Why Turkey Should Remain Wary of Russia.

Much has been written of Vladimir Putin’s attachment to historical context in his pursuit of his war against Ukraine. Turkey should keep this mind when dealing with Putin’s revanchist Russia.

A Russian sub passes through the Bosporus Straits. Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia in the background.

In 1711 as Peter the Great, newly married, set off to face a marauding Ottoman army led by Grand Vizier Baltaci Mehmet Pasha which was racing across Ukraine towards the Danube, he emblazoned his banners with Constantine the Great’s motto, “By this sign shall you conquer!”

Arriving late at the Danube, Peter lost the battle, saved from disaster only by his fine artillery and, thereafter by some skillful peace negotiations by Peter Shafirov, a Polish Jew, who surrendered the Sea of Azov and its flotilla, but saved the Russians further ignominious reparations and was rewarded by Peter being made the new Vice-Chancellor and Russia’s first Baron.

Back then, for Russia, this was the frontline of the enduring conflict between Christianity and Islam, and the jewel in the crown of the Orthodox empire was its glittering capital, Constantinople.

Constantine I, or Constantine the Great, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, had previously renamed the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, as the ‘new Rome’ or Nova Roma (now sometimes called the second Rome) in 324, until some 6 years later it was renamed again Constantinople in dedication to the Emperor himself.

As the Western arm of Roman empire fell into decline, breaking up into a series of feudal territories the East endured, undergoing several cycles of growth and decay, it survived another 1000 years, but slowly the Christian lands and cities fell to a growing Islamic power, the Ottoman Empire, eventually leaving Constantinople isolated and alone.

Protected only by the impregnable Theodosian Wall, built by the Emperor Theodosius in the 5th Century, the vast wall kept Constantinople safe against repeated sieges over the centuries, until the advent of siege cannons finally rendered the wall vulnerable.

Still considered to be the cradle of Christian Orthodoxy, the great city was finally captured in 1453 by Mehmet the Conqueror, head of the Ottoman Empire, and fell under Islamic rule.

Now called Istanbul and part of modern Turkey, it remains at the heart of Islam today and still sits astride the great divide between Europe and Asia; between Western Christianity and Islam.

Map of the Black Sea region, with Istanbul marking the area of the Bosporus Straits, the gateway to the Black Sea. To the West of Istanbul, but not marked, the Sea of Marmara and the narrow Dardanelles leading into the Aegean, and the site of Churchill’s disastrous Gallipoli campaign in WW1. At the Northern edge of the Black Sea lies the great warm water port of Sevastopol, founded by Catherine the Great on the Crimean peninsula, and now illegally annexed by Putin. And to the north Odessa and Ukraine.

Russian attachment…Russian dream…

“Can any parallel instance be found, in which a nation has held fast to one great idea for a thousand years, through all vicissitudes of fortune, and all changes in government, religion, and civilization? It has been called the dream of Russia, — is it not a marvelously prophetic dream?”

Cyrus Hamlin. December 1886, The Atlantic.

For Slavic speaking Russians the city was historically called Tsargrad, or city of the Caesar’s, and it remains today a sacred place, the font of Orthodoxy enshrined in the construction of the magnificent Cathedral of the Hagia Sophia, subsequently converted to become a mosque after the Ottoman conquest.

Today Putin’s revanchist desires to restore the territory he still sees as Russian by default, is as much as a part of the current conflict to Putin himself, as is the desire to stop Ukraine embracing the West by joining NATO and adopting a more prosperous, more liberal and free democratic way of life.

The magnificent Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was converted to a Mosque in 1453.

While Istanbul has never been a part of Russian territory, Orthodox doctrine says that Moscow, or the 3rd Rome, is the natural heir to the Christian Orthodox throne, and has a moral duty to restore Istanbul to the embrace of the Orthodox Church. This is the enduring Russian dream, captured so eloquently by Cyrus Hamlin in the quote above.

But after a millennia of dreams, all the blood spilled and all the wars fought, the Orthodox reconquest of Constantinople remains an unfulfilled dream.

In the end perhaps the closest Russia came to occupying Constantinople was during WW1, some two decades after Hamlin had put pen to paper. In 1914, just prior to the great conflagration breaking out, and worried about the potential consequences of a Turkish-Greek dispute that might result in the Straits being closed to warships or perhaps falling into Greek hands. Or even the worst possible outcome, falling into Bulgaria’s hands, something which had been a distinct possibility since the signing of the Treaty of Alliance (between Bulgaria and Serbia, with Russia a co-signatory acting as arbiter should the two fall into dispute) and the complex incidence of the First Balkan War (October 1912 to May 1913).

A Council of Russian Ministers met to discuss the possibility of occupying Constantinople as a way to mitigate these dreadful possibilities permanently, and they came to the conclusion that the best opportunity of reaching this objective may well arise should a general and much wider European war arise (1).

That chance subsequently arose when the Great War broke out.

Two years later in 1916, with the war in the Middle East starting to turn in their favour, discussion on the fate of the Ottoman Empire and how it should be divided up after the war, began in earnest. Though not yet victorious, the European powers of France, Britain and Russia, made a compact that should the Ottoman Empire collapse the Straits, Constantinople and the Ottoman territories adjacent to Russian borders on the Caucasus would all go to Russia.

The French and British representatives, the much maligned Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot, overly suspicious of each others imperial ambitions in the East happily agreed with Russian entreaties, as they began dividing up the oil rich regions of the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula as their share of the spoils.

Ironically, as the Ottoman empire did eventually fall, Russia lost their golden opportunity to grab the city. By now under Bolshevik rule, Lenin’s new Soviet government agreed a peace with the Central Powers that effectively cancelled the agreement (2), and with it the chance to occupy Constantinople.

Turkey’s strategy of ‘foreign policy independence’ is controversial, as is its refusal to fully condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Why is Turkey’s position so hard to tie down?

A few days ago as two luxury yachts, thought to be owned by sanctioned oligarch Roman Abramovich, arrived in Istanbul amid howls of protest from locals, Turkey’s controversial neutrality placed them out of the reach of Western sanctions.

But why has Turkey adopted this position of strategic neutrality in defiance of NATO pleas to do otherwise?

In recent times Turkey’s unique geographical situation has complicated relations with both its Western allies in NATO, the EU and the U.S., and in the East with Putin’s Russia, and has led to Ankara adopting a strategic approach that has been dubbed ‘foreign policy independence.’

After joining NATO in 1952 Turkey’s route the West seemed to be a foregone conclusion, but Bush’s War on Terror, the rise of ISIS, the resultant refugee crisis and an attempted coup by ‘rogue’ military officers in 2016, subsequently blamed on the U.S., has forced a reappraisal on Ankara.

With more than 3.6 million refugees having entered Turkey from Syria and beyond, the fallout from the Syrian civil war and the war against ISIS has markedly increased tensions with Turkey’s European neighbours. Despite continued financial aid from the EU, some countries are saying that Erdogan is holding the EU to ransom with his repeated threats to ‘open the gates’ to Europe and let the refugees flood through.

Furthermore, a crackdown following a failed coup in 2016 has led to Freedom House downgrading Turkey from ‘partly free’ to ‘not free’ in 2021, due to declining political freedoms, a lack of free press and a decline in democratic processes. Furthermore, the as yet, unsubstantiated claims of U.S. involvement in the coup has strained relations with NATO, a decline exacerbated by Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400s missile system from Russia, a deal which indicated a growing dialogue between Ankara and Moscow with closer economic and strategic ties, moves that accompanied a growing distance to the West.

However, Turkey’s relations with Russia remain complex despite appearances to the contrary. In agreement in some areas, such as in parts of Syria where Russia’s growing influence, and Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops, has allowed Turkey the freedom to move into the north (of Syria) to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state. Elsewhere Russia and Turkey continue to bang heads. In a long standing territorial dispute in Nagorno-Karabakh for example, the Russian’s have thrown their support behind the Christian Armenians, while Turkey backs the Muslims of Azerbaijan.

Further complicating the current situation is the fact that Turkey has always been a strong supporter of Ukrainian independence and is in Ukraine’s largest provider of military equipment. Erdogan also denounced Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and continues to support Crimean Tatars, who have reportedly suffered greatly under Russian rule. Turkey has also recently sold advanced military equipment to Ukraine including several Bayraktar TB2 drones, that have been shown to be a lethal and effective addition for the Ukrainians in the fight against Russian aggression.

Turkey’s struggling economy is another factor that cannot be ignored at a time when the addition of sanctions would certainly add to the strife at home for most Turks. Erodgan’s approach to his struggling economy has been slammed by many critics and is said to be exacerbating existing problems including fast rising inflation that is rapidly getting out of control.

Erdogan is going against accepted economic policy by drastically lowering interest rates in response to rising inflation and burgeoning economic strife. Suggestions made by his chief economic advisor, following years of high borrowing and low exchange rates (for the Turkish Lira), that economic independence can only be achieved by drastically lowering interest rates in order to stimulate an increase in exports and a reduction in imports.

But this radical policy has sent inflation soaring, possibly up as high as as 50%, with many now unable to afford even the basics, the calls for a reversal of this policy are growing, despite some insisting that parts of the economy are now responding favourably to Erdogan’s enforced hardships.

All roads lead to strategic Istanbul…

Today Istanbul remains a vital strategic and economic gateway between Europe and Asia, and more specifically between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The 1936 Montreaux Convention gave Turkey control of the Dardenelles and the Bosporus Straits. Under the terms of the Convention Turkey must allow trading vessels passage during peacetime, but they can, should they wish, restrict the access of certain military vessels if they do not belong to a Black Sea littoral state.

Is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey moving away from the West?

However, in times of war Turkey has the right to restrict the access of military vessels, including submarines, of specific nations to the Black Sea should they choose to do so.

As such Russia has long been worried that Turkey may close the straits to their vessels during a war, thereby choking Russian naval access to the Mediterranean and beyond.

After resisting Zelenskyy’s impassioned appeals to close the straits to Russian warships for the first few days of the current conflict, President Erdogan chose perhaps the least controversial route and closed the straits on February 28th 2022 to the military vessels of all nations, thereby maintaining some sort of neutral stance.

However, this strategic neutrality is angering Turkey’s NATO allies. By ignoring the call from NATO to sanction Russia and close its airspace to Russian aircraft, Turkey’s ambiguous and non-committal approach could leave it open to criticism from either side.

Erdogan is said to be ‘very saddened’ by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but this controversial neutral stance in the conflict may be indicative of what some have seen as a deteriorating relationship with NATO and the West.

But playing its unique balancing game is perhaps a necessity for Erdogan who realises that Turkey has more at stake in this conflict than almost any other global power.

“Turkey has so much at risk because it isn’t just balancing its strategic partnership with Ukraine and its complex (but significant) relations with Russia; it is also walking a tightrope to balance its NATO commitments and its security concerns in the region. For example, Russia’s regional assertiveness has grown steadily since the country’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, resulting in its intervention in Syria. Turkey has pushed back against Russian allies and proxies in Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus, all while maintaining an important economic partnership with Russia and continuing to rely heavily on Russian natural gas to meet its energy needs.”

Grady Wilson, The Atlantic Council, 2022.

Despite pressure from the U.S. to do more, Turkey is maintaining its stance, saying that it is prepared to offer “all forms of support” to Ukraine including offering to act a mediator to help resolve “the issue with diplomacy.”

A struggling economy, increasing authoritarianism, declining democratic freedoms, and this ambiguous neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war despite public protests against Russia’s aggression, have all contributed to a decline in Erdogan’s popularity at home.

But is it possible that Erdogan is either deliberately, or perhaps even inadvertently playing one great power (Russia) off against another (NATO and the U.S., as representing the West) for political and strategic gain? In something that might be seen as reminiscent of the so-called Thucydides Trap, first written about following the Peloponnesian War between ancient Athens and Sparta, Turkey would be placing itself on the edge of a precarious precipice if this is indeed their approach.

In this ancient conflict the small island state of Corcyra was stuck in the middle of a great power conflict and played one against the other to great effect. Whilst not entirely fulfilling the role of a modern day Corcyra, perhaps Erdogan, knowing that he has a valuable asset (namely, Istanbul) that is vital to both sides (in today’s great power conflict) and is using this as a strategic bargaining chip for economic and political gain from both sides perhaps in a cryptic bid to further his own restorative and imperial ambitions.

If so, this would be a risky game indeed.

Putin’s desire…?

Whilst it has been suggested that the growing distance between Turkey and its NATO allies is indicative of a more permanent move away, either towards a closer relationship with Russia, or maybe even, much like Russia, a desire for restoration of past glories from the Ottoman era, it’s possible Erdogan could also be playing a more cryptic game as outlined above.

That said, Jeff Flake, current U.S. Ambassador to Turkey flies in opposition to most when he suggests that Turkey, far from moving away, is actually forging a much closer alliance with the U.S. despite their many differences.

But the fact remains that Erdogan is courting Russia to some extent. The question is whether he is deliberately turning a blind eye to Putin’s expressed desires at his peril?

Much has been written about the reasons underlying Putin’s move on Ukraine, but they centre around two broad schools of thought. Firstly, Putin’s state of mind, his own take on Russian history and how his KGB experiences colour those views. And secondly, the West’s treatment of Russia following the break up of the USSR and the resultant expansion of NATO since that time.

However, writing the other day in the New York Times, Jane Burbank posited a third possibility, that of Eurasianism. First proposed in the wake of the 1917 revolution, Eurasianism is, in a nutshell, a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic “recipe for imperial recovery” centred on a reinvigorated Russian Orthodoxy that provides “solicitous care for (the) believers (of the) many other faiths” that may be present in this multi-national movement.

This ‘ethnogenesis’ would result in a multi-ethnic group that could, “under the influence of a charismatic leader (insert Putin?), develop into a “super-ethnos” — a power spread over a huge geographical area that would clash with other expanding ethnic units.”

After falling into the intellectual wilderness for decades under communism, Eurasianism was revived following the demise of the USSR and found new life in 1990’s Russia under the tutelage of Alexsandr Dugin, who suggested that the Russian people were ‘imperial people’ by nature who could, should they desire it, revive Orthodoxy and Empire to fight against encroaching Western Christianity and decadence in the global geopolitical war to come.

Burbank suggests that Eurasian geopolitics as moulded in Eurasianism, Russian Orthodoxy and traditional conservative values have helped shape Russia’s self-image under Mr. Putin’s leadership.

Indeed, Anthony Fiaola points out that Putin has weaponised these ‘values’ as a way to undermine and destabilise Western, but more particularly U.S. democracy, by appealing to the conservatism that underpins the American far-right and to engender support amongst them.

By framing his war in Ukraine as a holy mission against Western decadence and immorality, he is making a direct appeal to the very same sentiments that attract ultra-conservative white nationalists to their cause in the U.S. who see democrats as representing the same degenerate values that Putin says he is fighting against.

In taking that deliberate decision to swathe his ‘crusade’ in Ukraine in religious garb, Putin is also drawing a line between past Russian glories and today’s Russians, presenting them as being the heirs of an Empire that is worthy of restoration and deserving of even further expansion. This is his own manufactured multi-cultural clash of civilisations, if you will, with the West, as personified in the liberal guise of the U.S. and NATO on one side and his righteous crusade on the other. Though not quite how Huntington suggested it might be, the theme is idiomatic of the theories he put forward in his seminal paper and book, Clash of Civilisations (3).

And as part of that restorative process, the reconquest of the cradle of Orthodoxy would be an emblematic fulfillment of its aims. Thus, Erdogan should be mindful that by leaning towards a restorative Russia he might be handing them the opportunity to take the very thing they have craved for so long.

So should Putin somehow succeed in Ukraine, do not be surprised to see a cryptic desire for Istanbul framed in any religious and political rhetoric in the future.

Thank you for reading.

  1. The Fall of The Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914–1920; Eugene Rogan, 2015.
  2. Paris 1919: Six months that changed the world; Margaret MacMillan, 2019.
  3. The Clash of Civilisations & the Remaking of World Order; Samuel P. Huntington, 1996.
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Peter Winn-Brown

Peter Winn-Brown

Sports nut with a penchant for international politics & affairs, history and the West's turbulent relationship with Islam.