Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 207

If there is one constant of Turkish foreign policy, it is that Ankara puts the nation’s interests first and foremost, which occasionally discomfits neighboring countries and allies, who believe that their perceptions and interests should have more impact on policy formation than is often the case.

In March 2003 Turkey angered the United States by declining to allow its territory to be used for the opening stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. More recently, last August the Pentagon was as annoyed as Russia was delighted when, in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian military clash, Turkey insisted that Washington strictly adhere to the provisions of the 1936 Montreux Convention, barring the entry of two U.S. Navy ships. Washington had originally intended to send two U.S. Navy hospital ships, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy, to Georgia; but Ankara refused, citing Montreux’s Article 18(b), which limits the “aggregate tonnage” that “non-Black Sea Powers” (in this case the U.S) could send into the Black Sea to a “maximum of 45,000 tons.” The USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy, converted oil tankers, displaced 69,360 tons apiece. Needless to say, the decision was applauded in Moscow.

Now it is Russia’s turn to feel sandbagged by Ankara. On October 27 Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko arrived in Ankara as the official guest of Turkish President Abdullah Gul on a two-day state visit. The Russian press noted the visit, and Itar-Tass reported, “Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko will discuss in Turkey issues related to energy and Euro-Atlantic integration” (Itar-Tass, October 27). A second Itar-Tass dispatch reported that the pair would “discuss the creation of a Caspian-Black Sea-Baltic transit space with the aim of ensuring reliable and safe supplies of energy resources,” which, of course, would cross Russian territory.

The Kremlin could hardly have expected Gul’s statement to journalists following the bilateral discussions. “At a joint press conference, Gul said that Turkey supported NATO’s offering membership to Ukraine” (Milliyet, October 28). It is now Washington’s turn to be as delighted as the Kremlin is angered. Gul’s remarks will undoubtedly furnish Russian analysts with much material for speculation in the days to come, especially as Turkey had taken such a principled stand on foreign navies obeying the Montreux Convention to the letter.

In its defense, Turkey can argue that as a NATO member, it was merely reaffirming a decision made at the NATO April 2 to 4 summit in Bucharest. Article 23 of a declaration released at the end of the gathering began, “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO” (Bucharest Summit Declaration, Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Bucharest on 3 April 2008, www.nato.int/docu/pr/2008/p08-049e.html).

U.S. President George W. Bush pressed hard at the NATO summit for the bloc immediately to admit Georgia and Ukraine, allies of the United States. Many analysts concluded that a significant underlying component of Russia’s military operation against Georgia was to remind NATO members of the potential consequences of admitting the two countries or “fast tracking” their applications. Since then, caution has certainly surfaced in Germany’s stance on the admission issue, especially as it was reported that Berlin was one of the major powers behind the scenes thwarting the U.S. administration’s policy in Bucharest.

On October 2, after talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a news conference that a forthcoming NATO ministerial meeting, scheduled for December, which many have predicted would be the occasion for NATO to offer Membership Action Plans (MAPs) to both Georgia and Ukraine, would instead for Germany be only “an initial evaluation on the road to MAP.” Merkel added, “The position in favor of membership as soon as possible is not the German position” (Novosti, www.polit.ru, Agence France Presse, October 2).

Furthermore, while Ankara’s strictly legalistic interpretation of the Montreux Convention won it plaudits from the Kremlin, an earlier diplomatic gesture by Turkey was condemned by Moscow. When Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence on February 17, Turkey recognized it the next day (EDM, February 20). In contrast, Moscow pressed for the immediate convening of an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council “to review the situation and take decisive and effective steps to return to the process of political settlement in accordance with the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 1244” (Utro, February 18).

The rationale behind Turkey’s decision to support Ukraine’s NATO aspirations is unclear at this point. If Turkish membership in the military alliance is Ankara’s stick toward Moscow, then the carrot is Gul’s discussion with Yushchenko of creating a Caspian-Black Sea-Baltic transit route; as it would obviously transit Russia, which Russia would benefit by both collecting transit fees and providing throughput.

It is equally possible on the multi-level, geo-strategic Eurasian energy chessboard that Turkey could be reminding Russia that, despite currently receiving two-third of its natural gas imports from Russia, there are other alternatives to be had, most notably Azerbaijan and, in a move certain to unsettle Washington, Iran.

Iran is Turkey’s second biggest supplier of natural gas after Russia. Turkey and Iran signed a preliminary agreement on July 24 involving the construction of two pipelines to supplement the 1,601-mile-long Tabriz-Ankara natural gas pipeline (Referans, October 27). Even worse from Washington’s viewpoint, Turkey plans to invest $3.5 billion in Iran for natural gas production (Tehran Times, September 26). Finally, next month Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler will visit Tehran for discussions with Iranian officials on a gas agreement (IRNA, October 24).

The disfavor with which both Moscow and Washington view the deepening of Turkish energy ties with Iran is perhaps one of the few issues left that Russia and the United States can agree upon—Moscow because it is losing a major customer and political influence, Washington because Turkey is cozying up to “axis of evil” member Iran. But the U.S. administration has long proclaimed that “happiness is multiple pipelines,” even if it implicitly favored those bypassing both Russia and Iran; and Ankara has taken Washington’s position to heart.

From Ankara’s viewpoint, Turkey’s Iranian initiative makes perfect sense in diversifying its energy suppliers as well as positioning itself as a major energy corridor. A new U.S. administration in January might well take a more moderate approach toward Iran, in which case Iranian gas might eventually be available for one of the West’s pet projects, the Nabucco pipeline.

And Turkey’s championing of Ukraine? A Caspian-Black Sea-Baltic transit corridor could certainly make Gazprom even richer, as it could concentrate on consolidating its influence over Caspian energy, while Turkey and the West busily exploit Azeri and Iranian gas. In such a case, Turkey’s seemingly quixotic foreign policy is in actuality simply far ahead of the curve. Only Ankara’s policy makers know for sure, and they are obviously following the old Turkish proverb, “Bin isit, bir soyle” (“Listen a thousand times, speak once”).