In locking horns over Syria, Russia and Turkey are playing out the latest chapter in a rivalry that has spanned centuries.
Since the 1600s the two have lurched between conflict and uneasy friendship. But the war of words that has erupted since Turkey shot down a Russian jet it claims entered its airspace this month has notched tensions up to levels not seen for some time.
Russia and Turkey emerged as independent powers almost simultaneously – in 1380 and 1389. There followed a spectacular rise for the Ottoman empire, which expanded rapidly and had become a superpower by the 16th century.
Russia was relatively under resourced and surrounded by more powerful neighbours. Only in the late 16th century did it emerge as a major European power.
A direct rivalry with the Ottoman empire began in the 17th century when Russia joined the Holy League alliance with Poland and the Habsburg Empire, taking some territory from the Ottomans – although importantly not Crimea.
The 18th century marked a turning point in the Russo-Ottoman relationship. Peter the Great’s westernisation reforms strengthened Russia. And under Catherine the Great, it scored a series of strategic victories over the Ottoman empire, taking control of the northern part of the Black Sea after the Russo-Turkish war in 1768-74. Crimea was made independent from the Ottomans as a prelude to its eventual incorporation into the Russian empire in 1783.
The war was the first time the Ottoman empire lost Muslim subjects to a Christian state. Turkey has been sensitive about the loss ever since – which helps explain the tension that arose after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
Another important episode was the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the first half of the 19th century. After their defeat, about one million Caucasus Muslims migrated to Turkey. These communities still live in Turkey, which influenced Turkish attitudes to the Chechen wars in the 1990s.
Both nations emerged in a radically different form after World War I. Russia had become a socialist state and Turkey was on the path to secularist modernisation. Both losers in the global conflict, the two maintained good relations in the 1920s, settling their territorial disputes.
But Russia began to apply pressure to Turkey after World War II. It wanted control over the Turkish straits (the Bosphorous and Dardanelles) and territory in eastern Turkey. This was a key factor in the development of the Truman doctrine (1947), when the US assumed global responsibility for containing communism, thus formally launching the Cold War. Turkey received substantial US military support, abandoned its neutrality and joined NATO in 1952.
Immediately after Stalin’s death in 1953, the USSR apologised to Turkey and renounced all territorial claims. Relations between the two rapidly improved, in no small part because of Turkey’s increasing disillusionment with its Western allies. When Turkey faced sanctions after invading Cyprus in 1974, the USSR capitalised by offering economic assistance.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the already significant economic links continued to strengthen, particularly in the new fields of tourism and consumer goods exports from Turkey.
Their relations were, however, complicated by the changing geopolitical landscape. Turkey was open to exploiting pan-Turkic ideas and challenging Russian influence in the newly independent Turkic-speaking states of Central Asia and Azerbaijan.
Relations with Armenia also remained a highly sensitive point. Turkey has a history of tense relations with the Armenians going back to the 1915 genocide. It also supports Azerbaijan over its frozen conflict with Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh. Meanwhile, Armenia has remained Russia’s most staunch ally in the Caucasus.
However, the Chechen wars posed the greatest challenge to Russo-Turkish relations in recent times. Chechen separatists enjoyed wide support from Turkish sources, and Moscow showed its discontent by extending a hand of friendship to the Kurdish Labour Party – the separatist movement that has railed against the Turkish government. Eventually both countries agreed to sever ties with respective insurgents and normalised their relations.
A golden age followed. Economic ties were solidified by personal relations between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin. An undersea gas pipeline was built in 2003 and by 2014 Russia had become the top importer to Turkey. Tourism also emerged as a major link between the two countries, with Russia sending the largest number of tourists to Turkey in the years 2013-14.
There are ambitious plans for a construction by the Russian Rosatom of the first nuclear plant in Turkey at Akkuyu, worth $20bn, as well as negotiation for a new gas pipeline, designed to bypass Ukraine for Russian gas exports to Europe.
Now, however, all these are likely to be put on indefinite hold due to the fall out over Syria.
Breakdown over Syria
The conflict in Syria has led to Turkey hosting more than 1.7 million refugees. The role of the Kurds in the conflict is also antagonising Ankara and puts Turkey at odds with its Western allies.
Ankara’s objective is to protect the rebel groups it is supporting in Syria – particularly the Turkmen but also Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups fighting Assad. Shooting down the Russian warplane can be interpreted as a way to impose a no-fly zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. That protects Turkey’s protegés and forces other powers to recognise Turkey’s special status in the region.
Russia’s approach to the Syrian civil war is in no small part based on Moscow’s belief that secular authoritarian rulers are the only effective bulwark against radical Islam in the Middle East. The Kremlin sees radical Islam as a threat to its domestic security and the international order. It supports Assad to stress the illegitimacy of regime change through popular revolt or external pressure. In Moscow’s view, such movements potentially endanger its own legitimacy and create chaos in international relations as witnessed in Iraq, Libya and, from its point of view, Ukraine.
Russia is also, of course, keen to play a leading role in the Middle East to assert its status as world power.
And now Turkey and Russia have openly clashed for the first time in more than a century. It remains a highly-charged situation – yet one that is simply another twist in a long and complex relationship.
A brief history of Turkish-Russian relations
Russians make up the largest community of Slavic people today. Speaking different languages, Ukrainians and Belarusians also come from the same ethnicity. The word "Slav" means slave, and these ethnic groups, who come from the Dnieper marshes in Northeastern Ukraine, were once slaves of the Huns. Later, they left the marshes and learned rowing as well as how to use arms. They joined the Latin tribes, Germans and notably the Turks and Moguls.
Upon a call, the German-Goth tribe of sailors known as the Rus' came to the lands of present-day Russia from Sweden and ruled the region. The Russian Rurik Dynasty forced the Slavic tribes that were living in the lands of the collapsed Khazar Empire to adjust the state administration. The three princedoms - Kiev, Novgorod and Moscow - established by the dynasty, were subjected to the Golden Horde Empire, a Turkic state As the most primitive nation of Europe, the community did not lose their Russian heritage but rather strengthened it, despite being influenced by the Tatar culture. In 988, Prince Vladimir and his people adopted Christianity and a nation formed by Slavic, Mogul and Orthodox influence emerged. This is why Russians refer to themselves as "neither western or eastern, but northern at the most." From this nation they raised important figures like Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy.
When Tamerlane toppled the Golden Horde Empire, Russians took over small khanates established after this and extended to the Volga River and the Caspian Sea. The Crimean Khanate escaped by taking shelter in the Ottoman Empire. At that time, however, Moscow was subjected to the Ottomans through the Crimean Khanate. When taxes were delayed, Crimean cavaliers occupied Moscow. At the time of Ivan the Terrible, they even attacked and plundered the Kremlin, leading the tsar to escape from fear.
As the first person crowned as "tsar," Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) considered himself the heir of the Byzantine, since his grandmother Zoe was the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. The Byzantine eagle on the Russian flag symbolizes this. The Moscow Patriarch also claimed himself as the leader of all Orthodox people despite the patriarch in Istanbul. In those years, many Turkic nobles were baptized by being threatened with the sword.
Among them were novelists Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev, composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Sergei Rachmaninoff and General Mihail Kutuzov, who defeated Napoleon and Felix Yusufov, the brother-in-law of the last tsar. Since the Arctic Ocean was impassable, Russia needed to find an alternative way to reach the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. To achieve this, it was necessary to beat Sweden and the Ottoman Empire as well as Poland, which was a handicap on its road to Europe. These strategies became the main policies of Russia in later periods. Coming from the Romanov Dynasty, Peter the Great, who was called "Deli Petro" (Crazy Peter) among Turks, was the biggest emperor of Russia. He was relentless, but decisive and bold. He established a central administration and gained enough power to cope with Poland, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. He secretly went to a shipyard in the Netherlands and learned shipbuilding. The tsars and tsarinas from his ancestry followed his path and continued to break ground. In 1709, Russia defeated Sweden and reached the Baltic Sea. In 1770, the Russian army also defeated the Ottomans and reached the Black Sea. Russia invaded Poland many times and took Siberia, extending its borders to the Pacific. In the late 1700s, Russia became one of the world's most powerful countries.
The Ottomans waged war with the Russians seven times in total. The Ottoman Empire was victorious in two of these wars, while the Russians had five victories. The Russians were just recovering before the Ottoman Empire gained its first victory in Pruth in 1711. During the Russo-Ottoman War of 1854, the Ottomans were victorious once again and the Turks were supported by Britain, France and Italy. The five other Russo-Ottoman wars in history resulted in disaster for the Ottomans because of Russia's larger population and natural resources as well as soliders' determination.
Apart from the loss of Muslim territories, these wars brought economic rout. The Turks lost Crimea in 1771 and the Caucasus in 1828. Russia assumed the role of protector in the Orthodox community of the Ottoman Empire. They also played a crucial role in the independence of the Balkan nations. The Ottoman victory in the 1854 Crimean War, which was secretly incited by the British, did more harm than good to the Turks. Turning the result into their advantage, the British invaded India and Russia occupied the Caucasus. When the Ottomans failed to pay back the external debt the empire had accrued to finance the war for the first time in the history of the empire, the Ottoman state went bankrupt. Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz and Grand Vizier Nedim Pasha, who was called "Nedimof" among the public, supported a peaceful relationship with the Kremlin. Afterwards, the Russians managed to march to Istanbul's Yeşilköy (San Stefano) coast after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and the Ottoman Empire was dragged into the war by Mithat Pasha and his friends from the Young Turks. Turkey lost Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Bosnia, Bulgaria and the present-day city of Kars. The Russians erected a monument in Yeşilköy to celebrate their victory.
Moreover, they invaded all of Turkistan, which added to their victory. Although the British had promised the Ottomans their help, help never came. Besides, they were secretly provoking the war. Eventually, the British occupied Egypt, Cyprus and Aden. Britain, which did not want Russians to become stronger, supported the Ottomans in the Treaty of Berlin which marked the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. During his 30-year reign, Sultan Abdülhamid handled Britain and Russia carefully. He did not allow the publication of articles against Russia, as well as sayings such as "Moskof" and "Rus Ayısı" (Russian Bear) in newspapers. When the tsar moved to his summer cottage in Crimea, Sultan Abdulhamid II acting as the caliphate of the Muslims sent a delegation from Istanbul to welcome the tsar every year. Sultan Abdülhamid said, "There is no need to be scared of Russia; it is enough to get along with the tsar because Russian people see him as both the ruler and the god. However, the Britons are different; they only care about their own interests." When the German ships carrying Ottoman flags bombed the Russian harbors upon orders from Enver Pasha, even unbeknownst to the government in 1914, one of the last disasters of Turkish-Islamic history occurred. The Turks were defeated in the war that lasted for four years. The most severe blow came from the Russian fronts. However, after the 1917 revolution, Russians withdrew and the advocates of the tsar, who were toppled in the revolution, namely the White Army, took shelter in Istanbul en masse.
The new communist regime supported the government in Ankara. Relations were always good during the early Republican era. After 1945, Turkey wanted to get some advantage, it grew closer to Russia to tease the U.S. Through this strategy, Turkey was urging the U.S. to make a concession. However, sometimes Turkey's bluff, as in the case of late Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and Süleyman Demirel, blew up. The seemingly close relations between these politicians and Russia annoyed the U.S. and were seen as one of the causes of military coups.
Russia compensated for the loss of WWI at WWII by focusing their interests on the Middle East, motivated by goals to dominate the Mediterranean Sea. Aside from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Far East, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Iraq behaved as if they were Russia's satellite states. After 1979, Iran sided with Russia. When the communist regime collapsed in 1990, the fragility of the Russian economy was understood.