Page 1 of 2 Russia and Turkey tango in the Black Sea
By M K Bhadrakumar
Amid the flurry of diplomatic activity in Moscow last week over the Caucasus,
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took time off for an exceptionally important
mission to Turkey, which might prove a turning point in the security and
stability of the vast region that the two powers historically shared.
Indeed, Russian diplomacy is swiftly moving even as the troops have begun
returning from Georgia to their barracks. Moscow is weaving a complicated new
web of regional alliances, drawing deeply into Russia's collective historical
memory as a power in the Caucasus and the Black Sea.
German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht would have marveled
at Lavrov's diary, heavily marked with "Caucasian chalk circles" through last
week, with intertwining plots and sub-plots - an Extraordinary European Council
Meeting taking place in Brussels; a meeting of the foreign ministers of the
Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Moscow; three foreign
counterparts to be hosted in Moscow - Karl de Gucht of Belgium, Franco Frattini
from Italy and Azerbaijan's Elmar Mamedyarov; visits by the presidents of the
newly independent republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; and consultations
with the visiting United Nations
secretary general's special representative for Georgia, Johan Verbeke.
Yet, Moscow signaled the highest importance to consultations with Turkey.
Lavrov summarily dropped all business at home and hurried to Istanbul on
Tuesday on a working visit, essentially aimed at catching a few hours' urgent
confidential conversation with his counterpart, Ali Babacan. Lavrov's mission
underscored Russia's acute sense of its priorities in the current regional
crisis in the Caucasus and the Black Sea.
Historical rivals becoming allies
Almost inevitably, there is great historical poignancy when Russia and Turkey
discuss the Black Sea. During the year-long siege of the Russian fortress naval
base Sevastopol in 1854-55 by the British and French, Tzarist Russia realized
one or two home truths. One, that Turkey's role could be critical for the
safety of its Black Sea fleet, and, two, without the Black Sea fleet, Russia's
penetration into the Mediterranean would not be feasible. Most important,
Russia learned that the original ground of a war may be lost, but the
protagonists could continue with hostilities.
When peace finally came with the Congress of Paris in 1856, the Black Sea
clauses came at a tremendous disadvantage to Russia - so much so that within
the year the tzar conspired with Germany's Otto von Bismarck, denounced the
accord and proceeded with re-establishing a fleet in the Black Sea.
The timing of Lavrov's consultations in Turkey was noteworthy. US Vice
President Dick Cheney happened to be in the region, visiting Ukraine,
Azerbaijan and Georgia, drumming up anti-Russia animus. Turkey didn't figure in
his itinerary. Moscow shrewdly estimated the need of political dynamism with
regard to Turkey.
Moscow has taken careful note that unlike the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) and the European Union, Turkey's reaction to the conflict
in the Caucasus has been manifestly subdued. Ankara briefly expressed its
anxiety over the developments, but almost in pro-forma terms without taking
sides. On the one hand, Turkey is a NATO member country and it aspires to join
the EU. It was a close Cold War ally of the US. Turkey will be the net
beneficiary as an energy hub if any of the West's grandiose plans to bypass
Russian territory and access Caspian energy materialize. It is the entrepot of
the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.
On the other hand, Russia is poised to be Turkey's number one trading partner,
with annual trade already nearing US$40 billion. Invisible trade is also
substantial, with 2.5 million Russian tourists visiting Turkey annually and
Turkish companies extensively involved in Russia's services sector. And, Russia
supplies 70% of Turkey's needs of natural gas.
Thus, Turkey has ingeniously come up with the idea of a "Caucasus Stability and
Cooperation Pact", whose main virtue would be, to quote Turkish commentator
Semih Idiz, to "provide Turkey with the option of remaining relatively neutral
in this dispute, even if this was not to everyone's satisfaction in
Washington". Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Moscow on
August 12 to discuss the proposal with the Kremlin. Idiz adds, "Put another
way, Ankara is not in a position to take sides in this dispute, at a time when
a new 'East-West divide' is in the offing, even if it is a member of NATO."
Conventional wisdom is that Moscow abhors encroachments into its "sphere of
influence" in the Caucasus by outside powers. However, in the present case, the
Kremlin promptly welcomed the Turkish proposal and agreed to have consultations
on building up bilateral and multilateral dialogue on all aspects of the
Caucasus problem. The Russian approach is pragmatic.
Primarily, it was imperative to engage Turkey, an important regional power,
which helped mitigate Russia's regional isolation in the crisis. Second, it
paid to involve Turkey on Russia's side, as it does not form part of the EU
Turkey's influence in Southern Caucasus is undeniable. Turkey's annual trade
with Georgia amounts to $1 billion, a considerable volume by the latter's
yardstick. Turkish investment in Georgia is in excess of half a billion
dollars. Turkey also supplied weapons and provided training to the Georgian
military. Turkey's ties with Azerbaijan have been traditionally close, too.
Thus, Moscow took the perspective that the Turkish proposal could provide the
basis to work out mechanisms for limiting the conflict potential of the region
and enhancing regional stability and act as a counterweight to the West's
intrusive moves directed against Russian interests.
Lavrov told Babacan that while "it is necessary at this stage to create
appropriate conditions" for Ankara's peace initiative, "including elimination
of the consequences of the aggression against South Ossetia", "we absolutely
agree with our Turkish partners that the groundwork for that interaction can
and must be laid now".
At the core of the Russian thinking lies the preference for a regional approach
that excludes outside powers. Lavrov was open about it. He said, "We see the
chief value in the Turkish initiative in that it rests on common sense and
assumes that countries of any region and, first of all, countries belonging to
this region should themselves decide how to conduct affairs there. And others
should help, but not dictate their recipes."
Lavrov was hinting at displeasure over the US role. He went on, "Of course,
this will be an open scheme, but the initiative role here will belong to the
countries of the region. This is about the same thing as ASEAN [Association of
Southeast Asian Nations] in Southeast Asia, which has a lot of partners ,
but the ASEAN members define the work agenda for the region, and the region's
The Russian approach is to welcome an "entente cordiale" with Turkey in the
Black Sea region, which frustrate US attempts to isolate Russia in its
traditional backyard. During Lavrov's visit to Istanbul, the two sides agreed
about the "necessity of using more the already available mechanisms - the Black
Sea Economic Cooperation Organization [based in Istanbul] and Blackseafor
[regional naval force] - and developing the Turkish idea of Black Sea harmony,
which is increasingly acquiring a multilateral and practical character."
Curiously, at the press conference in Istanbul with Babacan by his side, Lavrov
made a huge ellipsis in the thought process by linking the Russian-Turkish
shared interest in undertaking joint initiatives to two other regional issues -
Iraq and Iran. He said, "Essentially from the same positions we also champion
what needs to be undertaken for a definitive resolution of the situation in
Iraq on the basis of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of that state.
Also similar are our approaches to the necessity of a political peaceful
settlement to the situation surrounding Iran's nuclear program."
The full import of Lavrov's statement needs careful analysis. Its ramifications
are profound. It can be understood against the backdrop of the US's ideas in
the past to use the eastern Black Sea coast as a staging post for its military
operations in Iraq and a potential strike against Iran - which Ankara firmly
rejected, to the great relief of Moscow. Suffice to say, Lavrov has done
brilliantly by floating an idea to link Iraq and Iran with a Russo-Turkish
regional framework on security and cooperation.
The straits question
But in immediate terms, Moscow has its eyes set on the US's military pressure
in the Black Sea. At the root of the present situation lies the so-called
"straits question". Briefly, Moscow would like Ankara to continue to resist US
attempts to revisit the 1936 Montreux Convention, which vests in Turkish hands
control over the Bosphorus Straits and the Dardanelles. The US was not party to
the 1936 convention, which severely restricted the passage of warships through
the two Turkish straits to the Black Sea and virtually ensured the Black Sea as
a Russo-Turkish playpen.
The Montreux Convention is critical to Russia's security. (During World War II,
Turkey denied the Axis powers permission to dispatch warships to the Black Sea
to attack the Soviet naval fleet based in Sevastopol.)
In the post-Cold War scenario, Washington has been mounting pressure on Turkey
to renegotiate the Montreux Convention so as to progressively convert the Black
Sea into a preserve of NATO. Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria are NATO countries;
the US has military bases in Romania; the US is hoping to induct Ukraine and
Georgia into NATO. Therefore, Turkish resistance to the US entreaties regarding
renegotiating the Montreux Convention assumes great importance for Moscow.
(During the current conflict in the Caucasus, Washington sought to dispatch two
massive warships weighing 140,000 tons to the Black Sea ostensibly to provide
"aid" to Georgia, but Ankara refused permission on the grounds that such
passage through the Bosphorus violated provisions of the Montreux Convention.)
Moscow appreciates the nuance in the Turkish policy. Actually, Moscow and
Ankara have a shared interest in maintaining the Black Sea as their joint
preserve. Second, Ankara rightly apprehends that any move towards re-opening
the Montreux Convention - which Turkey negotiated with great dexterity,
statesmanship and foresight by Kemal Ataturk against formidable odds - would
open a Pandora's box. It might well turn out to be a step towards reopening the
Lausanne Treaty of 1923, the cornerstone which erected the modern Turkish state
out of the debris of the Ottoman Empire.
Writing in the liberal Milliyet newspaper recently, prominent Turkish political
analyst Tahya Akyol neatly summed up the paradigm:
required giving priority to looking towards the West during the Byzantine and
Ottoman eras, while never ignoring the Caucasus and the Middle East. Of course,
nuances change, depending on events and problems. A Turkey directed towards the
West would never ignore Russia, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Middle East or
the Mediterranean. The symphony of changing and complicated nuances depends on
the ability of our foreign policy and the size of our power. There's no such
thing as an infallible policy, but Turkey has avoided making huge foreign
policy mistakes. Its basic principles are sound.
Moscow has a
deep understanding of the quintessential