If someone asked today who the Russians and Turks are – allies or enemies – the answer is not so easy. In an official point of view, they are on opposite sides of the barricades. Turkey is a NATO member country, Russia is formally a ‘non-aligned’ country, which has been threatened by NATO since the very beginning of origin of the alliance. Actually, Turkey has become the member of NATO basically to prevent the expansion of the Soviet state. Turkey is actually supporting Azerbaijan at a time when the Russians are, at least officially, supporting the Armenians, but the Turks are buying the Russian air defence systems and thereby destroying the concept of NATO standards. The Russians are building a nuclear power plant in Turkey, and a few weeks ago, the leaders of the two countries were talking to each other about how to deal with Syria and the whole troubled Middle East region. It is complicated, but those who study the history and the present of Turkish-Russian relations are certainly not bored.
Looking at that history, we can actually say that ‘looking’ for a rout to the South Seas over the last few hundred years Russia may seem to have won some of the ‘map, but it has never achieved a major victory. The Ottoman Empire, reincarnated as the Republic of Turkey, has not disappeared and is still in the path of Russia. The military power of Russia is no secret. But it is only the military power. Today, both countries realise that the demographic trends are on the Turkish side and that, if they remain unchanged, the population will be equal in a few decades. But there is no need for that either – a younger and able to work Turkish population, a smaller territory with better infrastructure are definitely more valuable than an ageing landless Russia.
It is logical (and not a sin) to assume that countries will (or already have) something to fight about. It is also logical to assume that war is an expensive pleasure, and that it is often better to be in good terms if possible.
We know a lot about Eurasian nature and geopolitical aspirations of Russia, but Turkey is still a bit ‘distant’ for us, so this text on relations between Russia and Turkey will be about both, but more about the latter.
Turkey, like Russia, is a Eurasian country. There is hardly another country like Turkey that is so similar to Russia. Both countries straddle the border between Europe and Asia, both countries have most of their territory in Asia, but both participate in European political, cultural, and sport and whatever other structures you want. They are not exactly Europeans, but they are not Asian fans either. The Russians are not Chinese and not Muslims, the Turks are not Arabs and not Persians, both of whom have their own individual natures and know themselves to be ‘elder brothers’ – the biggest Slavs and the biggest Turks – and thus have their own ‘near abroad’ and ideology of national messianism. Both have ‘cut the windows’ to Europe in the past with military power, but today it is evident that they have never actually cut anything.
Both strive to be special and significant. The Turks say that the country needs to fully realize that it is self-reliant and independent, that it can afford to be a big country. While Europe is debating whether Turkey is suitable for the European Union, the Turks are doing their own thing. If France can have an ‘opinion’ in NATO forums, why Turkey cannot, which is the second-largest country in the alliance in terms of population and has never been ‘foolish’ in its NATO commitments. If the British have their own global interests, why the Turks cannot? If… well, the Turks think they can do anything. At least we can come to this conclusion from its current official ideology. ‘Whatever alliance we are in, we manage our ‘personal’ affairs ourselves – without advisers from Brussels or Washington’.
A well-known ideologist of the Russian geopolitics Alexander Dugin, has long referred to Turkey as a short-lived Atlantic inclusion in Asia, but he was wrong. Turkey is not that temporary. Geopolitically, if Turkey wants to grow (and it does!), it is easier to find room for growth not in Europe, as the Ottomans tried to do, but rather in the Caucasus and in Central Asia (not to mention the Middle East), where it is not easy to find space either, because the Turks, as has been pointed out, are not Arabs and not Persians – and are not friends of either of them. Central Asia is far more interesting, but the Chinese dragon is already on the loose there, and ‘ears’ of Russia are still sticking out.
In other words, the geopolitical interests of the two Eurasian giants overlap. They may have to go to war over them, and they may be able to reach an agreement. The Turks are pleased (the Russians, not so much) that negotiations between Ankara and Moscow are already on an equal footing. The relationship is very oriental – personal, and without any approved strategic documents. And, it seems, with secret protocols in mind.
So, to start with, the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – three countries are still searching for their identity after the collapse of the USSR. It is well known that the region has been a field of geopolitical ‘disputes’ between Russians, Persians and Turks for centuries. The Karabakh war ended last year with a very important decision: the Armenian-Azerbaijani front line de facto means a clear division of spheres of influence. The Armenians have no alternative but to rely on Russia, which has already betrayed the Armenians on several occasions, while Azerbaijan has essentially accepted the pan-Turkic formula of ‘one nation – two states’. The two are Turkey and Azerbaijan. In the grey area, there is Georgia, which, if it is not accepted into an integrated Europe, will have to choose between two unattractive spheres of influence. There are those who say that everything has already been decided by some kind of protocol between Russia and Turkey, only the Georgians do not know it yet.
Iran was an Armenian ally (despite all religious differences) and now feels like a defeated country, especially since the Armenian-Iranian border was ‘shortened’ by the Azerbaijani when they took back their territory. In recent weeks, relations between Turkey and Iran have become noticeably more complicated. There have been rumours that the Israeli military is involved in military preparations between Turkey and Azerbaijan, and that the latter may not be targeting Baku so much as Tehran. Iran, which already has a number of problems, does not want another war front in the north of the country, but there is also concern that about a quarter of the Iranian population may be considered ethnic Azerbaijani. The success story of Turkey and Azerbaijan could lead to unpredictable political developments here, too.
Exactly 450 years ago, at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the Ottoman fleet was defeated by combined European-Christian forces. This catastrophe left the Ottomans with a largely unchallenged dominance in the Mediterranean Sea. Today, Turkey is implementing the so-called ‘Blue Homeland’ project, which aims to become the dominant maritime power in the region. After all, the classics of geopolitics also teach that maritime states are always superior to continental ones. Here, too, Turkey is stepping on the toes of the Russians, who have never managed to turn their state into a maritime state. The first step is the Black Sea, which today washes the shores of three different worlds: the Western, the post-Soviet and the Turkish. The Russians hoped to dominate: by taking control of Crimea, they seem to have pushed Ukraine out of the sea, but Turkey will not be pushed out so easily, and the Romanians and Bulgarians are already in NATO. They will have to negotiate, and that will not be easy. Turkey has made it clear that it will not recognise the annexation of Crimea, and its relations with Ukraine are improving significantly. Ukraine, if it gets along with Turkey, is a very unsympathetic scenario for the Russians, because it is not that far from the Ukrainian border to Moscow – almost as far as the eastern border of Latvia. Interests of Libya and Turkey here date back to the Ottoman state, to Russia, to the strategic partnership of the USSR with the former dictator. So far, it is a fragile arrangement, although the countries are formally on opposite sides. Cyprus. One bull’s skin is not enough to describe the intersection and alignment of interests here.
Let’s go back to the land. Syria. The interest of Turkey is a little more understandable, the Kurds and the security of the southern border (which seems to be the most insecure border of NATO today), what are the Russians looking for?… A long story but very interesting in its own way. There is more agreement than anger here, although it is true that in 2015 the Turks shot down a Su-24 that violated the country’s airspace… Then there is the predominantly Turkish-speaking Central Asia, which is both tempting and frightening because of its unpredictable future. The Turks are cautious here, the Russians are becoming barely more cautious, too. The Russians are so far doing better, at least visually, with the Afghan Taliban, but… maybe it is just an optical illusion.
But doesn’t all this sometimes remind us of countries that, feeling stronger than their neighbours, shared the region with secret protocols… and then became the frontline actors in the most brutal wars.
Thus, which war will be then?