Over the past few years, Turkey’s “zero problem with neighbors” policy has become something of a joke. After some initial successes at resolving problems with surrounding states, Turkey is now the only major country without ambassadors in Egypt, Syria and Israel simultaneously. One major exception was arguably Turkey’s relations with Russia, which have remained solid despite differences over Syria, Iran and other issues. Now the Crimea crisis has confronted Turkey with the most serious challenge to its Russian policy since the Cold War.
Until losing the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, the Ottoman Empire held sovereignty over Crimea, which was then dominated by a population of Muslim, Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatars who looked to Istanbul for leadership. During World War II, Josef Stalin forcefully changed this ethnic balance by accusing the Tatars of collaborating with the German occupation and sending them into exile. It was not until the last days of the Soviet Union that the authorities allowed many Tatars to return.
Today, the peninsula’s 300,000 Crimean Tatars represent some 12 percent of the population. Turkey has provided them with special aid programs, and Turkish officials have affirmed that they will protect the Tatars, who have opposed the Crimean independence referendum, during the present crisis. Representatives of the millions of Turks of Tatar origin have demanded that Ankara take a strong stand against the illegal territorial transfer. Moscow’s proclaimed right to use military force to protect ethnic Russians resembles the historical pretext Russia used in more than a dozen wars against the Ottoman Empire, justified by the need to defend Orthodox Christians against Muslim oppressors.