Interview with Hamit Bozarslan – The War in Ukraine and Turkish Geopolitics

An interview carried out by Morgan Caillet and Ismaël Ricard

To be found in our special file : The Ukrainian conflict in the eurasian space – an overview       READ

Hamit Bozarslan is a historian, political scientist and specialist in the Middle East, Turkey and the Kurdish question. He is director of studies at the EHESS where he co-directed the Institute for the Study of Islam and Societies of the Muslim World (IISMM) between 2002 and 2008. He is a member of the editorial board of the journals Cultures et Conflits and Critique Internationale and Fellow of the Asian Society. His research topics concern the history of contemporary Turkey, the Kurdish question, minority issues in the Middle East and the history and sociology of violence in the Middle East.

Morgan Caillet (MC): The fields of competition between Turkey and Russia are numerous, some quite traditional like the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, others more recent like Syria and Libya, and some perhaps in the making such as Africa…Turkish foreign policy is also marked by forms of collaboration with Russia on certain issues: purchase from Russia of the S400 air defence system despite its membership in NATO, purchase of gas from Russia which covers 35% of its needs… The September meeting between the two leaders last September in Sochi also focused on other forms of cooperation in the military and nuclear field. Could you give us a general overview of these different areas of conflict and their historical construction? How could we qualify this very special relationship? How to explain it?

Hamit Bozarslan (HB) : What must be taken into consideration is that these areas of conflict have existed historically and they have posed a certain amount of problems of cooperation between the two countries. But at the same time, we saw that there were forms of cooperation that could be put in place, such as in Syria, Armenia, the Caucasus, etc. So we have the impression of a coalition of accomplices. Michel de la Boétie told us: “the bad guys can become accomplices but never friends“. There is absolutely no friendship, but this absence of friendship does not mean that there is also an absence of complicity and cooperation. On each of these grounds, we see that historically the two adversaries clashed as in the case of Syria where this appears very clearly: in 2015 Turkey destroyed a Russian fighter plane which had flown over its border for a few seconds. Everyone expected an extremely long crisis and the crisis happened. There has been a boycott of Turkish products by the Kremlin, which also has Turkey on its blacklist. But then we saw a rapprochement. This was done on the backs of Syrian opponents and Kurds. Erdogan agreed to withdraw his support for the rebels in the Aleppo region and in return Russia allowed Turkey to intervene in the Al-Bab region and then helped him against the Kurds in the Afrin region We have also seen this in the case of Armenia in 2020 in Karabakh. For Putin, there was absolutely no reason to sacrifice the Armenians, any more than to sacrifice the Kurds, but it was important to agree with Erdogan, especially also on the issue of the S-400 missiles that Erdogan bought from made of a deep hostility towards the Americans, the West and with a desire to sow discord between the NATO countries. So we are always in this situation. Russia can be extremely cynical, sacrificing its own allies, groups it has nothing against, in return for negotiating with Turkey. But these negotiations also do not mean that there are no clashes. We have seen, for example, that in the region of Idlib controlled by Turkey with the backing of Putin, from time to time, the Russian air force intervenes and kills Turkish soldiers. It’s a way of sending a message. We saw that in Libya very clearly. The two forces clashed through interposed militias. On the one hand there is no absolute integration between them, but on the other hand no more dissociation: cynicism is the guiding line that allows these two countries to develop a regional foreign policy.

MC: The history of Turkish-Russian relations is marked by 11 Russian-Ottoman wars between the 16th and 20th centuries. Is the war in Ukraine part of the Turkish imagination in the continuation of this old rivalry with a historical enemy? What does Ukraine represent for Turkey? What are their historical, cultural, ethnic, economic and diplomatic ties?

HB: You are quite right to point out that there was a whole series of wars in the 18th and 19th century between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. It should be remembered that Russia was constituted as an Empire to the detriment of the Ottoman Empire at first, whether in the Caucasus, in the Balkans. Russian imperial expansion stems directly from a logic of hostility towards the Ottoman Empire. But that being said, we must not forget that there were also moments of rapprochement and the real moment of rapprochement, which is very cynical here too, was under Lenin. In 1919 and 1920, Lenin was orphaned by a European revolution: until 1919, he thought that the Revolution would break out in Europe and that Russia would break its isolation, which did not happen. From then on, it became urgent for Lenin to get closer to other countries, including among the leaders he deeply despised. And Mustafa Kemal and the Kemalist resistance, which is an emerging force, is one of the options. And he is betting completely on this option. And on the other hand, for Mustafa Kemal who presents himself as an anti-imperialist in this context, the rapprochement with Lenin is very important. He wrote several letters to Lenin telling him that they were both anti-imperialists and therefore “Go crush the Georgians and let us crush the Armenians!” “. So for him, imperialism is Georgian “imperialism” and Armenian “imperialism”. You see there how a reconfiguration of reconciliation on the backs of the weak becomes possible.

I would say that regarding Ukraine since 2014, the situation is similar. Turkey was outraged by the annexation of Crimea, especially since it was formerly part, at least theoretically, of Ottoman suzerainty. There was a Crimean Khanate. It was the land of the Turkic Tatars before their deportation under Stalin. The annexation of Crimea by Putin was therefore symbolically badly experienced. But we know that from 2015-2016, Turkey completely forgot the centrality of this question and chose a very accelerated rapprochement with Moscow while trying to preserve the authorities in Kyiv by selling drones that were used in the wars in Donbass, even before 2021-2022. But it’s sort of “minimum service”. And we have the impression that today, for Turkey, support for Crimea and Ukraine is minimal support. It should be noted that we support Ukraine and its sovereignty and on the other side, we make sure not to compromise anything with regard to Russia. And as proof, today Putin, Raisi and Erdogan will meet again in Tehran. Another element intervenes in this regard, it is that, for example, there was a boat loaded with Ukrainian wheat that Russia had sent to Turkey, this boat was requisitioned but only to be sent again to Russia. I believe that we must take the measure of this absolutely extraordinary cynicism to understand the relationship between the two countries today and to understand why Turkey expresses a very timorous voice in relation to Ukraine.

MC:  We have seen several attempts at Turkish mediation in the context of the war in Ukraine, Turkey having both recognized “the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Crimea included” and refused to take sanctions against Russia . Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was ready on April 28 to “take the initiative” to end the war in Ukraine and while on March 6, Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian President said he was ready, during a conversation phone call with him to come to Istanbul or Ankara to meet the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, a meeting between the Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish Foreign Ministers, Sergei Lavrov, Dmytro Kuleba and Mevlut Cavusoglu, took place on 10 March on the sidelines of the Antalya Diplomatic Forum. And meetings also took place on March 29 in Istanbul. What are the results of these negotiations? What do you think are the elements in the balance in the negotiations between Turkey and Russia regarding the war in Ukraine? What is Turkey’s leeway on this issue? What are its strengths and weaknesses in proposing a third way?

HB: Erdogan even saw himself as a Nobel Prize winner in this period. It was written that Erdogan was going to mediate and that this conflict would be over quickly. And that Erdogan would receive the Nobel Prize. Things didn’t turn out that way. You recalled the dates of March and April when we are in the second half of July and a lot of things have happened since. At first, the map of the Ukrainian conflict was not yet clear. For Putin, it was a question of occupying the country in 24 or 48 hours. We have a lot of elements that suggest it today. It didn’t happen. In a perfectly cynical logic, Putin has made the choice of headlong rushes. Erdogan thought that Putin’s impotence, which he watched right before his eyes, would give him a golden opportunity. That being said, in these negotiations in Turkey, nothing took place, absolutely nothing because Putin had no desire to stop the war, in other words to admit defeat, especially since he had already failed to achieve his initial projects which consisted of occupying Kyiv or even going as far as the Polish border. The strategic choices have been redefined with the aim of conquering the whole of Donbass. The war has also changed in dimension because we have entered into a kind of cold war, a fact openly admitted by NATO. The war was not wanted by NATO or by the Western democracies, but now that it is here, we know that the arms race will start again, and that the strategy of “making Russia’s nose bleed” will be put in place. From this point of view, I do not see how Putin could avoid entering into this logic of the cold war, nor how he will be able to win it.

That said, tomorrow the situation may become so unmanageable that Russia expresses that at the request of its allies and friends, China, Israel and Turkey, it accepts a mediation or a truce. But we’re not there yet. And in any case, from the April negotiations, there is only sand left. It is a castle that was built on sand and collapsed on sand.

MC : Turkish foreign policy is also marked by persistent rivalries with NATO members. Recently with France, which has given its frank support to Greece in the context of the Turkish incursions in the Aegean Sea and their request for a revision of the delimitations of marine areas, with the United States concerning its involvement in Syria and its fight against the Kurds, with the EU concerning the migration crisis linked to the war in Syria, its rapprochement with authoritarian regimes such as China, its attacks on the secularization of the country implemented under Atatürk, etc…. How does Turkey compose with these ambiguous relations to position themselves in the Ukrainian conflict? What is its exact role in the context of the future diversification of the European Union’s energy supplies?

HB: This is where we see what binds Erdogan’s Turkey and Putin’s Russia. The two countries or the two regimes share exactly the same reading of history. For them, the Turkish nation or the Russian nation have received a historic mission which consists in becoming Empires, in dominating the world or in any case, their region. That this historical mission does not distinguish them as pure ontological entities whose existence is threatened by Western ontology which would be corrupt and corrupting. That the war between the West and their respective nations would be an eternal, trans-historical, meta-historical war. That the history of the world, and in particular the history of the West, would be the history of the West against Russia or against Turkey. That the past was a time of greatness, of glory, followed by periods of decline imposed by the West. And that the time to come must be that of revenge on history. So from that point of view, the two regimes share exactly the same vision of the world. And the conflict with what they describe as the West remains the central conflict. I believe that in bringing them together, you have to see this part of things. And if we place ourselves in this perspective, things stop becoming geopolitical or geostrategic. We are in a different logic. You also mentioned the question of secularism which can also be mentioned in connection with Russia. There is also a desire to take revenge on the Ottoman and Russian 19th century, i.e. to de-Westernise the countries, to stop the process of Westernisation considered as a process of alienation and internal betrayal by the elites. I think you have to bear that in mind to understand why these two countries hold very similar discourses, term by term, which I had moreover analysed in my book called Anti-democracy in the 21st century – Iran, Turkey, Russia. For the three regimes, you can practically make three columns and get the same sentences, the same groups of sentences.

But it is true that Turkey is also trying to play on its power of nuisance with the question of NATO. The decision to join NATO was not taken by Erdogan; it dates from 1949-52 and almost follows the NATO constitution. It is explained by the fact that at that time Stalin openly threatened the territorial integrity of Turkey. So after 70 years, the country finds itself with this question and we know that in NATO Turkey remains a major blocking force. We see it today in relation to the candidacy of Sweden or Finland. So the massive use of its nuisance force in relation to France, the eastern Mediterranean, Greece, all this comes into play. The question for Turkey today is how to use its nuisance force within NATO. But it still has extremely limited room for maneuver and it was forced to backtrack in the case of the eastern Mediterranean. While the talk two or three years ago was “the eastern Mediterranean is us!” », today the voice of Turkey has become more mezzo voce. We know that the Americans are building a huge number of military bases in Greece, no doubt to counter Russian hegemony on the Black Sea, but also as an alternative to their bases in Turkey. So there is a choice in favour of Greece. And then, there is a last element which intervenes which is the economic situation in Turkey which is absolutely dramatic. We knew it since 2013 but there was a kind of momentum, speculative growth that hid things. 2018 marked the beginning of the currency crisis in Turkey, the Turkish lira and it continues. Inflation is officially 80% and according to all independent observers 160-175%. We see that in this context Turkey cannot go too far. But at the same time, a suicidal strategy is not excluded either, such as blocking the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO.

Ismaël Ricard (IR): In the name of the Montreux Convention of 1936 governing the management of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, Turkey decided on February 27, 2022 after finding the state of war to close its straits to the buildings of the belligerents except those returning to their home-port. This responsibility vis-à-vis the straits makes Turkey a central actor with regard to the export of Russian and Ukrainian wheat on which a significant part of African countries depend; however, the affair of the Russian freighter Zhibel Zholy (accused by Kyiv of transporting wheat seized in the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russian forces, previously stopped in Turkey then authorized to leave a few days later, arousing Ukrainian indignation) has been able to show Turkey’s balancing act on this. That being said, what can we expect from the ongoing negotiations around a potential “grain corridor”, a project for which Sergei Lavrov travelled to Ankara on June 8? Is Turkey thereby trying to detach itself from all responsibilities surrounding the potential looting of Ukrainian wheat by Russian forces? And above all, isn’t this file more of a lever used by Turkey in its negotiations with Russia in other files, that of Syria in particular? Could this also be interpreted as a way to strengthen its ties with certain African countries?

HB: For the moment, we are blocked in relation to this but we are also in the fog. I can’t really see what will happen in 24 hours. One thing is certain: Turkey has banned Russian military vessels from crossing the strait. But Russia controls a good part of the Black Sea and does not need to cross the strait to attack Ukraine anyway. Then, concerning Ukrainian wheat, Sergei Lavrov had said very clearly that we should not exaggerate too much and that Ukrainian wheat represented only 1% of the world market and that all this was speculative. And now, we can envisage Erdogan agreeing to Ukrainian wheat under the Russian flag leaving the region and being marketed elsewhere. But I don’t believe Putin’s goal is to solve the food crisis. Rather, it aims to blame the West for the blockage while showing that it is doing its utmost to supply African populations. For the moment, it is a little early to know how things will evolve. Let’s not forget that the Kremlin may initially be in the mood of hubris and kairos, that is to say seize every opportunity that he considers it opportune to start a war, as February 24 showed. And on the other side, he can also be in extremely long negotiations which produce absolutely nothing and whose objective is to blow the wind, rather than to produce solutions. And concerning wheat, it is not excluded that we are in a long round of negotiations intended not to resolve the crisis, but precisely to give no result.

MC : We know the privileged links of Turkey with the “brother countries” of Central Asia by virtue of privileged cultural, historical and religious ties. These countries meet regularly for meetings of the Organization of Turkish States, which had offered its assistance in the context of the January crisis in Kazakhstan which had called on the CSTO to suppress popular protests. This country maintains a “multi-vector policy” and we are more generally seeing at the moment a distancing of the countries of Central Asia from Russia, which is subject to international sanctions. What card is Turkey playing for the establishment of new East-West transport routes? What are the chances of these different projects succeeding?

HB : Again, I have no answers. Because until the end of 2021, the Turkish presence was still insignificant. It was above all symbolic with these meetings at multilateral summits, scholarship programs for students. But the Turkish economic presence was practically insignificant, the military presence absolutely unthinkable. And the influence of Russia was such that it was difficult to imagine that Turkey could become a unifying player in this area. What will happen is difficult to know because no one could have imagined that Kazakhstan would be brought in or considered the opportune moment to take some distance from Russia. Which does not mean divorce or total empowerment. What can Turkey, which is in such a difficult economic situation, bring tomorrow when there is more and more talk of the impossibility or the probability of a default for the country. So these are questions that remain unresolved.

MC: Regarding the ongoing rapprochement with Armenia and the last meeting of the representatives of the two countries for the normalization of relations in Vienna on July 1, it seems that an agreement has been reached regarding the gradual opening of the border and the establishment of direct air freight between the two countries. On the same day, Azerbaijan closed its 13km border with Turkey. Separately, rumours of mine clearance along the Armenian-Turkish border appeared last week in Turkish media, which have been denied. Do you think that this approach can succeed without the establishment of an extraterritorial Zangezour corridor promoted by Turkish and Azerbaijani partners? Could not the current Turkish foreign policy be described as “corridor policy” which would seek to recreate a continuity that has disappeared from the old Turkish world?

HB: And that didn’t exist before either. Because Yerevan did not necessarily belong to the Ottoman influence. I think you’re right about the term “corridor policy”, it’s a strategy in Syria, through bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, most likely in the Balkans, to have a presence through those imposed channels. But I don’t know what will be tomorrow. Russia, for now, wants these negotiations to succeed. But I am not really sure that it would like the constitution, even if it is part of the agreements, of a Turkish corridor which would perpetuate the Turkish presence in the Caucasus. To what extent Putin’s decisions will be able to impose themselves or to what extent he will decide in the direction of Erdogan, to what extent the Russian general staff, which could gain a little autonomy from to Putin, will follow his decisions: these are extremely difficult questions to answer. And let’s also not forget that on the one hand there are no obstacles to normalization with Armenia, which Europe would support as well as the United States, but on the other hand in 2008, there was an agreement officially signed, if I remember correctly in Geneva, and the Turkish Parliament never met to ratify it. You also have to have that in mind. We can be in conflicts that seem to be on the verge of being resolved or overcome and which can finally drag on for years and years.

MC : What is Turkey’s position on the evolution of European Union integration files in the Balkans?

HB: To tell the truth, in Turkey, we no longer discuss Ukraine at all. We still discuss Syria a bit because, for Erdogan, we still have to hit the Kurds. But apart from that, there are no foreign policy issues that are discussed. And the reason is simple. It’s that people only talk about the economy. There is a cannibalization exerted by the economic crisis, a kind of mortgage thrown on all the other issues which means that these subjects are not discussed.

But we know that tomorrow, concerning the integration of Albania and Macedonia, if they were to take place, Turkey would not fail to evoke the policy of double standards of Europe by addressing its own situation of expectations regarding the integration of other countries. Nor would I rule out the use of its nuisance force by playing the Islamic card. Not necessarily armed Islamist movements, but we know how much the tiny Turkish-speaking communities in these regions are worked on by the Turkish embassies. So I wouldn’t dismiss all of this, but from what I can see in the press and official statements, this issue is not the priority of the Turkish authorities. And even Ukraine is not a debated topic.

IR : Troop movements and escalating skirmishes between Turkish (or Turkish-backed) and Kurdish forces point to a new operation similar to Peace Spring (2019), Olive Branch ( 2018), and Euphrates Shield (2016-17), the preparation of which is confirmed by press releases from the Turkish Presidency and the Ministry of National Defence. Turkey is opposed in its approach to the Russian forces which support the loyalists and have every interest in curbing Turkish influence in the region, but also to the Shiite militias supported by Iran established in the Shiite strongholds of the country. In view of Turkey’s diplomatic activity at the Madrid summit at the end of June, can we consider, despite the war in Ukraine, that Turkey’s main concern remains the fight against the Kurdish separatists and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)? Is a fourth Turkish operation in Syria inevitable? What can we expect from the summit in Tehran on July 19 between Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin and Ebrahim Raisi where the main subject was established to be the situation in Syria in the continuity of the Astana agreements?

HB : To tell the truth, the Syrian Kurds are not at all separatists. On the contrary, in the very tendency that is dominant among them, there is a rejection of the nation-state and they are much more autonomist than separatist. Then July 19 is today and I have no idea what will come out of the negotiations. One thing is certain: for now there is a US, Russian and Iranian triple veto. American first because they signed an agreement with the Turks in 2019 for the Turkish operation to stop and since then there has been no real conflict on the ground. And they made it clear that any Turkish operation will be frowned upon, especially as it would hasten the process of reviving the Islamic State. The Russians absolutely do not want an operation, at least until now, because Turkey wants to control an area which is the access road to the region of Aleppo, the second economic city of the country. Neither does Iran, firstly because there are Shiite sites in the region and above all because it wants to put a definitive end to Turkish expansion in the region. And this is the first time that Bashar al-Assad has said that the Syrian army will resist a new Turkish operation. This is the data for July 18 at midnight. What will happen today is a priori that nothing will move or there will only be a few symbolic concessions.

To go further : 

Hamit Bozarslan, Histoire de la Turquie de l’Empire à nos jours, Paris, Tallandier, 2021.

Hamit Bozarslan, L’Anti-démocratie au XXIe siècle : Iran, Russie, Turquie, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2021.

Ahmet Insel, La nouvelle Turquie d’Erdogan. Du rêve démocratique à la dérive autoritaire, Paris, La Découverte, 2015.

Jean-François Pérouse, & Nicolas Cheviron, Erdogan : nouveau père de la Turquie ? Paris, François Bourin, 2016.

Guillaume Perrier, Dans la tête de Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Arles, Actes-Sud, 2018.



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