The Ottoman Empire’s loss of Crimea to the Russian Empire in 1783 was a turning point in both civilizations’ histories. For the Ottomans, it was the first permanent loss of a major Muslim territory to a Christian power, in this case Catherine the Great’s Russia, which, like President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, had intervened in a Crimean civil war and eventually annexed the peninsula. For the Russians, it was the beginning of their country’s transformation into a global power; through the Black Sea, Russia could sail on the West.
From 1783 onward, Moscow used its sea presence to bedevil the Ottomans, winning more territory through considerable bloodshed and destruction. Moscow rapidly expanded its naval operations from the Black Sea into the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. As it did, European powers rushed to head off Russia at the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. The competition led to another war in Crimea, the Crimean War of 1853-56. This one was the result of British and French unwillingness to let Russia fully dominate the Black Sea at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, which also wanted influence in the area. The war was less a local skirmish than a preview of the world wars to come.
On paper, Russia lost the battle and the Ottomans won. In truth, though, it was French and British forces that had really won the war on behalf of the Ottomans. Even so, the Ottoman imperial administrators misinterpreted the victory, and feeling superiority, became lethargic. Russians, meanwhile, used the Crimean defeat as an opportunity to undertake a number of important reforms. In the end, the reforms did not prevent the demise of the Tsarist regime, but they did afford it a slower decline than the one that shook the Ottomans. Thus, by the late nineteenth century, Russia was ready to dominate the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus, the Balkans, and the Black Sea once more.
Of course, Russian sovereignty there never stopped Turkey from feeling tied to Crimea. In those years, the region became the Paris of Muslim intellectuals. It produced the founding fathers of modern Turkish nationalism, including Yusuf Akçura and İsmail Gasprinski. For Turkey, though, Crimea held more than cultural importance. In his book Shattering Empires, the Princeton associate professor Michael Reynolds reveals that Crimea was also crucial to the Ottoman intelligence system, which believed that if Ukraine could be separated from Russia, Russia would crumble. That could pave the way for Ottoman re-ascendance in the Black Sea. According to intelligence agents, the Ottomans’ best strategy would be to stir up Muslim-Tatar discontent in Crimea.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in 1914, the Ottomans entered World War I by bombing Russia’s Sevastopol naval port in Crimea, which had become a symbol of Russian expansionism. The mission was a success; it crippled Russia’s Black Sea operations throughout the Great War. Yet, once again, it was an outside power that had really enabled the Ottoman win. Lacking in naval military technology of its own, the empire had used two smuggled German warships, the Goeben and the Breslau, for the attack. When the Russian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire left Istanbul right after the bombing, he hypothesized that the Ottomans might win the battle but would lose overall: “If Germans win, Ottomans will become their colonies. If the British win, the Ottoman Empire will disintegrate.” By the time he returned to Istanbul after the war was over, he remarked, it might even be a Russian city. In the event, Russia did make more gains against the Ottomans than many Turks initially expected. But the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, which prompted the Tsar to call his army home from eastern Anatolia, unexpectedly saved the Ottoman Empire from certain Russian onslaught.
The postwar period marked a rare thaw in Russian-Turkish relations. Unable to throw its weight around in the Black Sea because of its post-revolutionary weakness, the newly proclaimed Soviet Union abandoned its former Tsarist expansion strategy and opted for cooperation instead. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire was undergoing changes of its own, namely, giving way to the Turkish republic under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Indeed, some say that this Lenin-Atatürk era was the only real period of collaboration between Russia and Turkey in history. In those days, popular leaders of both post-imperial states emphasized resistance against the West, and Crimea diminished as a sticking point between them.
But any cordiality between the two powers soon disappeared when Russia, now headed by Joseph Stalin, emerged from World War II as the hegemon of the greater Eurasian basin. He pushed for the restitution of the northeastern Anatolian provinces of Ardahan, Artvin, and Kars to the Soviet Union and demanded a special status for Soviet vessels passing through the Bosporus strait. Several times, Stalin challenged the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of [Turkish] Straits, which had regulated naval passage through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles straits for over a decade. According to Stalin, the agreement was no longer relevant in the post–World War II world -- a world in which the new Russia could not be subjected to the whims of the Turkish government. In British records of the Yalta Conference at the end of World War II, Stalin is noted as asking Winston Churchill, then British prime minister, “What would Britain do if Spain or Egypt were given this right to close the Suez Canal, or what would the United States say if some South American republic had the right to close the Panama Canal?” (Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s government would answer in 1956, when the United Kingdom, with France and Israel, tried to reassert its control over the Aswan Dam through military force after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser did just what Stalin had suggested and closed off the Suez Canal.)
In this period, Turkey, which under Atatürk’s rule had emphasized cooperative nonalignment, had to switch course. It could no longer withstand the pressures of a resurgent Russia. And so it joined NATO in 1952.
When the Soviet Union eventually collapsed, the Black Sea region became more globalized. Countries worked through multilateral organizations such as the BSEC (Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation) and created a system of regional interdependence to diffuse potential post–Cold War crises. Turkey emphasized its role as a stabilizer in the Black Sea, and Russia emphasized its ability to provide natural gas for all. Because the region seemed relatively settled, over the last 20 years Turkish academia and the public have paid relatively less attention to it, looking instead to Turkey’s role in the Middle East or to its European Union vocation. Perhaps they shouldn’t have lost focus.
DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN
In March, when Russia overtook Crimea and announced its intentions to “fully utilize the geostrategic potential of Crimea” and to further develop Russia’s Black Sea fleet, “an important task for the country when a number of agreements were annulled with Ukraine after the Crimean Peninsula was reunited with Russia last month,” all that changed. Suddenly, peace and stability -- only the second stretch of it in Turkish-Russian history -- once more gave way to Russian expansionism.
Some have argued that marching on Crimea was a last-gasp effort by Putin to save his fragile rule. But from the Turkish perspective, Russia’s invasion of Crimea fits a 340-year pattern. First, some military historians believe, Russia tends to expand when all of its neighbors are weak and unable to respond. Second, domination of the Black Sea is usually a shot across the bow; it presages further interventions. Third, Black Sea domination has inevitably required a revisionist stance on the status of the Bosporus strait, because patrolling Russian ships can only move down into the Mediterranean through that single bottleneck. Of course, Western powers see any Russian presence in the Mediterranean as a threat. Russia, therefore, doesn’t assert itself in the Black Sea without preparing for a conflict (although not necessarily military or immediate) with other major powers.
Many aspects of Russia’s moves in Ukraine do fit that historical pattern. The response from Russia’s Western balancers has been weak and divided. The Syrian war, many argue, demonstrated to Russia that the United States’ ability to project power close to the Russian zone of influence is limited. And nearly every Western military is dealing with major budget cuts. Russia might be weak as well, the thinking goes, but its immediate neighbors are even weaker -- and the West isn’t ready to protect them.
Turkey, too, is dreadfully exposed in the Black Sea. In early August 2013, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) canceled the decade-long Turkish National Warship Project (MİLGEM), a naval modernization program that involved the construction of high-tech stealth corvettes. (The cancellation had less to do with the project itself than with the AKP’s feud with the project’s main financier, Koç Corporation.) In September 2013, Turkey made a fateful decision to choose a Chinese HQ-9 T-LORAMIDS missile defense system over Raytheon and Lockheed Martin’s Patriots, Russian S-300s, and Italian-French SAMP/T Aster 30. With MİLGEM shelved and with a shoddy and uncertain missile defense system barely in place, Turkey has no reassuring plan to counter Russia’s expansion of the Black Sea fleet.
Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, contends that Russian capabilities in the Black Sea are still relatively rudimentary, and that the force would not be able to survive a larger confrontation with NATO. But Russia is likely betting that NATO won’t get involved. In fact, Russians still remember the 1853 Crimean War and are good at calculating just how far they can push before provoking a major Western backlash. But even if Moscow is careful, Russian involvement in the Black Sea will inevitably complicate things for Turkey. For one, Russia is confident that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will eventually win the civil war in Syria and, as thanks for Russian support throughout the war, will allow Moscow longer-term access to the Tartus naval base in Syria. With Sevastopol and Tartus providing Russia access to warm waters on both sides of the Anatolian peninsula, Turkey will find itself practically surrounded by a swelling Russian Navy.
Because of that, ongoing negotiations over exclusive economic zones in the region, and over Turkey’s offshore oil and gas exploration efforts, will take a hit. Russia could potentially start to quibble over the legal status of the Bosporus strait, arguing -- like Stalin -- that Montreux requires updating to give Russia unimpeded access to the area. The Russian Navy has already proved willing to throw its weight around on such matters, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, where Israel and Cyprus have started crisscrossing the sea, surveying for natural gas. In response, Russia has reminded Cyprus of its control over Cypriot banks even as it has treaded more carefully with Israel.