Among the great European powers that historically faced off on the battlefields, Turkey and Russia probably hold the record when it comes to the frequency of wars.
Maybe only the confrontations between France and England – spanning a period longer than the “Two Hundred Years War” (1711-1917) between Russia and Turkey –could challenge this continental supremacy. After World War I, Russia and Turkey – the former engulfed in a civil war on two continents, the latter the target of Europe’s revenge for the collapse of Byzantium several centuries before – suddenly became partners in the 1920s. Not for long however, a new episode in their confrontation – the subversion orchestrated by the Kremlin, which in 1946 was demanding military presence in the Straits – had a prominent role in triggering the Cold War and the configuration of the bipolar era. During the Cold War, Turkey was in NATO, where she is today too, but one should not omit the fact that she permanently sought to maintain the Black Sea “closed,” in other words to maintain this sea’s port waters under a joint condominium with the USSR (the latest evidence of this dates back from the early 2000s when Ankara opposed Washington’s request to extend the “Active Endeavour” anti-terrorist operation from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea). Could there be a secret agreement over and above the ironclad alliances of the Cold War?
Difficult to say, however at any rate during the post-Cold War period, when NATO expanded to the East, Ankara enthusiastically supported its expansion. Including toward the shores of the Black Sea, namely in Romania and Bulgaria. Their NATO accession in 2004 did not modify in any way Turkey’s stance on the 1936 Montreux Convention that regulates the Allied warships’ access to the Black Sea; moreover, Turkey opposed any amendment brought to it. Through the Montreux stipulations, the access of warships belonging to non-riparian states is strictly regulated from the standpoint of duration and tonnage in relation to the tonnages of the fleets of Russia and Turkey, so completely unfavourably for riparian states that lack fleets significantly comparable to those of their stronger maritime neighbours.
On the other hand, mutual trade relations with Russia expanded exponentially, so that when Moscow thought to “punish” the West for the sanctions enacted for the annexation of Crimea, it cancelled the projected South Stream pipeline and proposed Blue Stream instead, namely a direct link with Turkey that would channel toward Europe the flow of natural gas. Thus, the prioritizing of Turkey on the list of Moscow’s friends, despite the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO, an alliance considered at the Kremlin as threatening for Russia’s security.
Let us add to this significant fact also the bilateral trade totalling several billion Dollars, as well as the hundreds of thousands of Russian tourists that used to spend their vacations on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast every year, thus contributing to her economic growth.
It all had an end linked to the Syrian file. Ever since the start of the “Arab Spring” in Syria, Ankara positioned itself against the Assad regime, hoping for its quick demise. Assad’s brutal reaction led to a massive exodus of the Syrian population, Turkey now hosting the most numerous contingent of Syrian refugees (over two million), with several other millions dispersed through Jordan, Lebanon or Egypt. Turkey’s involvement in Syria – through the multilateral support offered to the anti-government rebels – became a complex file once the rebel Kurdish forces entered the fight against the so-called Islamic Caliphate/Daesh and gained control of significant areas in northern Syria, at the border with Turkey. The spectre of a Kurdish state entity that would represent a goal for the kindred minority in Turkey started to haunt decision-making circles in Ankara: from the lack of support for a Syrian Kurdish town besieged by terrorists, to international media allegations of complicity with Daesh in what concerns the sale of oil, the European Jihadists’ access through Turkey’s porous border with Syria or even the recruitment of Jihadists on its own territory.
Over time, Ankara invoked aggressions on the part of Syria – air attacks – in order to demand the implementation of NATO’s Article 5, hoping that thus it would legitimize an intervention against Assad’s forces, but the alliance responded only by deploying air defence systems at the border (already withdrawn). US Vice President John Biden stated in front of Harvard students on 7 October 2014, referring to the situation in Syria and the fight against Daesh, that “our biggest problem was our allies,” and that “the Turks… the Saudis, the Emirates, etc., what were they doing? They were so determined to take down [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of Dollars and tens, thousands of tonnes of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad.” Although the American official subsequently qualified his statements, at Ankara’s extraordinary pressure, it remains obvious that he initially talked while in possession of available and credible information.
The Syrian file became even more complicated for Turkey once Russia intervened with air strikes against Daesh in Syria, at the end of September 2015. The international public opinion and the chancelleries interested were not late in noting that Russia’s military intervention “is playing” in favour of the Assad regime, and the Russian Air Force’s airstrikes are targeting, as a priority, anti-government rebels rather than Daesh forces.
From the start, Turkey was in favour of the Russian intervention, fearing Syria’s division, which could have led to the emergence of a Kurdish state. But this positive attitude did not last long, Ankara being aware that Russia is becoming a high-calibre player in defining the future of the Syrian state, the possibility of a Moscow-Washington agreement on this issue being sufficiently high, as events have shown very recently. While at first the favourable attitude toward the Russian intervention was favourable on account of the fear that Syria would otherwise be partitioned, and a Kurdish state would become a reality, less than two months later the outlook that the victories of the Assad regime backed by Russia would be so important as to deny Turkey’s role as an important player in the make-up of the future Syrian state has led to strange decisions in Ankara. One of them was the shooting down, at the end of November 2015, of a Russian fighter-bomber that allegedly violated Turkish airspace for several dozen seconds while on a mission to bomb the positions of anti-Assad Turkmen rebels in northern Syria. Moscow’s reaction was particularly harsh, especially since it was informed of the incident through NATO, and one of the pilots that had ejected was killed by an already identified Turkish national (Russia wants him tried for war crime).
As Russia’s ‘The Moscow Times’ daily recently wrote, the current tension between Turkey and Russia has at its basis “Putin’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. When Russia intervened in Syria’s civil war at the end of September, it saved an embattled regime that Erdogan had sought to overthrow. The incompatibility of these strategic visions has been exacerbated by a developing personal rivalry between Putin and Erdogan.” In fact, Russia and Turkey were resuming in Syria a centuries-old hostility, which experienced during the interwar and post-Cold War periods a cooperative dimension based on joint geopolitical interests at the Black Sea (the Montreux Convention) and non-involvement in the complicated power game in the Middle East, which generated solid economic ties. The start of the civil war in Syria, the emergence of Daesh and the oppression unleashed by this so-called Caliphate against religious minorities in the region, especially the Christian one, put an end – with the shooting down of the Russian fighter-bomber in November last year – of the post-Cold War cooperative Russian-Turkish episode and reopened a competitive file that has deep historic roots.