Did Russia Really Promise Crimea To Turkey?

As the current dispute over control of the Crimean Peninsula between Russia and Ukraine intensifies, there’s a claim making the rounds online that, if true, could have major repercussions for the region today. Most versions of the story claim that after Russia annexed Crimea in 1783, it signed a treaty which promised that if Crimea ever declared independence, it would automatically be transferred to the Ottoman Empire.

On March 11, 2014, the Supreme Council of Crimea declared its independence from Ukraine in the aftermath of the Euromaidan protests and the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. That would mean that according to the 231 year old treaty’s provisions, the Crimean Peninsula would now legally belong to Turkey (the successor state to the Ottoman Empire). Many of the articles making this claim online have sensationalist headlines that declare that Crimea should now belong to Turkey or that Turkey now finds itself in the middle of the dispute between Ukraine and Russia. But is there any truth to this claim?

The Treaty

The realm of old treaties and the influence they have on modern international law is fascinating. Especially so are the treaties that have to do with the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, which at one point ruled major potions of Europe, Asia, and Africa. It was not uncommon for treaties the Ottoman Empire was subjected to during its decline to include provisions for the partition of its lands and the loss of territory. According to the articles being shared online, these were some of the points of the treaty in question from 1783:

– A treaty signed between the Russian and Ottoman Empires on April 19, 1783 transferred Crimea from Ottoman to Russian control

– The treaty promised that if Crimea ever became independent or was transferred to a third party, it should fall under the control of the Ottomans once more

– The Turkish government chose not to pursue such a claim in 1991 when Ukraine became independent of the Soviet Union

The Sources

Many of the articles claim an unnamed article at Hürriyet, a major Turkish newspaper, as a source. However, a quick search of the Hürriyet websites (both English and Turkish) yielded absolutely no articles making such a claim. It is possible that the article in question was printed in the physical newspaper and not online, but the fact that no specific Hürriyet article is ever named leads one to believe it may not even exist.

Digging a little deeper online, it seems that the first article to actually make the claim regarding the 1783 treaty came from one Ceylan Ozbudak, a television presenter and political analyst based in Istanbul, on March 1, 2014. Writing for Al Arabiya, she claims that the treaty in question was the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca. She states that according to the treaty, “Should any such attempt [at Crimean independence] be made, then Crimea would automatically have to be returned to the sovereignty of Turkey.” She goes on to use that as the backdrop for her opinions on what steps the current Turkish government should take in mediating the dispute between Russia and Crimea.

The Problems

But there are some problems with Ozbudak’s article and the claims she makes in it:

Firstly, she claims that the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca dates to April 19, 1783. That is simply untrue. It was actually nine years earlier in July 1774 that the treaty was ratified, ending the Russo-Turkish War. She also refers to the treaty as “Karlowitz I”, another inaccuracy, as the Treaty of Karlowitz occurred 84 years earlier in 1699 and involved the Ottomans and the Austrians, not the Russians.

Furthermore, the treaty did not, as Ozbudak claims, transfer Crimea to Russian control, nor did it promise that it should go to the Ottomans if it became independent. In fact, the treaty actually guarantees the independence of Crimea and says nothing of its possible transfer to Ottoman rule.

1783 was important in the history of Crimea, however. It was then, nine years after the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, that Russia annexed independent Crimea. But there was absolutely no treaty between the Ottomans and the Russians as the articles claim. It was a straightforward military annexation that did not involve the Ottomans in any way since they had not had control over the peninsula in nine years.

Ozbudak goes on to use these inaccurate statements to come up with conclusions about how important Turkey is today on the world stage. The title of her article, “Turkey caught in the Russia-Crimea snowstorm” makes sense as one reads the latter parts of her article, which over-inflates Turkey’s role in the Crimean crisis, claiming that Turkey should set an example for Ukraine and play a role in mediating the conflict. No doubt Turkey is a major regional power today, but to use false historical information to make Turkey seem even more important is simply irresponsible on behalf of the author and Al Arabiya, which published the article.

One can only speculate as to what sources Ceylan Ozbudak used to come up with her article and her conclusions. But as far as this author can tell, her work is fraught with factual inaccuracies and irresponsible, unhistorical conclusions.

But there is a lesson to be learned from the plethora of articles being shared across the internet and social media about Turkey’s supposed legal ownership of Crimea: facts and sources matter. Sharing articles such as Ozbudak’s without doing a little bit of digging into the truthfulness of the article’s claims leads to the spread of false information which could cause many people to make judgments and conclusions based on untrue claims and unreliable research. Furthermore, reputable news sources such as Al Arabiya should place more emphasis on fact-checking and making sure what they publish actually has a historical basis.

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