Turkey Faces 'Geography’s Revenge' in Crimea

Turkey’s strategic environment has become even more complicated following the Russian annexation of Crimea.

A woman holds a sign reading "Crimea cannot be left to Russia!" as Turks of Crimean Tatar origin take part in a protest against Russian intervention in the Ukrainian region of Crimea, on March 2, 2014, in Ankara, Turkey.

A woman holds a sign reading "Crimea cannot be left to Russia!" during a protest by Turks of Crimean Tatar origin in Ankara, Turkey.

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By: Semih Idiz, Columnist for Al-Monitor

Russia’s seizure of Crimea is a harbinger of a new Cold War that leaves Turkey facing complex situations on a number of fronts, requiring careful diplomatic and political management. Whether Ankara can rise to the occasion given that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is up to its neck in what it sees as a war of survival against its political enemies at home remains an open question.

No matter how tense the domestic situation may be, though, this is not a crisis that Turkey can afford to ignore or overlook, even if its ability to influence the course of events is limited, if indeed it exists at all.

[READ: Internet, Social Media a 'Scourge' for Turkey's Erdogan]

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has nevertheless spelled out Ankara’s “bottom line” as far as the legal position is concerned over the way Russia wrested the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine’s control, and this is largely in tune with the position of the West.

Davutoglu’s remarks reflect ambivalence with regard to Russia, a superpower Turkey cannot afford to alienate without ultimately harming its own strategic security and economic interests.

Addressing a news conference in Ankara earlier this week with Mustafa Kirimoglu, the former head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (parliament) and now a deputy in the Ukrainian parliament, Davutoglu attempted to sound a firm note when he said the recent referendum in Crimea on the region’s status was a fait accompli that lacked legitimacy.

“Crimea’s territorial integrity is paramount. Any discussion on this topic must be based on Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” Davutoglu said, underscoring the fact that Ankara will not accept the results of the Crimean referendum.

When asked, however, what steps Turkey would take if Moscow insisted on annexing Crimea, Davutoglu was circumspect. He pointed out that although Turkey is a NATO member there were factors that placed it in a different position to other members of the Western community.

“Turkey is the only country that is a neighbor to both Ukraine and Russia. At the same time, it has a direct maritime link to Crimea. Therefore, it is very important that we should feel more concern than any other country and aim for strategic diplomacy,” he said.

Despite his underlining of Turkey’s unique placing in this crisis, Davutoglu nevertheless signaled that rather than acting unilaterally, or trying to solve the problem bilaterally with Moscow, Ankara would maintain close consultations with its partners in the European Union and its NATO allies over this crisis.

His remarks indicated once again that when it comes to international crises, especially ones that raise the specter of a new cold war that involves Russia and the West, Turkey is more than likely to throw its lot in with its traditional allies.

Davutoglu’s remarks also reveal the hope that Turkey’s Western allies will have an understanding of the delicate situation Turkey is in vis-a-vis Russia, and therefore not leave Ankara facing harder choices than it already finds itself facing.

All of this provides further evidence that Erdogan’s initial ambitions of making Turkey a key regional player — an ambition that already received a serious set of blows in the Middle East following the Arab Spring — is a thing of the past.

Put another way, the “revenge of geography,” to use Robert D. Kaplan’s term, is forcing Ankara to return to Turkey’s traditionally cautious diplomacy, based on a preference for multilateralism, while it maintains and deepens security arrangements with the West.

This traditional line also provides Turkey with more clout than it would have if it were acting as a lone wolf facing the Russian bear, and this can already be discernible in the attempts by Moscow to court Ankara through the Crimean Tatars.