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History Lesson: Turkey and the Black Sea
Black Sea region may have been hitting the news sites for the Russian annexation of Crimea lately, but this marginal area, located between southeastern Europe and Western Asia, holds in its depth the tales of 12 wars between the Russian and the Ottoman Empires in a span stretched over 350 years from the first war of 1568 to World War I in 1914. It is pivotal to revisit history as it still drives the geopolitics of this entire region.
The sixth Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 marked the end of Turkish rule over Crimea, which went independent under Russian Influence, also granting Moscow what it always wanted. Control over the northern coast of the Black Sea and right to navigate without constraints in ‘Ottoman Exclusive’ Black Sea, to the Bosphorus strait and from there to the warm waters of the Mediterranean.
Despite the bloody Crimean War (1853-1856) which took half a million Russians and 250,000 souls from the Ottomans, French, British and Sardinian coalition, Russia couldn’t acquire jurisdiction over 12 million Christians living in the Ottoman lands. The crushing defeat of the Ottoman naval fleet in the Battle of Sinop threatened British geo-economic interests in the Middle East, forcing the Allies to attack the Russians in the Black Sea as well as in the Baltic and Pacific.
The Siege of Sevastopol brought Moscow on its knees with a dismantled economy and signed the Treaty of Paris on March 30, 1856. It preserved the Ottoman rule till 1914 while mandating the Black Sea a ‘neutral zone’ with very little or no naval fleets and forts allowed for both Moscow and Istanbul. This, along with the opening of Black Sea trade for all countries damaged Russia till the massive diplomatic victory of 1871’s Repeal of the Black Sea Neutralization.
Economic Importance of the Black Sea
The economic importance of the Turkish Straits can be estimated from the fact that these act as the only pathway connecting the Black Sea and its riparian countries including Russia to the Mediterranean through the sea of Marmara and to the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal. These are one of the most challenging waters to sail; it also witnesses 48,000 ships annually, making it three to four times denser than Panama Channels and Suez Canal.
Current natures and temperature differences allure a variety of fish varieties drifting between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, contributing to the regional economy via fishing. The Black Sea region strategically existing on the junction of Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East is often referred to as a ‘Regional Security Complex’ (RSC), owing to its history of confrontations and conflicts.
Moreover, the Soviet collapse left various undecided land disputes, minority concerns, and fragile states which in the end fueled corruption, arms & drug smuggling and restricted any effective institutional corporation and political dialogue between the riparian countries. The Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) was established in 1992 in Istanbul encompassing Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and six other countries, by the efforts of then Turkish President Turgut Özal.
He aimed to unlock the potential of the region by increasing cooperation in economy, science, trade, education, technology, politics, and culture while ensuring peace and stability by preventing future conflicts. Unable to join European Union despite decade-long negotiations, Turkey views BSEC as another option for boosting economic development. BSEC, with an economic worth of $4.5 trillion and an organization structure remarkably similar to that of the EU, is incorporating many ambitious projects for the Turkish economy.
Connecting the Caucasus
TRASEKA, a Trans-Caspian Corridor decided in Brussels in May 1993, is one of such projects which will link Central Asia to Continental Europe through the South Caucasus improving highways, railways, pipelines, and ferry & tanker transportations. The project, however, has faced hurdles such as the delay in the installation of the railroad on the Georgian-Turkish Border and the necessity of a vital effort to modernize the Turkish railways.
The BSEC countries, having the largest oil and gas reserves after the Middle East, offer a collaboration that can assist Turkey to meet its energy demands. “First and foremost, the Lausanne Treaty does not only encompass Greece but the entire region,” Erdogan stated. “And because of that alone – I think that over time all treaties need a revision – the Lausanne Treaty, in the face of the recent developments, needs a revision if you will.”
While Athens finds the Lausanne treaty as the foundation of its territorial integrity and sovereignty, the above statement rang alarms across Greece when given by the Turkish President in the 2018 historic visit to Greece. Erdogan’s vision to resurrect the Islamist golden era of the Ottoman Empire both internally and abroad has also impacted his foreign approach, enough for both critics and supporters to refer to his foreign policy as ‘Neo-Ottomanism’.
Converting historical Hagia Sophia into a mosque, exploring oil and gas reserves in contested regions of both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and hosting Hamas in the face of Arab Normalization agreements are some recent examples. Amid the fall of communism, the heirs of the old Russian, Ottoman, and Safavid empires (Russia, Turkey, and Iran respectively) were expected to resume the struggle of regional dominance.
Armenia & Azerbaijan
“This victory will only strengthen our belief in two nations, one people,” stated Erdogan while leaving to visit a victory parade in Baku last year after Azerbaijan’s successful conquest over Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. The victory was mainly driven by the Turkish assistance in terms of Bayraktar TB2 drones which contributed to the quick Azerbaijani advance to Nagorno Karabakh’s southern border and from there to the Lachin Corridor.
While Turk-Armenian relations are fundamentally absent or hostile on account of the Armenian genocide by the Ottomans in World War I, Turkey and Azerbaijan, on the other hand, found themselves bonded by cultural, historic, and ethnical strings which is the reason that Ankara was the first to recognize Azerbaijan after the Soviet collapse.
The Turkish straits have also become the top channel for Azerbaijan’s energy exports. Although analysts warned that an aggressive Turkish foreign policy in the Caucasus could evoke strife with Moscow, Turkey went to the limits of sending Syrian fighters in support of Azerbaijan anyway. Turkey is also utilizing the soft power of its television broadcasts which are exceptionally popular in Azerbaijan.
Ankara’s influence has also been found in the Muslim regions of Georgia. Turkey also attempted to mediate between Russia and Georgia after the 2008 summer conflict between them. Relations with Georgia are crucial for Turkey in view of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project transporting Azeri Oil through the Mediterranean ports to the world markets and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipelines bringing Azeri gas to Turkey. The 2006 inaugurated project, which has a 1076 km section in Turkey, shipped 278.2 million barrels in 2020, a considerable increase compared to 233.1 million barrels in 2019.
Russia & Ukraine
Turkey-Russia relations offer a variety of geopolitical shifts ranging from the Black Sea and the Caucasus to Syria and Libya in the Middle East. Although one finds them avoiding any direct confrontation in the Caucasus due to enhanced cooperation and convergence of geo-economic aims, their political and strategic goals collide in both Syria and Libya where Turkish troops and drones in support of the UN-recognized government can be witnessed destroying Russian Pantsir defense system.
One of such paradoxes is Ukraine too where according to some experts, Turkey is molding a new geostrategic axis with Azerbaijan by backing Ukraine in face of the Crimean annexation. “Turkey sees Ukraine as a key country for ensuring stability, peace and prosperity in our region. Within this framework, we have always supported and will continue to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including over Crimea” said Erdogan in a joint declaration with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last year.
Ukraine is also buying five more Turkish drones amid their success in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict while having 12 of them already purchased and although it is still under question whether it will assist in rendering Ukraine victorious in Crimea, the point to ponder is how far Ankara is willing to go chasing its so-called ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ approach. According to my thinking, Erdogan is willing to go far beyond Turkey’s limits as he hasn’t ignited the Russian anger on Libyan, Syrian, and Ukrainian fronts for nothing.
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