17.03.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

The Crimean peninsula and Turkey’s ambitions…

The Crimean peninsula

The Crimean Peninsula, by virtue of its location, has always been of key geographical and strategic significance in the Black Sea basin. If Turkey controls the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, that does not mean that it is invulnerable. For whoever controls Crimea, in effect, also has ownership over the Black Sea.

There was a time, from 1475 up to 1783 (when Article 3 of the 1774 Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca was replaced, which recognized the independence of the Crimean Khanate), when Ottoman Turkey owned Crimea and considered the Black Sea its own “internal lake.” But the situation changed with the signing of the Peace of Jassy in 1791, and Turkey had to accept the cession of Crimea to Russia for “eternity.” Naturally, when the Crimean issue was resolved following the confrontation between Turkey and Russia in the late 18th century, there was no question of Ukrainian statehood – something which Russian President Vladimir Putin explained clearly to a global audience (including not just the UK and US, but also Turkey) in a recent interview with US journalist Tucker Carlson.

However, following the collapse of the USSR and the formation of new independent states in the post-Soviet space, the Crimean issue once again became a subject of special concern for key global and regional powers interested in weakening Russia and reducing its influence in the Black Sea. Unfortunately for us, this situation was the result of the arbitrary decision of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to change the administrative status of the Crimean Peninsula to that of autonomous teritory and transferring it from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR, without holding a referendum and without taking into account the opinion of the local population. Nevertheless, the city of Sevastopol and the Black Sea Fleet remained under the control of the central government.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the then Russian leadership unfortunately was not particularly concerned about the fate of Crimea and did not require the Ukrainian government to cede responsibility for its security to Moscow in the event of the peninsula returning to Russia. In principle, such a question on the issue of autonomy should have been explicitly included on the agenda of the discussions on the breakup of the USSR, in which case, today Moscow would not have political and legal clashes with the rest of the world on the fate of former Soviet autonomous territories that wished to exercise their right of self-determination and integrate into the Russian Federation.

Ever since its loss of Crimea, Turkey has always looked forward to the future, in the hope of weakening Russia and bringing the peninsula back under its influence. With this in mind, in a bid to influence the situation, Turkey has attempted to make use of the Crimean Tatars, the ideology of pan-Turkism and its own intelligence capabilities. Unfortunately, the Turkish and German attempts to turn the Crimean Tatars against the USSR in 1944 ended miserably for the Crimean Tatars themselves, who were subjected to mass repression and mass deportation from the peninsula.

Ankara has since tried to manipulate this tragedy by accusing Moscow of genocide. However, it met with little success in its claims, not least because Turkey itself bears on its conscience the weight of the Armenian Genocide. During the Soviet era, Turkey was unable to take any steps to threaten its far more powerful northern neighbor.

But times have changed and since 2014 Turkey has once again been making plans for Crimea. Ankara began to support the process of return of Crimean Tatars to the peninsula, to promote the formation of new ethnic NGOs and religious institutions, provide them with humanitarian and economic assistance, and to provide Crimean Tatar institutions based in Turkey with various platforms (universities, think tanks, media) which they can use to make Russophobic statements. These bodies have grouped around what has become their political center, the non-governmental Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People (an extremist organization banned in the Russian Federation) headed by Mustafa Dzhemilev, who, together with fellow extremist Rustem Chubarov is a permanent and honored guest in Turkey, where they participate in various forums and other anti-Russian events. Every year, the Turkish authorities allow the Crimean Tatar community to hold commemorative events to mark the anniversary of the deportation of Crimean Tatars on May 18, 1944. Leaders of radical anti-Russian Crimean Tatar organizations are received by Turkish officials (Numan Kurtulmuş, President of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, Yalçın Topçu, adviser to the presidential administration etc.). In the 1990s-2000s, Ankara encouraged the allocation of various grants to Crimean Tatar organizations, while the Ukrainian authorities failed to respond to the active promotion of Turkish interests in Crimea. In principle, this practice continues to this day.

After December 1991, Turkey supported Crimea’s incorporation into Ukraine for two reasons: firstly because of Kiev’s pro-Western and pro-NATO course, and secondly because of Ukraine’s weakness compared to Russia. In other words, the Turks expected that it would be easier to tear Crimea away from a weak Ukraine at some time in the future, given the increasing role and influence of the Crimean Tatars on the peninsula, in time, and to make this territory another Turkic entity. In time, the Kiev regime’s course in favor of the NATO alliance and European integration would lead to the expulsion of the Russian fleet and Russian population from Crimea, thus facilitating the subsequent absorption of the peninsula by Turkey with the help of radical sections of the Crimean Tatar community. Who knows, perhaps the Tukish Navy hoped that one day it would be able to mount a naval landing on the shores of Crimea – as it did back in 1974 in Cyprus, in its Operation Atilla.

In addition, right up until 2014, Turkish special services continued to probe Russia’s approaches to Crimea, and its military intelligence naturally monitored the deployment and command plans of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet. These activities are still continuing, but now other factors have come into play.

The situation in relation to Crimea changed radically after the return of the peninsula to its “historic home” in March 2014, i.e. its reunification with the Russian Federation. March 18, 2024 will mark the 10th anniversary of Crimea’s reunification with Russia. On that day back in 2014 Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty between the Russian Federation and the Republic of the Crimea on the peninsula’s accession to Russia. This decision was taken following a referendum on the status of the region. More than 95 percent of Crimean residents voted in favor of the Republic of Crimea becoming a part of Russia. Turkey made it clear that it did not accept the results of this referendum and officially adheres to Kiev’s position, recognizing the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its 1991 borders (this position also applies to the other territories incorporated into Russia in the course of the ongoing special military operation).

For example, on August 23, 2021, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, speaking at the Crimea Platform online conference, once again showed himself to be Ukraine’s “best friend” and demanded the return of Crimea to the Kiev regime. His words were echoed in comments by his then spokesman, Ibrahim Kalın. In an interview with CNN, Kalin said that if Kiev signs a peace agreement with Russia, Crimea should return to Ukraine because, in his opinion, Russia had illegally “annexed” the peninsula, and Ankara’s position on the issue had not changed since 2014.

Sergey Tsekov, senator for Crimea and a member of the Federation Council’s Committee for International Affairs, believes that by making such statements, Turkey is interfering in the internal affairs of Russia and Ukraine. In his opinion, if Turkish officials actually supported any decision of Ukraine regarding Crimea, then their position would be correct and diplomatic.

Thus, Turkey considers that Crimea is part of Ukraine and that this must form the basis of any agreement with Russia. This position of Ankara – the unacceptability of the “annexation” of Crimea, and the need to restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine and protect the rights of the Crimean Tatars – did not change following the beginning of Russia’s special military operation. The question is, how does this fit in with Turkey’s role as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine? With Russia’s special military operation still under way, one would think that any country hoping to mediate and help achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict would avoid making such statements, but Turkey, on the contrary, is escalating matters.

Moreover, when it comes to the Crimean issue, Ankara unequivocally sides with the Crimean Tatars, whom it sees as an indigenous people. Turkish politicians use whatever platform they can to remind their audience that the Crimean Tatars are their kin. “Ensuring the safety and well-being of our compatriots the Crimean Tatars, one of the indigenous peoples of Crimea, is one of our priorities,” says President Recep Erdoğan.

Numan Kurtulmuş, the Speaker of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly, shares this view: “Our friends and brothers in Crimea actually constitute a part of Turkey’s geographical center. We follow the events in Crimea in full detail. We also want to protect the rights and laws of our brothers in Crimea.”

One wonders how Turkey would respond if Russia reminded it of its discrimination against the Kurds or the tragedy of the Armenian Genocide? What civil rights of the Crimean Tatars are being violated in Russian Crimea, and what ethnic laws of the Crimean Tatars is Mr Kurtulmuş talking about? In Russia, the interests and equality of all peoples are guaranteed by the Constitution and protected by the authorities.

Turkey supported Volodymir Zelensky’s initiative to recognize Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people of Ukraine. In September 2023, the head of the Kiev regime appointed Crimean Tatar Rustem Umerov, who is notable for his anti-Russian extremism, as Minister of Defense following the departure of scandal-beset Oleksiy Reznikov. It appears that Kiev coordinated this staffing decision with London and Ankara, and a couple of months later, new plans for Turkish-Ukrainian military cooperation began to be implemented. These involve, among other things, the construction of a Bayraktar UAV production plant in Kiev region, and plans by Kiev to purchase a new Turkish KAAN fighter jet – a deal which is still being finalized – along with other Turkish arms and equipment).

At the second Parliamentary Summit of the Crimea Platform, Numan Kurtulmuş said: “Türkiye supports the integrity of Ukraine within its international borders. However… had the international community been able to speak out at the time of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, this meeting would not be taking place today and perhaps Ukraine would not be the recipient of such a war. Since 1944, our friends, brothers and kinsmen, the Crimean Tatars, have been suffering, and we have stood by them and supported their just struggle. For us, it is essential that the rights and interests of our Tatar kinsmen, a native people of the Crimea, should be protected, their identity preserved, and their status on the peninsula has to be strengthened.”

In fact, Numan Kurtulmuş was largely restating the ideas of former Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who in April 2022 in Antalya also stated that the Turks “were reacting to the annexation of Crimea in 2014. If the world had reacted properly then, this would not be happening today.”

Really, what did Turkey ask the international community to do back in 2014 in response to Russia’s policy in Crimea? To start a war with Russia and go against the will of the people of Crimea? And then what does Turkey want in the Gaza Strip, if they condemn Israel, which excludes all forms of Palestinian statehood? How can Ankara square its occupation of territory in the north of Syria with international law?

Of course, Turkish ambitions in relation to Russian Crimea are awakened even more every time when certain individuals in Russia (such as Igor Girkin) suggest the partition of Ukraine, with the return of Galicia to Poland, Transcarpathia to Hungary, and Bukovina to Romania. If that were to happen, Ankara would have its eye on Crimea.

Turkey respects only might. Ankara’s plans to take over Crimea, Transcaucasia and Central Asia if Russia becomes weaker are still very real. However, they are likely to remain a pipe-dream of Turkish radicals if Russia opposes them with its own nationally oriented policy of reviving a strong and large state. If Turkey has ambitions on the Russian Black Sea coast in Crimea, Russia can also show that it has its own interests on Turkey’s sea coasts – and not only because of the seasonal presence of its tourists, but also because (as Ankara would do well to remember) Kars, Ararat and Surmalin district were formerly part of the Russian Empire. And not just Kars – after all, Van is not a Turkish city at all and is biding its time.

Russia does not bargain with sacred things, and that includes Crimea. All Turkey’s unfriendly plans towards Russia may end up costing it dearly.


Alexander SVARANTS – Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

Related articles: