Alphen, Netherlands. 30 November. Power politics has and always will be about exploiting space and people over time and distance, to exert the influence of the strategically strong, over the politically weak.
Look at a map of Eastern Europe and Western Asia from north to south. For the Russia Black Seas Fleet to sail from its base at Sevastopol via the Black Sea and into the Mediterranean it must first pass through the Bosporus directly in front of Istanbul, then sail south through the small Sea of Marmara, and finally on past Cernak into the Dardanelles straits before it can enter the Mediterranean. The distance between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean is some 60 miles or 85 kilometres, all of which is under firm Turkish control. In other words without Turkey’s approval Russia’s Black Seas Fleet and Sevastopol, Russia’s only south facing warm water European fleet naval base, is rendered useless.
Consequently, if Turkey turns against Russia in the wake of last week’s downing of a Russian SU-24, much of the strategic rationale behind President Putin’s illegal seizure of Crimea is threatened. That is why for all Moscow’s bluster Putin knows all too well it is the Turks not the Russians who hold most (not all) of the strategic cards. Indeed, the Russian Black Seas Fleet is vital to wider Russian ambitions across and around the Mediterranean basin.
This is not the first time in history the Dardanelles and the Bosporus have been a grand strategic flashpoint. A century ago in December 1915 Allies forces were about to be withdrawn in the face of heroic Turkish resistance after Churchill’s failed attempt to force the Dardanelles with the Royal and French navies, and to take the Gallipoli Peninsula with an Allied Expeditionary Force of mainly British, Australian and New Zealand troops. The aim was to push Istanbul (Constantinople became Istanbul in 1453) out of its alliance with Wilhelmine Germany, and thus out of the First World War. The expedition was a spectacular failure as I saw for myself on a visit to Gallipoli as a guest of the Turkish Government.
In fact, Russia and Turkey (or more precisely the Ottoman Empire) have been fighting over the Dardanelles and the Bosporus ever since Moscow decided an all-year round warm water port was an essential Russian interest. In 1807, during the Napoleonic wars, British and Russian forces blockaded the Dardanelles. When Istanbul lost the 1828-1829 Russo-Turkish war Moscow forced the Ottomans to close the straits to all non-Russian (i.e. British) forces. European powers became alarmed by Russia’s de facto control of the straits and Moscow’s ambitions to extend its influence into the Mediterranean and the wider Middle East. Nothing new there then.
In 1841 at the London Straits Convention Austria-Hungary, Britain, France and Prussia, using the precedent set by the 1815 Congress of Vienna, forced Russia to agree that in peacetime only Ottoman warships could traverse the straits. During the 1853-1856 Crimean War the Royal and French navies actually traversed the straits into the Black Sea to blockade Sevastopol with the aim of denying Russia the very same warm water port that is deemed vital to Moscow’s twenty-first century grand strategy. Indeed, the 1856 Congress of Paris which reaffirmed the 1841 convention is still in legal force today!
So, President Putin might make much play of deploying highly-advanced S400 anti-aircraft missiles to the Russian Air Force base at Latakia in Syria, and yes those missiles can reach deep into Turkish air space. He might also escort his SU-24 fighter-bombers with fighters, and hit Turkey with limited sanctions. However, implicit in Turkish President Erdogan’s warning to Russia “…not to play with fire” over the downing of the SU-24 is the inference that it is Istanbul not Moscow that has the strategic upper hand.
Now, turn aforesaid map around and look at it from west to east. All the Syrian and other refugees using the northern route from the Middle East to Europe have to cross the self-same Bosporus. Yesterday Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davotoglu met with EU leaders in Brussels at an EU-Turkey summit. Again, Istanbul not Brussels (or the real power capitals of Europe) held most of the cards. Ankara is using the migration crisis as a means to exert pressure on fellow Europeans (Turkey is both a European and an Asian country) by turning migration flows on and off like a tap. Greek officials reported in October that in the wake of a previous high-level meeting with the Turks the migration flow suddenly eased.
So what does Turkey want? On 12 December, 1999 Turkey was officially recognised by the EU as an official candidate state. Ever since then the EU has pretended to negotiate Turkish membership, and the Turks have pretended to believe them. No more! President Erdogan’s mandate was markedly strengthen in Turkey’s June 2015 presidential elections. In return for controlling the migration flows into Europe President Erdogan is determined to force the EU to take Turkey’s membership far more seriously, and force visa-free travel for Turks upon a reluctant EU. At yesterday’s Brussels EU-Turkey Summit desperate EU leaders were willing to give President Erdogan pretty much all he wants.
Scratch the surface of European politics and one finds history. European fears (for that is what they now are) of such a huge wave of mainly Muslim migrants runs deep in the DNA of Europe’s collective historic memory. Between 1529 and 1683 the Ottomans made repeated incursions into Europe, culminating in the 1683 Battle of Vienna. Inter-mingled with the fear of migrants is that historic fear of Ottoman conquest, even if many Europeans do not realise it. It is a fear that runs deep in contemporary politics.
Presidents Erdogan and Putin also understand each other, and indeed power politics far better than Europe’s many little leaders. Power politically both the downing of the Russian plane and the migrant crisis demonstrate Turkey’s ‘strong’ grand tactical position. However, Turkey must be careful not to confuse a strong grand tactical position with a strong grand strategic position. Indeed, being so close to Syria and the wider Middle East it is also evident that strong NATO allies and EU partners will be vital to Turkey’s long-term security. Consensual (not forced) Turkish EU membership will also be vital to this pivotal power’s future stability and prosperity.
Critically, Ankara does not want to spend too much strategic energy looking over its shoulder north at an aggrieved Russia. Just look at a map, watch this space and indeed twenty-first century power politics at work!