Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Trouble with Russia and Turkey
The history of Russo-Turkish relations is long and closely tied to the monarchist cause in both countries. For most of their histories, the Russian Empire and the Turkish Ottoman Empire have been implacable enemies. There have been no less than twelve wars between the Russian and Ottoman Empires with the Russians being successful more often than not. These were due to a number of circumstances such as the prevailing international politics of the day, the Russians taking up the cause of defender of the Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire and the Russian wish to end Turkish domination of the Black Sea. However, looking at the bigger picture, the animosity was mostly inevitable and due to geography. Russian emperors for centuries have wanted to have secure Russian access to the eastern Mediterranean and a few have dreamed of taking Constantinople and restoring it as the heart of Orthodox Christianity. The Russian Empire also fought to liberate the Slavic and Orthodox Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans.
World War I, however, saw events overtake both empires. Neither the Russian Empire nor the Ottoman Empire would ultimately survive the conflict. As the Russian monarchy was destroyed and finally replaced by the Soviet Union, the Ottoman Sultan was overthrown and replaced by a secular Turkish republic. Turkish nationalism, rather than pan-Islamism became the fashion in Turkey while in Russia, once the defender of Orthodox Christianity, became militantly atheist and Soviet founding father Vladimir Lenin immediately reached out to the revolutionary regime in Turkey, renouncing traditional Russian claims and establishing friendly relations between the Turkish Republic and the USSR. This only changed as a result of World War II in which the Soviets believed the neutral Turks to be rather too friendly with Hitler’s Germany (though Stalin himself had been friendly enough before the summer of 1941). Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin revived some of the old Czarist Russian claims against Turkey and, in response, the Turks shifted over to the Western Allies for guarantees of protection.
This return to the traditional antagonism was never quite as intense as it had been under the monarchy, with the Soviets even secretly backing the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the hope that this would result in a split in NATO between pro-Greek and pro-Turkish factions. However, it all ended with the fall of the Soviet Union which has seen Russia make many unprecedented changes in policy, supporting, protecting and even arming neighboring countries which have been traditional enemies of Russia and which have historical grievances against Russia. Turkey, on the other hand, has been, particularly under Erdogan, shifting away from secularism and more toward Islamic fundamentalism. Turkey has been adopting a more robust foreign policy, supporting other Islamic powers and even Islamic powers that had been enemies of the Turks in the Ottoman days. In 2006 the King of Saudi Arabia visited Turkey for the first time in forty years and Erdogan has voiced his support of the Saudi intervention in Yemen against Iranian-backed factions. Turkey has been returning to a more ambitious, Ottoman-style foreign policy whereas Russia has been reversing many of the foreign policy attitudes of the Romanovs, sticking to Soviet-era relationships except, bizarrely, for those which coincided with Czarist policies.
Will anything come of this latest incident? It is possible but, again, I am not too alarmed. Russia has shown that they want no trouble with Turkey in spite of even very blatant hostile actions. The Turks can, likewise, try to shift the blame and the Russians seem anxious to accept such a course. Turkey has their opposition to Assad and their threat to release more “refugees” upon Europe to maintain at least the grudging support of the western powers while Russia has never taken retaliatory measures in the past and the displeasure they have shown before was always of limited duration. Turkey seems to be in a strong position, able to annoy both sides of the east-west divide but with neither side being willing to do anything about it. They can maintain their current policy in the Middle East and negotiations with Europe. The Arabs are on their side and the NATO countries will almost certainly not wish to irritate all of them and if Russia has taken no action up until now in spite of Turkish support for anti-Assad radicals, opposition to the annexation of Crimea, the shooting down of the Russian fighter jet, it seems doubtful that they will suddenly decide to draw the line with this assassination.
Russia, on the other hand, has reversed most of the long-standing foreign policy positions of the old Russian Empire. Imperial Russian opposition to the Turks, Persians and Chinese has been replaced by generous trade, military and energy agreements with Turkey, Iran and China by the Russian Federation. No danger from any quarter other than Western Europe or North America seems to be recognized and yet when it comes to the NATO countries, Russia has steadfastly refused to take a hard line. Whether this is good or bad depends on whether one takes the side of Russia or the west. If you side with the west, it has been good, because Russia has refused to actually challenge the west. If you side with Russia, it has not been good because the west carries on whereas, I have not the slightest doubt, if Russia were to ever actually do as NATO does and say, “do this and it means war”, the west would want no part of that. The current leadership of the western world are the sort to threaten war but not the sort to actually commit to it, at least not a war in which the other side has the capacity to hit back.