgia that Turkey had allowed to go through the Turkish Straits under the Montreux Convention. Under current circumstances, Turkey would display greater reluctance to accommodate requests for nonblack Sea warships going through the Turkish straits. Trying to accommodate Ukraine, on the other hand, would constitute grounds for Russian economic reprisals and problems in Syria.
These potential difficulties also demonstrate the risks involved in developing very close ties with Russia. The Azov Sea incident has given everyone a chance to see how Russia treats its weaker neighbors. If Turkey were not covered by NATO, there is some question as to whether Turkish-Russian relations characterized nowadays as being friendly would be the same as they are today. At the same time, the incident has shown Turkey how difficult it is to operate in a multilateral world and building good relations with actors that are in a conflictual relationship with each other.
►Does Turkey have the we ght to play a med at ng role? Can t nfluence Russ a and Ukra ne?
I don’t think so. Turkey is not in a position to offer any rewards to either side nor is it in a position to apply too much pressure on them. Furthermore, it has its hands full with other problems these days. Turkey would be able to perform a mediating role only if the two parties to the conflict agree that Turkey should constitute the agency or the site where they talk to each other.
Meetings like the G20 provide opportunities for the leadership of attending countries to communicate with each other privately. This time, clearly Russia’s relations with Ukraine have been discussed among almost all participating at the summit. The topic has also come up in conversations between Mr. Putin and other leaders. I imagine that the Turkish president and other leaders all sang the same tune: They told Putin to avoid escalating the incident into a major conflict. This is a contested area to be sure, but Ukrainian ships should be allowed to go through the Kerch strait into Mariupol and other Ukrainian ports. Unfortunately, there are also suggestions that the incident was provoked by Ukraine to mobilize nationalist feelings and support behind the government because the Ukrainian president is up for re-election and is facing stiff competition from Yulia Tymoshenko. So this crisis may be temporary from the Ukrainian perspective as well.
►Could Turkey, under the NATO agreement, just dec de to rema n neutral?
There’s nothing automatic in the NATO treaty that forces all the members to start fighting an adversary at the same time. But alliances are built on the idea that you can trust your partners to act with you to achieve particular ends. And if Turkey remains outside of what appears to be a general NATO decision, then it would not be assured in the future of NATO coming to its own defense. So this is very risky business to pick and choose, saying that while other members may all want something, you don’t think it’s a good idea, therefore you will stay clear of it. This sort of luxury is even less available to Turkey than some other countries. For instance, during the Cold War era, France basically withdrew from NATO, which it argued was a withdrawal from the military organization, not the alliance. But France’s geography was different: there was a buffer state called West Germany to its east so if there was a Warsaw Pact onslaught, the alliance would come to the assistance of the West Germans to stop the aggression. In the Atlantic, France was defended by Britain, Portugal and, of course, the United States. France was not taking too many risks by saying it’s withdrawing from NATO. Turkey, on the other hand, is a frontline state and it doesn’t have the luxury of saying I’ll just keep out of it and then be assured of protection. The current situation is in fact a more serious than it may appear at first sight, if it is allowed to escalate.
►We’re w tness ng the fallout from volat le global power balances as the world order sh fts. Turkey seems to be s tt ng on the fence. Is that the r ght strategy or does Turkey need to p ck a s de?
That’s the $64,000 question. But in fact, when power balances are shifting, it is almost necessary to play the game in multi-lateral ways. Obviously, you cannot put all your eggs in the basket of the old order if it is weakening and there is as yet no new order to replace it. In addition, you cannot have bad relations with the rising powers of the emerging new order. I’m not necessarily persuaded that Russia is a rising power; the rising power is of course China. But at the moment, Russia is coming back to restore some of its superpower status that it lost after the end of the Cold War, and we are going through a period when Russia has become more assertive. Otherwise, Russia will not play an important role in the shifting of world power balances in the long run except for the fact that it has a nuclear arsenal.