Interview

The Geopolitical Crisis in the Caucasus, Ukraine, and the Middle East

The New Turkey interviewed Professor Şener Aktürk and talked about the present international developments with regard to the geopolitical crisis in the Caucasus, Ukraine, and the Middle East.
24 min read

The New Turkey interviewed Professor Şener Aktürk and talked about the present international developments with regard to the geopolitical crisis in the Caucasus, Ukraine, and the Middle East. Professor Aktürk extensively analyzed the growing political and military influence of Russia in the Caucasus, Ukraine, and the Middle East, the Western inaction to this and Turkey’s efforts to multiply its policy options in the region.


One of the bases and pretexts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the partial annexation of the country was the Russian majority, especially in Crimea. Is that right?

Yes – only Crimea has an ethnic Russian majority. No other province officially has an ethnic Russian majority. Crimea has an ethnic Russian majority of about three-fifths (60%).

So, there is, again, a nationalist element involved in this invasion as well.

That is true. And people who study Crimea always recognize that it had a tenuous and fragile link with the rest of Ukraine. Not just because of the ethnic element, or the linguistic element, since many ethnic Ukrainians also speak Russian. They also vote for pro-Russian political parties. So, Crimea was not distinct in that, because in Donetsk and Luhansk, there are also Russian-supported insurgencies and they claim to have established two different republics now – the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. But, I do not think Russia is going to annex them any time soon.

But, in the Crimean case, you already had an autonomous republic within Ukraine. You know, it has a different administrative status, but is also extremely strategic. I mean, Crimea is to the Black Sea what Cyprus is to the Eastern Mediterranean. So, it was administratively easy, geographically easy, with a tiny link to the rest of Ukraine since Crimea is more like an island. There is the ethnic legitimation, and in Sevastopol there already was an enormous Russian naval base, so there were already Russian soldiers there. So, it was the easiest and most important strategically located piece of Ukraine for Russia to annex. It’s an occupation and annexation that was coming. I could say that it is scandalous that the Western alliance didn’t or couldn’t do anything.

Why have they failed to do anything?

Well, because they were divided.

But they somehow could see it coming, right?

Well, I think that everyone who studied Ukraine and was engaged with it in some way should have been able to see it coming. But, in general, why didn’t the West give a more powerful response to the aggression in the case of Ukraine? We should remember that Ukraine’s territorial integrity was guaranteed by the UK and the US in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in return for Ukraine surrendering all of its nuclear weapons. In terms of weapons, Ukraine was the third largest nuclear country in the world, after the US and Russia. Ukraine surrendered all of its nuclear arsenal in return for a joint UK, US and Russian guarantee of its territorial integrity.

So, in a sense, Ukraine was left vulnerable to future Russian aggression?

Yes. We have here a country that surrendered all of its nuclear weapons in return for its territorial integrity. Yet, even then, the international community did nothing to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity. How convincing would it be for North Korea or Iran, or any country, to give up its nuclear weapons in return for any kind of international guarantee? If the international community didn’t fulfill its promise to Ukraine, how can we be sure that it will fulfil it for any country? So, despite all of this legal guarantee – although one could argue that there is ambiguity about the level of commitment, though there is still a written commitment in return for nuclear weapons – despite how the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea has changed the geopolitical balance in the entire region of the Black Sea, despite all kinds of terrible precedents that occupation plus annexation could have in post-WW2 Europe and the world, the West did not do anything.

It was clearly divided. Europe, including Germany, was siding more with non-intervention, and so there was not one voice in the Western alliance, as we have seen in many Western-Russian crises over the past 10 years. Take, for instance, the US attempt at making Ukraine and Georgia NATO members, which, in 2007, was blocked by France and Germany to a considerable extent. So, Russia is extremely skilled at dividing the Western alliance, because this is not some sort of passive division, and Russia is actively involved in trying to neutralize continental Europe and isolate it from the UK and the US and, you know, sabotaging the Transatlantic Alliance. And, in doing so, it has succeeded to a considerable extent. The purpose here is to immobilize the Western alliance, not to take it over, but to render it incapable of doing anything, which has been achieved.

There is an incredible level of Russian soft power that has always been overlooked. People always focus on Russia’s hard power, modernized navy, missiles and military that are on display in Syria. But, there is also Russia’s soft power. I mean, all the pro-Russian, far-right political parties in Italy, in Germany, which, in the domestic politics of these European countries, are blocking a more hard-line position against Russia. Also, as a part of a seemingly contradictory position, the very far-left parties also are, in effect, pro-Russian and they block action against Russia.

They do so because of their former communist and other allegiances, or their common fight against the American unipolar world order, even the use of, you know, the Russian Orthodox Church and Orthodox networks, the use of Eurasianists, and Neo-Eurasianists in many countries, including Turkey, as a pro-Russian kind of lobby or influence group. Besides, many ethnic and sectarian insurgencies, from the PKK to, you know, various other ethnic, sectarian groups, you could say, have taken a pro-Russian stance. Actually, Russia has an incredible, understated and overlooked amount of soft power that it mobilized in the process of occupying and annexing Crimea from Ukraine and, later, when it directly intervened in Syria and the rest of the world did nothing.

So, the Western reaction or inaction vis-à-vis the Russian occupation of Ukraine is shocking. Maybe it is no less shocking than the occupation itself. But, let’s continue talking about Russia. And this time let’s go further to the South. Let’s focus on another context: the Russian involvement in the Syrian crisis. I don’t know how surprising it was for you or for other analysts, but many fail to understand why the Russians were so aggressively involved in Syria.

I think it was slightly surprising for me, only in the sense of military capability. So, many observers, including myself, were not sure if Russia could project its military power, from a technical and logistical point of view, to the Eastern Mediterranean and to the Middle Eastern battle field. So, it wasn’t, at least in my case, a question about Russia’s desire to do it but about the ability to do it. Clearly, tens of billions of dollars that the Putin government invested in military modernization and revamping since the not-so-successful 5 Days War against Georgia paid off. The Russian army surely defeated the Georgian army, but the Russian military wasn’t so successful and flawless against the Georgian military. So, there was a motivation to launch more comprehensive military modernization in 2010, and it is clear that this time it succeeded. So, Russia showed that it is the second power.

France has operations in the Ivory Coast and Mali etc., which make it another potential power; but even France could not do what Russia is single-handedly doing in Syria. So, Russia, in a way, consolidated its position as the second great power, able to project its military might across regions. So, that was surprising, of course, in a bad way, particularly for the Syrian people, from a purely technical point of view. The second part is the motivation. I think that, despite the annexation and occupation of Crimea, and despite the declaration of the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic in Eastern Ukraine with direct Russian political, economic and military support, despite these relative advances by Russia, I don’t think Moscow sees itself as having succeeded in Ukraine. I think they were hoping for much more.

They were hoping to get all of what they call “Novorossiya”, or new Russia, which is a historic name for everything you see on this map [on the office wall of Sener Akturk, a map of split Ukraine during 2004 elections between Yanukovych and Yushchenko], all of Southern Ukraine, all the Black Sea coast including Odessa, and all of Eastern Ukraine, including Ukraine’s second biggest city, Kharkiv. So, the Russian policy makers were hoping that most of Eastern and Southern Ukraine would be up in arms against the pro-Western Kyiv government. More or less, they would get a 50/50 deal of sorts and the Kiev government would give up its effort to integrate with the West and would be replaced by at least a neutral government.

Russian policy makers have succeeded in doing this exact thing in Georgia. And, after the 5 Days War, they punished the pro-Western, pro-American, pro-Turkish Mikheil Saakashvili government. Saakashvili is not a political actor in Georgia anymore. He lost everything and now he is employed as a governor in Ukraine. A pro-Western, pro-Turkish, pro-American political bloc has lost in Georgia.

He was replaced by Ivanishvili.

Yes. And after the war, after militarily punishing Saakashvili for his political stance, Russia also successfully supported a more neutral, hence more Russian-leaning, political leader, Ivanishvili, who came to power in Georgia, and Georgia today is much more neutral, much more “Finlandized” than the pro-Western, pro-American, pro-Turkish Georgia. Then, Russia was doing exactly the same thing in Ukraine, and it was a very transparent motivation. However, it failed. The Kyiv government is adamantly pro-European and hence pro-Western. It became even more so. Its pro-Western stance has been galvanized by Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea. So, in that sense, Russia has lost, or at least it couldn’t succeed in the way it was hoping.

So, I think, because of the relative defeat it suffered in Ukraine, having lost 90% of Ukraine to the Western camp, Russia is lashing out in Syria, to get revenge for Ukraine to a certain extent, and to pile up some chips for a future bargain. Maybe, at the geopolitical table, it might strike a deal with the West. So, it is building a position and it might use Syria as a more direct satellite state of Russia. I mean, obviously Syria, even during the Cold War, enjoyed warm relations with the Soviet Bloc, but it wasn’t a satellite state, so to say. It wasn’t Bulgaria or Poland or Hungary under Soviet occupation. But now it is becoming a Russian satellite state.

So, can you say that Syria, then, has an instrumental value for the Russians to settle down their negotiations with the West over the Ukrainian crisis?

Yes, I would say that. But there are two caveats to that. It is debatable whether there will ever be a trade-off in that sense between Ukraine and Syria. It is a theoretical possibility. But, is that really feasible or plausible in reality? We will see. Plus, given the swift success of the Russian army in Syria, I suspect that Russia is less willing to trade its positions in Syria, all of its positions in Syria, in return for Ukraine. But the second part is more complicated. Which credible party is going to trade any part of Ukraine with Russia? It is really about whether the Ukraine-Syria trade-off will empirically be possible – we will see.

So, what do the Russians want? A war?

I suspect there is an element of that. They think their position is strong, decisively strong, in Syria. And it is not retreating; it isn’t growing, but it isn’t retreating in Eastern Ukraine. Plus, the Ukrainian government has no real plan or any real effort to retake Crimea. They’ve lost and they are making no effort. Of course, they denounce it, they condemn it. But, in a real political sense, they’ve accepted that. The most they are hoping for, unfortunately, is to regain control of the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces in Eastern Ukraine, and that, with a negotiated settlement, they don’t think they will be able to do it militarily. So, in East Ukraine, they’ve at least attempted in a way they never attempted in Crimea. They attempted and they failed. For Crimea, they didn’t even attempt. And that’s an interesting sign. That is already conceding to Russia a very big part of the prize and lowering their expectations for Ukraine.

So, what are, do you think, the prospects of the crisis in Ukraine for the Russians?

Well, if Ukraine will never turn back from its pro-Western orientation, which is a possibility, it  seems that they are set on the pro-Western course, which means that Russia will never concede any part of Syria. If that is the bargain, since nothing is being given by the Kyiv side, Russia is not going to give much either. Unless, of course, it is forced to do so. And that is a question of ability. And maybe it will turn into an Afghan war type of quagmire, which will suck up Russian economic resources and military might, and set in anti-Putin social unrest, and that’s going to be a topic to be analyzed much more by world historians.

When the Russians became involved in the Syria crisis, the Americans had been working on forming an international anti-Daesh alliance in Syria, and wherever they existed, for that matter. The Americans were there. How did the Russians take the risk of aggressively being involved in a region where the Americans were? Or alternatively, did the Russians and Americans have an implicit agreement on Russian involvement in the Syria crisis?

Maybe they did. Maybe. Because that makes sense. Because we have a puzzle that is very difficult to explain and the theory that you mentioned offers a solution, so it’s a possibility. Maybe the Russian military had the implicit approval of American policy makers before intervening.

Yes, and so one more question about the Russian position in Syria. What is the reason behind the American inaction over the Russian intervention in Syria?

I think there are two reasons. The first is related to American domestic politics and where Obama comes from. And the second reason is about international politics. Domestically, remember that Obama came to power in 2008 and was an anti-war, anti-intervention candidate. Clinton wasn’t in that position. John Edwards wasn’t in that position. It was only Obama alone among the major contenders who was clearly the anti-war candidate. And that position influenced his political identity to a considerable extent. So, there is a very nice Turkish saying, which goes like this: “Having burnt his tongue in hot milk, he hesitates to eat yoghurt.” And that seems like the difference between the Bush administration and the Obama administration. Indeed, they burnt their tongue, or hit the wall, in the Second War on Iraq, which was stupid, and they squandered hundreds of billions of dollars of American resources, and the war was, in many ways, economically, strategically, politically, a disaster. And it was the wrong war, which killed tens of thousands of people, and it was also immoral.

But Syria, in many ways, could have been easily pitched, marketed as the good war, the humanitarian war; a kind of Milosevic-Kosovo scenario, where just with a few strategically targeted airstrikes, the Assad regime, the backbone of the Assad regime, could collapse. And moderate opposition supported by France, Turkey and the US could triumph over the regime forces, or, barring that, at least American political, diplomatic and perhaps even military cover could prevent the Russian and Iranian armies from intervening on behalf of Assad. Even that could have been enough for the moderate opposition to claim victory against Assad.

This was the main expectation of Turkey from the United States.

Exactly. A no-fly zone in the North, or at least preventing the Iranian or Russian armies from coming in to help Assad etc. There wasn’t any of that. So, not intervening, not doing the anti-Milosevic type of humanitarian intervention is one thing. And I think that could be the result of, what I call, being the anti-war candidate and the lesson of the disastrous Iraq War. But Obama’s reluctance goes beyond that. And for that, I think we also need to think of an international, non-domestic factor in US policy. That is, Obama is clearly set on having reconciliation with Iran. The so-called Iran deal as the big success story, the landmark of his foreign policy achievements, like Nixon’s peace with China, or something like that. Or, we can think of Obama’s domestic achievements. I mean, Obama is going to be remembered domestically for healthcare reform and gay marriage, and in foreign policy, for reconciliation with Cuba and Iran.

And the reconciliation with Iran will figure more prominently with the international community than the reconciliation with Cuba. So, he is almost obsessed with that. And once it became clear that Obama would pursue reconciliation with Iran, despite opposition from Congress, almost no matter what, then it became predetermined that the US was not going to intervene in Syria against the Assad regime, because doing so would bring US military power into direct confrontation with Iranian military political power, which would be the end of the Iran deal. So, maybe the Iran deal is the international-level explanation for the cause of Obama’s unusual, extraordinary reluctance to intervene against the Assad regime, even when it used chemical weapons, even when Russia was preparing to intervene. Even when the Iranian military intervened. So, that would be the international-level explanation.

And the jet crisis … How do you interpret the current relations between Turkey and Russia?

I mean, briefly, that was the dip in Turkey-Russian relations over the past 25 years. It could get even worse, especially if Russia has insisted on militarily and logistically supporting the PKK in Turkey, because that’s direct support for armed insurgency and terrorism in Turkey. Turkey and Russia denounced doing exactly that in around 1998, when Russia did not accept Abdullah Öcalan’s request for political asylum, refused his application to be a political asylum seeker in Russia and ceased supporting the PKK. Abdullah Öcalan was pushed out of Syria. And then he was in Moscow and then he was pushed out of Moscow to Italy, Greece, and then eventually he was arrested in Kenya. Turkey affirmed that it would never support separatist insurgency against Russia in Chechnya or in Dagestan, or elsewhere in the Caucasus. So, that was an important watershed and an implicit agreement. There was no signed agreement. So, if Russia has insisted on supporting the PYD-PKK, Russia’s relations with Turkey would have worsened.

On the other hand, the Russian bombing of Turkey-supported rebels in Syria was clearly a sign that Russia did not recognize any kind of Turkish sphere of influence, even right next to the Turkish border in Syria. Thus, Russia signaled that it would not tolerate a Turkish sphere of influence, not just in the Black Sea or the Caucasus region, but even next to Turkey’s southern borders, right across the Syrian border. However, following the Russian-Turkish rapprochement after July 15, 2016, and President Erdoğan’s visit to Russia right after the coup attempt, it seems as though Russia implicitly permitted the Turkish military to undertake its incursion into Syria in support of the Free Syrian Army against Daesh, which began on August 24, 2016.

Turkey’s unusually passive behavior during the Ukrainian crisis and the annexation and occupation in Crimea was motivated primarily by Turkey’s concern to keep Russian-Turkish relations on good track. So, Turkey did not react the way many Western and Crimean Tatar observers thought that it could and should. Turkey could denounce Russian actions much more forcefully, it could lobby the international community for a more resolute political, and even military response to the Russian aggression in Crimea, and in Ukraine, but Turkey did not do any of that. Turkey didn’t even participate in the embargo, taking, many thought, an implicitly pro-Russian stance in the Ukrainian crisis. The Western alliance clearly didn’t do much more either. And why was that? It meant that, in a way, Turkey recognized that the Black Sea basin and even Crimea was in the Russian sphere of influence.

Similarly, during the Georgian War in 2008, the Russian military specifically bombed strategic assets that were built by Turkey for Georgia. But, it did not bomb the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. So, clearly, Turkey could have economic influence but not military influence in the Caucasus from a Russian perspective. Turkey expected, I presume, that Russia would also respect a Turkish sphere of influence in northern Syria, around Aleppo and Idlib and the Turkmen mountains at least; but Russia bombed all of those regions and the Turkish-supported groups starting in November 2015, and even violated Turkish airspace while doing that. However, with the rapprochement of July 2016, it seems as if Russia accepted a limited Turkish sphere of influence in northern Syria this time. Of course, we do not know whether there is indeed such a mutual understanding; we can only surmise that there is based on the developments we have been witnessing since July 15, 2016.

It is true that, for a while, Turkey has felt strategically encircled by the Russian military in the Black Sea and in the Caucasus in the north and the east, and in Syria in the South, and by pro-Russian proxies in Tehran and Baghdad, and the pro-Russian PKK and other terrorist organizations in Turkey. So, Turkey is really encircled by Russian military political power. It was becoming the number one issue of Turkish foreign policy and it became imperative to reach a sort of modus vivendi with the Russians.

With the failed coup attempt in Turkey, however, that has completely changed because the internal threat has exceeded the external threat for Turkey. And since the Gulenist coup plotters’ leader has been residing in the United States since 1999, most elites and the masses in Turkey have come to perceive the US as the external state patron of the greatest internal security threat to the country. This has radically changed the security dilemma that Turkish policy makers are facing, and in great part explains the ongoing Turkish-Russian rapprochement.

Turkey’s Western allies do not come to its aid. Nor do they seem willing, in the near future, to provide any tangible support for Turkey.

And that is why I think we are, genuinely, the closest we have been to the end of the Turkish-American alliance since 1952. Because the purpose of the Western Alliance is to protect its members. More specifically, the purpose of the Western Alliance is to balance against Russia. So, if the Western Alliance is not even balancing against or slowing down Russian expansion, then its utility for its members is minimal, especially for a country like Turkey. Then, as I said, Turkey is encircled by Russian military power. So, it is going to be this year, the year when the US, Iran, Russia, Israel, these regional and global powers strike the new balance.

The new balance could have been the old balance. Because the new geopolitics resembles the old geopolitics very much. One could easily imagine that, with a new president in power in the US in November, the Cold War equation could be established and the US could be more assertive. But, the opposite can also happen, because of the failed coup and its geopolitical dimensions that I’ve briefly mentioned today and discussed at length. However, the failed coup attempt of July 15 and the sheltering of Fetullah Gülen by the United States is the biggest difference compared to the previous threat perceptions, making it harder to maintain the Turkish-American alliance as good as it once was, unless the United States extradites Gülen to Turkey.

If a Republican president is elected?

I don’t want to speculate. As of September 2016, it is still rather unlikely, but not impossible, for Donald Trump to be elected president. I don’t follow the foreign policy platforms of the contenders at this moment. But, some people draw parallels with what is happening today and Lyndon Johnson’s letter of 1964; but, as you know, the reply of Inönü to Johnson’s letter was along the lines of, “okay then, we will seek a new world order and Turkey will find its place in it.” It didn’t happen, that’s true. But, this is the pattern. When Turkey is rebuffed by the US, like in 1964 and in the 1970s after the Turkish intervention in Cyprus – Turkey was rebuffed by the US, even though perhaps Turkey had implicit approval of the US, then Turkey sought alternative options for a while. So, that is also a pattern. And now we are in that year.

I think this a perfect moment to wrap up our interview. What options does Turkey have at the moment?

There is no coherent alliance network in the Middle East anymore. That is true. But, that is a widespread feature of the post-Cold War World order. There is unipolarity. And there are various powers that have a certain regional influence. For example, we had a conversation mostly around Russia, Turkey, US, Iran etc., but the Western power that has been, in my humble opinion, closest to Turkey’s position on Syria since the very beginning is France. I mean, the Syrian opposition that rebelled against Assad had its meetings and leadership in France and Turkey, in Paris and in Istanbul, crisscrossing between the two countries.

Both President Hollande and President Erdoğan, since the beginning, have been very clear, clearer than Obama and any other Western leader that Assad must go, and the fight against Daesh should continue. Although, you could say, and that would be fine, that the French emphasis on the fight against Daesh has been greater and has been growing since the attacks in Paris; but that is no longer the case since the Turkish military is the one that is fighting Daesh on the ground, not the US, France, or Russia, who only use their air forces to conduct limited air strikes against Daesh.

It is also the case that the biggest Daesh attacks have been against Turkey and against France, which is a strange coincidence. After all, why would Daesh concentrate its most lethal attacks on the two countries that are most outspoken against the Assad regime? And here you have two NATO members that could be supporting a moderate opposition, the Free Syrian Army, in a more forceful manner under different circumstances and bring about regime change. It didn’t happen, and the Turkish military is alone on the ground actively supporting the Free Syrian Army as part of Operation Euphrates Shield, currently.

It was recently revealed that France was ready to strike the Assad regime after that regime used chemical weapons in committing a crime against humanity, but President Hollande was forced to call off such an intervention after talking to Obama, which speaks volumes about the kind of Janus-faced role Obama played in the Syrian crisis, first loudly condemning the Assad regime and arming the opposition, and then abandoning them. Turkey’s predicament is similar to that of France, except much worse, because Turkey not only borders Syria, but its longest and most permeable border is with Syria.

From the Turkish and, I suppose, regional point of view, the critical turning point was Egypt, not Syria. I mean, once the president of Egypt was overthrown, no matter how bad he allegedly was, that’s beside the point – Egypt is a country of world historical cultural, strategic, and demographic importance. If Egypt was a multi-party democracy of some sort today, it would have had world historical repercussions for the rest of the Arab-Islamic World. Just like the position Russia occupies in post-Soviet Eurasia. Once Russia became a dictatorship, Belarus had much less chance of becoming a democracy.

Once Egypt became a military dictatorship, I think the Arab Spring very rapidly died away. And, other than the Tunisian experience, and the uncertain future of Libya and maybe Yemen, I am not very hopeful about too many of them anymore. It is unlikely that any multiparty democracy will come out of this geopolitical crisis. It sometimes happens that counterrevolution wins. It usually wins if there is heavy foreign military intervention. Russian and Iranian intervention in Syria was an example of this.

Professor Aktürk, thank you very much for this illuminating and informative interview.

You are welcome.

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Şener Aktürk is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Koç University in Istanbul and the author of the book, Regimes of Ethnicity and Nationhood in Germany, Russia, and Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2012), which won the 2013 Joseph Rothschild book prize.