2019-04-01

The emerging diplomatic Crimea-Cyprus highway


More than four years ago, Russia unilaterally imposed its sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula. During these four years, Ukraine has been trying to challenge the Russian presence in Crimea by lobbying in European capitals for stricter sanctions against Moscow. There are few signs showing that Crimean sanctions are to be abolished any time soon. Multiple votes in the UN General Assembly show that the international community largely holds negative views on the Russian presence in Crimea. This, however, also shows how Russian diplomatic efforts to legitimize its actions failed to change that international climate.

On the background of these developments, Turkey has been demonstrating a rather distinct position on the issue. With its large Crimean Tatar diaspora, the Turkish position in the European public has been perceived as an indication to the situation in the peninsula. Turkish officials, despite presently having functional cooperation on other issues like Syria or energy related projects, openly described the Russian presence in Crimea as an occupation. Moreover, the Turkish government has been promising to continue its support of the Crimean Tatar’s rights.

Nevertheless, Turkey, with all its criticism of Russia, didn’t join European sanctions once Crimea was reincorporated into the Russian Federation as a result of the March referendum in 2014. Ankara successfully managed to position itself as an approachable mediator between Russia and Ukraine, a case that the release from Russian jail in November 2017 of two Crimean Tatar activists, Ilmi Umerov and Ahtem Chiygoz, may suggest.

The Russian Foreign Ministry may have already realized that any efforts to make the world acknowledge facts on the ground in Crimea after 2014 would necessarily involve working closer with Turkey. This may explain why the attention of Russian officials has increasingly been focused on ways to nurture Turkey-located Crimean Tatar civil groups, which would advocate for the Russian agenda on the issue.

Another direction of efforts seems to involve closer contacts with nationalist think tanks. Such dialogue can potentially create a positive agenda where Russia could list concerns of the nationalists regarding the status of the Crimean Tatars. Finally, Moscow can try to attract more private Turkish investments to Crimea by granting an exclusive status to Turkish business. It is worth remembering that it is a Turkish businessman residing in Russia who initiated a series of reconciliatory steps, which eventually led to restoration of dialogue between Ankara and Moscow after the jet crisis.

Yet, attempts to sway Turkey can’t be limited to regional affairs in Crimea alone. Diplomatic advances can be seen in other direction as well. One can say that Russia may have cracked the Turkey code: Moscow tries to embed Ankara into arrangement of agreements on multiple important questions, where any step away in one area may have implications in other areas.

For Russia’s Crimean dossier, this arrangement would mean Turkey will stay within the scope of predictability while its behavior could be increasingly prone to restraint. Cooperation between Ankara and Moscow in Syria presents two good examples of how a web of agreements may exert a constraining effect on Turkey. Russia has brought Turkey into a row of agreements and given it reasonable concessions. Now Turkey, once it decides to openly challenge Russian interests in Syria, may face an escalation of multiple fronts in Idlib, the Kurdish issue and anti-Turkish sentiments in the Arab world.

By the same token, Russia may try to use the Cyprus issue to induce Turkey to make concessions over Crimea. Russia has been witnessing how Turkey is increasingly isolated by regional powers on the issue of gas exploration, in violation of its own sovereign rights and the rights of the Turkish-Cypriot community.

Vocal opposition of the Russian Foreign Ministry to US attempts to turn Cyprus into another military base in the region may send a strong signal of support to Turkish nationalists within the political and military establishment. Russian officials mention Cyprus issues when making an analogy to the Crimean problem, thus trying to put Turkey within the same camp and turn in its unwilling ally, by speaking the language every Turk understands.

Finally, the call of Russian diplomatic officials to carry out gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean with respect to all parties involved suggests that Moscow will become increasingly involved in regional affairs. Expansion of Russian military presence in Syria will add yet another dimension to bilateral ties between Moscow and Ankara, which is having troubles diplomatically asserting its rights over gas projects.

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