Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Trouble with Russia and Turkey

Most have probably seen the news, and even video, of the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey yesterday. There were immediate fears that this could cause some serious trouble, though from the first I heard of it, I doubted that the Turks were about to feel the full fury of Russia. For one thing, the Turks shooting down a Russian fighter jet last year, despite a great deal of big talk from Moscow, resulted in little more than a minor bump in the road for Russo-Turkish relations. Turkish President Erogan has been given VIP treatment on a high-profile visit to Russia and the Russians quickly lifted trade and travel restrictions on Turkey after the incident. Erdogan expressed his regret about the incident but continued to assert that the Russian jet had violated Turkish airspace and has continued to refuse to recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea. The law pertaining to Crimea was passed by the Turkish government about a week before Russia resumed regular flights to Turkey.

After the assassination of the Russian ambassador, which the assassin claimed was in retaliation for Russian support for the Assad regime in Syria, which Turkey opposes, talk out of Turkey quickly went to allegations of a “false flag” operation by the United States, a clear effort to shift Russian anger toward a common enemy. Despite being a NATO member, the pro-Islamic fundamentalist Erdogan has had very strained relations with the United States, blaming America, for example, for the military coup attempt against him in July of this year. In short, my initial view, which could yet be proven wrong, was that if the Russians did not take serious action against Turkey over the shooting down of their jet, Turkish support of anti-Assad rebels and Islamic fundamentalist groups and opposition to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, there is no reason to believe the Russian bear will now suddenly show its claws. To this observer it seems that the Turks have the stronger hand here and Russia desires good relations with Turkey more than the Turks desire good relations with Russia.

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.

The Ottoman Empire, throughout this time, was mostly on the defensive and fought most of these wars to defend themselves against the Russians. Turkish domination of the crossroads of the world rose up at a time when the Russians were still dominated by the successor states of the Mongol Empire. The Turks were able to gain a strong position before the Russians first started to go on the attack under Czar Ivan the Terrible. The aim of the Turkish Sultans was thus to defend their massive empire and domination of the region. Just as the Russian Empire, in those days, championed the cause of Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule, so too did the Turks make common cause with the Islamic peoples conquered by the Russians or threatened by Russian expansion. So, in those days, the situation was fairly clear-cut, it was the Orthodox Christian Russian Empire against the Islamic Ottoman Empire, there could be no reconciliation, one would have to win and the other would have to lose.

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.

Some of this has been understandable, given the extent to which many western countries continue to view Russia in the same way they viewed the Soviet Union. Western non-governmental organizations in particular practically pillaged Russia in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and NATO and the EU have been steadily encroaching on Russia’s western border. Imperial Russia was always careful to never take a blanket anti-western foreign policy, preferring to ally with certain western powers against others as benefited their interests, the primary aim of which was access to a warm water port. Any Russian emperor would have thought it pure insanity to shelter, support and strengthen countries such as China, Iran or Turkey, all of which are within striking distance of Russia and have historical grievances against Russia which, even if the Russians have forgotten these pages of history, these powers certainly have not.

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.

Many have commented that Turkey, under Erdogan, is taking on a more Ottoman style. Relations were good between Turkey and Egypt when Egypt was ruled by the Islamic Brotherhood but have since soured. However, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been on the same side in most regional conflicts, the Turks have invested in Iraq, Erdogan being the first Turkish PM to visit the Kurdish-populated area of Iraq in 2011 (to open a Turkish built airport), going on to visit several Shiite holy places. Turkish relations with Iran have improved, as have those with the Gulf states and Pakistan. In Syria the Turkish government has partnered with the Saudis and Gulf states in backing Islamic rebels against the Assad regime. Erdogan has been expanding Turkish involvement and influence throughout the Middle East, throughout the former Ottoman Empire. He has so mimicked the Ottoman style that some have suggested he intends to make himself Sultan. Rather than laughing off such an absurd suggestion, Erdogan replied that he would prefer to have a more ceremonial position, like Queen Elizabeth II of the UK which is not exactly a denial.

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.

1 comment:

  1. OT - Any comments on despicable Prince Charlie vs. excellencies Trump & Putin? Yes, I know things are turned upside down, but...


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