The Crimean peninsula, scene of one of most important military struggles of the last years of the Ottoman Empire, has made a surprising comeback to the world scene after the events in Ukraine. Russia's moves of sending troops to Crimea, in an effort to sever it from Ukraine, prompted Ankara and Western capitals to react. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutolgu, who went to Kiev last Friday, met with the former speaker of the Tatar National Assembly, Mustafa Abdulcemil Kirimoglu, and declared: “If the term is appropriate, we are in 'mobilization' to defend the rights of our kin in Crimea by doing whatever is necessary.”
The word "mobilization," which Davutoglu had selected carefully. was an excellent indicator, although not with military connotation, of the urgency of the issue for Turkey. Turkey, which had refrained from taking a too-visible position about the Ukrainian popular revolt so as not to upset Russia, however took a clear position siding with the West when the issue became Crimea. A senior official I spoke with yesterday, March 3, said: “Crimea has important strategic importance for all of Europe. Perhaps Syria and Egypt are more dramatic issues, more mediagenic, but Crimea is a more strategic one.”
Over the weekend there were intensive contacts about Crimea between Western capitals and Ankara. Davutoglu had frequent telephone contacts with German, US and Eastern European allies. Crimea is important for Ankara not only because of its location as a gate to the Black Sea, but also because of Muslim Crimean Tatars.
Crimean Tatars, who were part of the Ottoman Empire till the end of the 18th century, are ethnically and culturally close to Turkey. Crimean Tatars, who were subjected to deportation and ethnic pressure during the Cold War, are actually an extension of Anatolian geography just like Kirkuk Turkmen. They speak Turkish and since the last quarter of the 19th century there has been a sizable Crimean diaspora in Turkey.
Turkey believes that the rights of the Crimean Tatars, with whom it has been in close relations with since the first days of the republic, will be better preserved not under Russian control but within the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Turkey’s Agency for Cooperation and Coordination (TIKA) and other institutions had established close ties with the Crimean Tatars who had been trying to reassert their identities.
Foreign Ministry sources I spoke with yesterday said: “We are not looking at Ukraine solely from a Crimean perspective. But it is also true that Crimea has special importance for us. They speak Turkish and we have deep cultural ties with Crimean Tatars. Historically, Crimea was a part of the Ottoman Empire.”
Davutoglu in his Kiev contacts emphasized the importance of territorial integrity of Ukraine and pointed to the need for the new government to be “all-embracing” instead of provoking pro-Russia elements. But the signs on the ground point to an escalation of the crisis. Reports reaching Ankara and EU capitals on Saturday said Russia was launching what appears to an invasion of Crimea. Even before the decision of the Russian parliament, 6,000 Russian soldiers had surrounded the state offices, took over the airports and closed the air space. Turkish officials say these developments are causing concern.
A senior official said before anything else Ankara favors the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and added: “On Ukraine and Crimea we share the positions of the West.” This, in a way, paints a picture about the balance of forces in Europe 160 years ago.
The Crimean peninsula was separated from the Ottoman Empire with the 1774 Karlowitz Treaty and became the cause of a similar strategic struggle between the European powers and Russia in the mid-19th century. In the 1853-56 Crimean War, the Ottomans fought alongside the British and French against Russia, despite the extremely high costs it had to pay.