“The return of Crimea to Ukraine, of which it is an inseparable part, is essentially a requirement of international law.” In itself, this startling comment by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, delivered via video link at the Crimean Platform Summit last month, would not have surprised anyone who follows Turkish-Russian relations closely.
Yet it was more than proof of Erdogan’s complex juggling between his support for Ukrainian sovereignty and his refusal to join in on sanctions against Russia. It was an indicator of opportunities that Turkey is considering pushing the boundaries of its relationship with Russia, at a time when the Kremlin is bogged down in Ukraine.
Whether in Syria or the South Caucasus, Ankara is poised to fill the void as Moscow’s influence looks set to wane.
Following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Turkey played the role of intermediary, as evidenced by the agreement it negotiated in July, with the help of the United Nations, for grain ships Ukrainians depart from Odessa. Its trade relations with Russia are booming. Yet Erdogan has remained consistent in his support for Kyiv, including in Crimea, the historical homeland of the Crimean Tatars (a community that considers Turkey a kin-state). Turkey’s supply of Bayraktar drones to the Ukrainian Armed Forces remains the strongest symbol of Ankara’s military support for Kyiv.
Turkey feels threatened by Russian expansion in the Black Sea since the 2008 war in Georgia. Step by step, Moscow has asserted control over buffer states whose emergence in the early 1990s facilitated an unprecedented rapprochement between Russia and Turkey.
Ankara’s own sense of vulnerability, combined with a deep distrust of Western allies, has driven it to seek conciliation with its giant imperialist-minded neighbor, instead of a face-to-face . At the same time, however, Turkey has cultivated alliances with other Black Sea states fearful of Russian revanchism, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Romania and Moldova.
It is important to recognize that the country now seems ready to go further.
Take northern Syria, for example. Since May, Erdogan has been calling for an operation to clear the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the Tal Rifaat and Manbij regions. Turkish forces and their Syrian National Army allies have increased pressure on Kurdish fighters along the line of contact west of the Euphrates as well as around Kobani, Ain Issa and Tal Tamer in the is. In tandem, Erdogan is waging a vigorous diplomatic effort to get Russia and Iran on board.
Syria was the focus of his three-way summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on July 21, as well as Erdogan’s meeting with Putin in Sochi on August 5. For Russia and Iran to approve his plans for an all-out offensive, he dangles the prospect of restoring ties with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad in return. However, if Putin refused to approve a new operation, it is not inconceivable that Turkish forces would act unilaterally.
Another scenario where Turkey is advancing, at the expense of Russia, is the South Caucasus. In July, Ankara and Yerevan agreed to open their border, which has been closed to third-country nationals since the early 1990s, and allow cargo flights to use each other’s airfields. Turkish and Armenian diplomats negotiate the establishment of diplomatic relations.
Fear of Turkey has been one of the main reasons for Armenia’s alignment with Russia in terms of foreign and security policy. But after Azerbaijan defeated the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians in November 2020 with the help of Turkey, the value of this alliance with Russia diminished.
After all, Moscow remained neutral and left the Armenian forces to fend for themselves. Now, Armenian leaders are pragmatically exploring an opening with Turkey that could bring economic and strategic benefits.
The common thread between Syria and Armenia is that Turkey is methodically driving Russia out of its neighborhood and from areas where Moscow has held a strategic advantage over its geopolitical rivals in recent years.
Of course, Moscow is capable of spoiling such efforts. As distracted as they are, the Russians still have friends in the Iranians and Assad in Syria as well as a partnership of convenience with the YPG.
Russia also maintains a 2,000-strong peacekeeping contingent in Karabakh that could play a vital role in shaping the conflict there. Moscow also has some economic clout over Yerevan: bilateral trade has soared as Armenia has become a backdoor for Russia to circumvent Western sanctions. On Monday, fresh clashes erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia, although a ceasefire was later announced.
Yet anyone who thinks the war in Ukraine is, ultimately, a conflict involving Moscow, Kyiv and Western capitals would do well to look further. If Russia’s expansion is stopped, another nation is ready to expand its diplomatic influence.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.