With the Kremlin mired in war, Turkey is deftly expanding its influence – at the expense of Moscow.
“The return of Crimea to Ukraine, of which it is an inseparable part, is essentially a requirement of international law.” In itself, that striking remark by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, delivered via a video link at the Crimea Platform Summit last month, would not have surprised anyone who follows Turkey-Russian relations closely .
Yet it was evidence of more than just Erdogan’s complicated juggling between his support for Ukrainian sovereignty and his refusal to engage in sanctions against Russia. It was a sign that Turkey was considering expanding its ties with Russia at a time when the Kremlin is stuck in Ukraine.
Whether in Syria or the South Caucasus, Ankara is gearing up to fill the gap as Moscow’s influence wanes.
Following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Turkey has acted as a mediator, as demonstrated in a July deal, with the help of the United Nations, to sail Ukrainian grain ships from Odessa. Its trade relations with Russia are booming. Yet Erdogan has remained persistent in supporting Kyiv, which includes Crimea, the historic home of the Crimean Tatars (a community that views Turkey as a relative state). Turkey’s supply of Bayraktar drones to the Ukrainian Armed Forces remains Ankara’s most powerful symbol of military support to Kyiv.
Turkey has felt threatened by Russian expansion into the Black Sea since the 2008 war in Georgia. Step by step, Moscow has claimed control of the buffer states, the emergence of which facilitated an unprecedented rapprochement between Russia and Turkey in the early 1990s.
Ankara’s own sense of vulnerability, combined with a deep distrust of Western allies, has made it seek reconciliation with its vast imperialist-minded neighbor rather than face-to-face. At the same time, however, Turkey has cultivated alliances with other Black Sea states for fear of a Russian revolt such as Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Romania and Moldova.
It is important to recognize that the country is now ready to take a step forward.
Take northern Syria for example. Since May, Erdogan has been calling for an operation to evacuate People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the areas of Tal Rifat and Manbij. Turkish forces and their allies of the Syrian National Army have increased pressure on Kurdish fighters along the contact line to the west of the Euphrates, as well as Kobani, Ain Issa and Tal Tamer to the east. Together, Erdogan is making a vigorous diplomatic effort to get Iran on board, along with Russia.
Syria was the focus of his three-way summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi in Tehran on July 21, as well as Erdogan’s meeting with Putin in Sochi on August 5. Russia and Iran to sign off on their plans. For an all-out attack, he is risking the prospect of restoring ties with Syria’s government of Bashar al-Assad out of revenge. However, if Putin refuses to support a new operation, it is not unthinkable that the Turkish military will take a unilateral step.
Another scenario where Turkey is moving at the expense of Russia is the South Caucasus. In July, Ankara and Yerevan agreed to open their borders, closed to third-country nationals since the early 1990s, and allow cargo flights to use each other’s airfields. Turkish and Armenian diplomats are in talks to establish diplomatic relations.
Fear of Turkey has been a major reason for Armenia’s alignment with Russia in terms of foreign and security policy. But after Azerbaijan with Turkish help defeated Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh in November 2020, the value of that alliance with Russia diminished.
Eventually, Moscow remained neutral and let the Armenian forces fight for themselves. Now, the Armenian leadership is practically looking for an opening with Turkey that could provide economic and strategic benefits.
The common thread in Syria and Armenia is that Turkey is isolating Russia from its neighborhood and areas where Moscow has gained a strategic edge over its geopolitical rivals in recent years.
Of course, Moscow is able to spoil such efforts. Though they are distracted, the Russians still have facility partnerships with the Iranians and Assad in Syria, as well as the YPG.
Russia also has a 2,000-strong peacekeeping force in Karabakh that could be instrumental in shaping the conflict there. Moscow also has some economic advantage over Yerevan: bilateral trade has increased as Armenia becomes a backdoor for Russia to circumvent Western sanctions. On Monday, fresh conflict broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia, although a ceasefire was later declared.
Yet anyone who thinks that the war in Ukraine is ultimately a conflict involving Moscow, Kyiv and the western capitals would do well to look ahead. If Russia’s expansion is halted, another nation is set to expand its diplomatic influence.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.
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