Russo-Turkish Relations

Trade, proxy wars, and antipathy toward the West.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between Turkey and Russia have improved, largely on account of trade. The two nations consider each other as a major trading partner. Russia is Turkey’s largest provider of energy, while Turkish companies operate in Russia. Significantly, Turkey’s dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has defied the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in which Turkey has been an important member. It announced in September, 2017 its plan to purchase from Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin, the S-400 surface-to-air missile system, despite strong objections from the U.S. and all other members of NATO. 

During the Cold-War, Muslim but secular Turkey was the southern anchor of the West, and of the U.S. in particular, against the Soviet Union. U.S. President John F. Kennedy had nuclear missiles placed in Turkey aimed at Moscow. When, however, the Cuban missile crisis occurred in 1962, as a price for the Soviets removing their nuclear missiles from Cuba, which intended to threaten the U.S., the U.S. was secretly compelled to remove its missiles from Turkey as part of the deal. Turkey was allied with the West, and had sent troops to fight alongside the U.S. during the Korean War.

The story of Russo-Turkish relations is one of imperial wars between the Russian Romanov Tsars and the Ottoman Turkish Sultans, both with imperial ambitions to expand their respective territories. Hostilities between these two empires began in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. The first clashes occurred in the Ukraine, where the Turks held large portions of the land, and enslaved Slavic boys and girls, as well as women to serve as concubines in harems of the Ottoman Sultan/Caliphs. The Crimea was another stage in the 1687-1689 war between the two empires.

The eighteenth century witnessed Tsarist Russia pushing the Ottoman Turks almost all the way to the gates of Istanbul (Constantinople). Western powers, England and France, when not fighting each other as they did during the Napoleonic wars, prevented Russia from reaching the Mediterranean Sea. This occurred particularly in the following century. The ultimate goal of Russia’s Tsars and the subsequent Communist regimes was to acquire access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea, and ports for their navy. In the twenty-first century, Russia accomplished that goal by acquiring military bases for its navy and air force in Syria’s Tartus, and Latakia.  

Tsar Peter (the Great) built his capital on the shores of the Baltic Sea, in what became known as St. Petersburg. The city is named after him. It was Tsar Peter’s ambition to operate a powerful navy and rival the Western powers that fueled subsequent Russian Tsars and Communist dictators in the twentieth century, to push southward toward the Mediterranean. The eighteenth century wars with the Ottomans, secured for Russia the Caucasus provinces of Kars, Batum, and the Budjac region.

It was during the nineteenth century wars between Tsarist Russia and Ottoman Turkey that the Balkan states were liberated from the Ottoman yoke. Russia led a coalition of Eastern Orthodox Christians, mostly Slavic people. In the process, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania eventually got their independence.

Turning back to the twenty-first century, we are witnessing a Russian-Turkish economic partnership and military-industrial cooperation on one hand, and proxy wars in the Caucasus, Libya, and Syria. In the conflict and active war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh region, Russia is actively aiding Armenia while Turkey and its military are allies with Azerbaijan. In this century, unlike the past, the aim of the two countries is not physical territory but rather extending spheres of influence and affecting the balance of power. At the same time, starting in 2003, the Blue Stream pipeline flowed in one section across the Black Sea, and into Turkey. In 2020, the TurkStream pipeline began to supply southeastern Europe through the Turkish port of Kiyikoy. In the area of nuclear cooperation, Russia’s Rosatom is building Turkey’s first nuclear power station at Akkuyu, at the cost of $25 billion. 

The trade volume between Ankara and Moscow amounted to $26.1 billion in 2019. According to Sabah Daily, at the Turkish-Russian Joint Economic Commission (JEC) meeting in Antalya (July 2019), Turkey’s Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan emphasized the urgency to expand the bilateral trade volume to $100 billion, a goal set by Turkey’s President Erdogan and his counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

In the military and political arena, it is interesting to note that following the downing of the Russian war plane (operating in Syria) by Turkey on November 24, 2015, Putin, in a conciliatory move, offered Erdogan political support in the wake of the failed coup attempt in July, 2016. The relationship between Moscow and Ankara transformed further with the establishment of the Astana Process, which meant to address the war in Syria. It conveyed Russian recognition of Turkey as a legitimate actor in the Syrian war. It is clear that both Putin and Erdogan see great benefits from their relationship, despite being on opposite sides in Libya, Syria, and the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Putin would like to pull Erdogan away from the U.S. and the West, while Erdogan uses his relationship with Russia to gain leverage against the U.S. and the Europeans.

It is also worth noting that Turkey did not provide military or technological support to Georgia during its short war with Russia in August, 2008, or to the Ukraine, when it was invaded by Russia in 2014. No doubt Putin considered it a positive gesture coming from Turkey.

Erdogan views himself as the leader of the Sunni-Muslim world, and has the megalomaniacal ambitions to revive the Ottoman Empire with him as the “sultan and Caliph.” There is also Turkey’s foreign policy that seeks to join political Islam with pan-Turkism, and draw in Turkic speaking peoples from southern Russia to China via the Caucasus and Central Asia. This however, may not sit well with Putin’s Russia. Yet, both Russia and Turkey seem to be in accord in reading global affairs. Both harbor suspicion, mistrust, and frustration with the West. Erdogan is frustrated by the European Union (EU) failure to admit Turkey into the EU. Putin, on his part, is encumbered by Western sanctions. Both are interested in maintaining a multi-polar world order that would enable them to pursue their ambitions. Both Russia and Turkey’s foreign policies have become more militarized in recent years, but this is bound to create friction between them, since their traditional spheres of influence overlap.

Given the imperial conflicts of the past centuries, and the tensions between the two countries during the Cold War, it is interesting to see the apparent rapprochement between Russia and Turkey. Their neo-imperialism and overlapping spheres of influence might, however, cause them to clash. For the U.S and the West, Erdogan’s Turkey is no ally or even a friend. Erdogan’s pursuit of political Islam and growing anti-Western moves vis-à-vis Russia and Iran makes it imperative to reconsider Turkey’s membership in NATO.