Why Turkey Is Getting Involved in Ukraine

The Turkish prime and foreign ministers say they will protect one of Crimea’s minority populations.

Crimean Tartar women and their children arrive in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on March 7 after fleeing Crimea.
National Journal
Marina Koren
March 10, 2014, 1 a.m.

When the Crimean par­lia­ment voted un­an­im­ously in fa­vor of join­ing Rus­sia last week, the pen­in­sula’s Rus­si­an pop­u­la­tion re­joiced.

Its Crimean Tatar pop­u­la­tion, which is five times smal­ler, shuddered.

The nat­ive Muslim res­id­ents of the pen­in­sula have a bloody and troubled his­tory with Rus­sia. They were per­se­cuted by Rus­sia’s Tsars for cen­tur­ies. In 1944, un­der Josef Stal­in, their en­tire pop­u­la­tion was de­por­ted to cent­ral Asia, un­der the false pre­text that they had co­oper­ated with the Nazis. Since the So­viet Uni­on col­lapsed, many Tatars have re­turned to the pen­in­sula, and, thanks to in­creas­ing birth rates, their pop­u­la­tion is ex­pec­ted to sur­pass the num­ber of Rus­si­ans in Crimea in just 13 years.

But for now, Crimea and its le­gis­lature re­main solidly pro-Rus­si­an. The Rus­si­an in­cur­sion that Vladi­mir Putin says is ne­ces­sary to pro­tect eth­nic Rus­si­ans has sparked strife between the Rus­si­an ma­jor­ity and Tatar minor­ity that has long simmered. “What does that mean for us?” one Crimean Tatar asked Nat­alia An­telava in The New York­er. “Who will pro­tect us?”

The pen­in­sula’s south­ern neigh­bor might.

Late last week, Turk­ish Prime Min­is­ter Re­cep Tayyip Er­dogan an­nounced that his coun­try won’t aban­don the Tatar pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to Anad­olu Agency, an Eng­lish-lan­guage Turk­ish news out­let. He said he has spoken to Putin and “told him that Rus­sia should pro­tect the rights of Crimean Tatars as they do with the Rus­si­an ma­jor­ity and oth­er minor­it­ies in Crimea.”

Turk­ish For­eign Min­is­ter Ah­met Dav­u­to­glu said at a press con­fer­ence Fri­day that Crimea is an in­teg­ral part of Ukraine, re­ports Turk­ish tele­vi­sion sta­tion TRT Haber. “Ukraine’s ter­rit­ori­al in­teg­rity is the most im­port­ant is­sue for Tur­key,” he said, adding that his coun­try has every right to pro­tect Crimea’s pop­u­la­tion of Tatars.

It was only a mat­ter of time be­fore Ank­ara weighed in on the on­go­ing crisis to the north. Tur­key main­tains strong cul­tur­al links with Ukraine’s Tatars. Crimea was a province of the Ot­to­man Em­pire be­fore it was conquered by Rus­sia in the 18th cen­tury. When the Rus­si­ans ar­rived, between 4 mil­lion and 5 mil­lion Tatars fled to Tur­key. Last year, a Turk­ish agency signed a co­oper­a­tion agree­ment with the Crimean gov­ern­ment, meant to boost de­vel­op­ment in the pen­in­sula’s edu­ca­tion, tour­ism and ag­ri­cul­ture sec­tors.

But there’s only so much Tur­key can do. Yigal Schleifer at Euras­i­aNet.org ex­plains that the coun­try’s po­s­i­tion in the on­go­ing crisis mir­rors its role dur­ing the war between Rus­sia and Geor­gia in 2008. Back then, Ank­ara had to tem­per its re­ac­tion to Mo­scow’s mil­it­ary ac­tions to avoid jeop­ard­iz­ing Tur­key’s eco­nom­ic ties to Rus­sia, thanks in part to Tur­key’s mem­ber­ship in NATO. Tur­key could play me­di­at­or between Rus­sia and NATO again with Crimea, but its de­pend­ence on Rus­sia for more than half of its gas makes strik­ing a bal­ance tricky.

Last week­end, mem­bers of the Tatar com­munity held demon­stra­tions in Ank­ara and Istan­bul to protest the Rus­si­an in­ter­ven­tion in Ukraine, the AFP re­ports. “We have an im­port­ant duty to re­mem­ber the Tatars, and we are in dis­cus­sion with con­cerned parties so that this dis­pute does not de­gen­er­ate in­to armed con­flict,” an un­named Turk­ish gov­ern­ment source told the news or­gan­iz­a­tion last week. “We can­not re­main mere spec­tat­ors of what is hap­pen­ing there.”

In Crimea, the Tatar com­munity re­cog­nizes the new in­ter­im Ukrain­i­an lead­er­ship and wants to keep Putin out of the re­gion. “For us, a European Ukraine is the only way of mak­ing sure that we sur­vive as people,” a journ­al­ist for a Crimean Tatar tele­vi­sion sta­tion told An­telava. “We need European laws to pro­tect our iden­tity. After what happened in 1944, we can nev­er trust the Rus­si­ans.”

A ref­er­en­dum to de­term­ine wheth­er Crimea wishes to be­come part of Rus­sia is sched­uled for March 16. Many Tatars are ready to boy­cott the res­ults, but they know how dan­ger­ous res­ist­ance would be.

“It’s be­com­ing clear that there will be war in Crimea, and that war will be for the in­de­pend­ence of Ukraine,” Ig­or Semy­vo­los, dir­ect­or of Ukraine’s As­so­ci­ation of Middle East­ern Stud­ies, told Mc­Clatchy’s Mat­thew Schofield in Kiev on Thursday. “Ukraine will need help from the United States in this.”

Ukraine will likely get it, if only sym­bol­ic­ally. Pres­id­ent Obama con­demned the ref­er­en­dum on Crimea’s fu­ture in a state­ment Fri­day, echo­ing the sen­ti­ments of the new lead­er­ship in Kiev and oth­er West­ern powers. Now with Tur­key in the mix, the ref­er­en­dum may face even more op­pos­i­tion.

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