The Turkish-Russian alliance was supposed to be temporary. It seemed that the clash of interests of Ankara and Moscow in the Black Sea–Caucasus region would permanently prevent their long-term cooperation. This was accompanied by the wars in Syria and Libya, in both of which Russia and Turkey supported the opposing parties. Given these factors, the alliance of the “Bear” with the “Wolf” appeared almost impossible, and yet it continues. It is likely that neither side can now afford to put an end to it – unless NATO decides to lend a hand to Turkey. However, historical analogies show that Ankara and Moscow are far too divided to form long-term relationships. Would history repeat itself this time?
Author: Karolina Wanda Olszowska
A room with a view of the war
Turkish (Ottoman) – Russian (Soviet) relations can be described briefly: a quarter of a millennium of wars. Over the course of 250 years, Russia and the Ottoman Empire fought eleven wars against each other, seven of which were won by the Tsarist armies.
In addition to its armed territorial expansion, the growing Grand Duchy of Moscow made use of propaganda – the duty to take Constantinople back from the hands of the Muslims. The tsars considered themselves heirs of the Eastern Roman Empire, by virtue of the wedding of Ivan III of Russia with Sophia (Zoe) Palaiologina, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor. In the future, this was used as one of the excuses for standing for the dominion over Christian places of worship. The struggle began in the 16th century, when, after the conquest of Kazan and Astrakhan by Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible, the Black Sea became an Ottoman-Russian conflict area. The common border was established at the end of the 17th century and then extended after the Second Partition of the Republic of Poland, running from the coasts of the Black Sea, along the Dniester, up to the borders of Galicia. This border shaped the course of relations between Moscow and the Sublime Porte for the following years.
For centuries, the Black Sea has been an area of clashing influences and hegemony struggles. As early as in the 17th century, the Ottoman power was undeniable. The war with Russia, won at the beginning of the 18th century, ensured the Ottoman Empire’s dominance over the Black Sea until 1774. After losing the Polish–Russian War, the Russian Empire was granted access to the sea. From that time on, the tsars sought to expand their influence and create an “internal lake.” Catherine II conquered more Black Sea fortresses and confirmed the claims to Crimea and Kuban. When, at the beginning of the 19th century, the successive Ottoman provinces began to fight for independence, the Sultan was in need of an alliance with the Tsar. In exchange for not supporting Porte’s enemies, he pledged to keep the Black Sea closed to other war fleets at the request of Russia. This agreement was only revoked when, with British and French help, the Ottoman Empire won the Crimean War.
Russia used internal divisions to weaken its opponent, for instance by supporting the national liberation efforts of minorities living in the Ottoman Empire. A perfect example of this was the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–1829, sparked by the Greek War of Independence. Without support from Russia, the Greeks’ uprising would have been quickly suppressed.
The war resulted in autonomy being granted to Greece. It was also confirmed with respect to Serbia, Moldova, and Wallachia. Half a century later, the Tsar supported the Slavic insurgents in the Balkans, and the Ottoman Empire lost further territories to the principalities of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro.
The end justifies the means
Pragmatism was a feature shared by the Tsar and Sultan. Despite numerous difficulties, they were able to unite forces in case of a common enemy. After the arrival of Napoleon’s troops in Egypt, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire sent a common fleet against him. A year later, the two countries formed an alliance that allowed the Russian fleet to pass freely through the straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. The alliance lasted only a year, Russia left the anti-French coalition, and the Ottomans signed a peace treaty with France.
The situation was very different when the Bolsheviks came to power “on the ruins” of Tsarist Russia, and the Ottoman Empire was in decline. The Russian-Turkish alliance was then re-established. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the leader of the Turkish National Movement fighting the Allies trying to dismantle the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in World War I, needed supporters. Lenin sought international recognition. At the beginning of June 1920, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Georgy Chicherin exchanged letters. In the same year, the Kemalists received supplies of weapons and other necessities, as well as financial assistance. What is more, with the help of the Bolsheviks, they escaped diplomatic isolation. On March 16, 1921, the Turkish-Soviet Treaty of Brotherhood was signed, to which now the presidents of Russia Vladimir Putin and Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sometimes refer, emphasizing nearly a hundred years of Russian-Turkish friendship.
The Republic of Turkey is a country founded on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and proclaimed on October 29, 1923. Its first leader and president was Mustafa Kemal, who took the name Atatürk. Until his death in 1938, he was also the most important person in the country. Good relations with the Soviet Union lasted until the mid-1930s, when, again, there were too many conflicting points between the two allies. Atatürk did not want to agree to the introduction of communism in Turkey. What began overtime was also competition for border territories and the Black Sea straits. After strengthening his power and Turkey’s position in the international arena, Mustafa Kemal, a supporter of Turkey’s Westernization, sought allies in Western Europe. It was the British-Turkish rapprochement that contributed to the breaking of the then Turkish-Soviet cooperation.
The changeability of Turkish-Soviet relations can be demonstrated on the example of the years 1939–2003. During World War II, Turkey tried to maintain balance and neutrality, and Stalin wanted to take advantage of this attitude. Already at the end of the war, he demanded a revision of the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits and the transfer of the Kars, Ardahan, and Thrace provinces (for communist Bulgaria). At that time, President İsmet İnönü wanted to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union. However, Stalin, whose position strengthened after his victory in World War II, hoped for territorial gains at the expense of Turkey – rather than an alliance. At that time, Turkey had no significant allies because Western European countries were disappointed by its lack of decisiveness during World War II, while the United States did not yet appreciate Turkey’s important geostrategic position. Without the division of the world into two spheres of influence and the outbreak of the Cold War, Turkey would have lost control of the Black Sea straits and part of its territory. At that time, the country was too weak to stand up to Moscow. The virtual suspension of mutual relations lasted from 1950 to 1962.
Ankara had been a faithful member of NATO for ten years – until the Turkish government felt “betrayed” by an American ally. On the one hand, without consulting Turkey, Washington withdrew Jupiter nuclear missiles from its territory; on the other, it supported Greece in the dispute over Cyprus, which was a direct cause of an attempt to unfreeze relations with the Soviet Union. However, the government in Ankara continued to hope for an improvement in relations with Washington, which gradually happened and lasted until 2003, when Turkey refused to allow an American attack on Iraq from its territory.
The Tsar and the Sultan – searching for an agreement
It is very easy to offend Turkey. It is a loyal ally when it feels like an important and respected player. But if one treats this country like a less valuable party, it moves away and seeks support on the opposite side. Such a situation took place during the Cyprus crisis. President Lyndon B. Johnson threatened that if the Cyprus problem led to an attack by the USSR on Turkey, the latter could not count on its NATO allies. In response, Prime Minister Suat Hayri Ürgüplü made a diplomatic visit to Moscow. This situation was deceptive, and yet resembling the present one. When during the war in Syria, the Americans began to support the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD, Yekîtiya Democrat Party) and its military unit, the General Security Units (YPG, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel), which are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a party considered terrorist in Turkey, President Erdoğan once again began looking for an ally in Russia. On June 27, 2016, President Erdoğan sent a letter to President Putin in which he expressed regret about the shooting down of a Russian plane a few months earlier. President Putin claimed that in this letter, Turkey had apologized for the incident. Irrespective of what the letter said, the attitude of the heads of state showed how much they wanted to re-establish proper relations. In his letter, Erdoğan referred to Russia as Turkey’s friend and strategic partner and stressed that the Turkish authorities aimed to ensure that mutual relations did not deteriorate. Both leaders were so keen on preserving the alliance that relations did not weaken even after the assassination of Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara. The perpetrator was then arrested, and the case was closed.
Economic issues are another factor conducive to good ties between Turkey and Russia, regardless of partly conflicting interests in Syria and the Black Sea region. Before the 2003 crisis in relations with the United States, trade between Turkey and Russia increased. The shooting down of the Russian SU-24 aircraft by the Turkish F-16 fighter jet led to a significant deterioration in mutual diplomatic relations. The Russian administration imposed an embargo on Turkish food products, cooperation in the economic and military spheres was suspended, and the number of Russian tourists to Turkey decreased by 90 percent. As soon as relations resumed, the embargo was lifted, and Russian Gazprom declared its immediate readiness to resume talks with the Turkish BOTAŞ Petroleum Pipeline Corporation on the construction of the undersea gas pipeline Turkish Stream. Both parties are very committed to its construction. The contract for the Türk Stream (then Turkish Stream) was signed on November 10, 2016. Construction of the first line in the offshore section started on May 7, 2017. The earliest offshore line was completed on November 19, 2017. The offshore section was completed on November 19, 2018. More lines are currently under construction. Furthermore, another idea has appeared to build additional lines of the pipeline (Turkish Stream 2). According to experts, if the idea becomes a reality, it will become another tool of Russia’s political influence, potentially leading to further dependence of the European Union on Russian gas.
The most puzzling issue is the conflicting interests of Ankara and Moscow in Syria and Libya. It would seem that with such different aspirations in these two conflicts, a common alliance has no raison d’être, but in this case, Presidents Erdoğan and Putin have more reasons to agree above political divisions than to terminate their friendship. In the war in Syria, Russia supports Bashar al-Assad, whereas Turkey is against him and backs the opposition. After so many years of war (the conflict has lasted since the Arab Spring), the engagement has become very problematic and exhausting for Ankara. Turkish soldiers are still being killed in the fighting, and more than 3 million refugees have already arrived in the country. Turkish society is increasingly dissatisfied and loudly stresses that Syrians should return to their own country. Erdoğan is forced to take this situation into account. Despite seemingly conflicting interests, it should be noted that if relations with Russia had not improved, Turkey would not have been able to carry out a military operation against the Islamic State (and the forces of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party) under the code name “Euphrates Shield”. Its goal was to create a buffer zone near the Turkish border. It was successfully completed, but this would not have been possible if it had not been for the “friendly” Russian neutrality, thanks to which Russian troops did not block Turkish air raids.
When American forces withdrew from Syria, Turkey conducted a military operation called “The Fountain of Peace,” the official goal of which was to create a 30 km wide and 480 km long security zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. With time, it became increasingly difficult to find a consensus when competing for the same area. Since 2019, both sides have met regularly to discuss matters related to Syria and Libya, especially the de-escalation zone in Idlib. Regular dialogue is needed because military clashes between Russian and Turkish troops on Syrian territory still happen. However, the official narrative is that of Turkish troops fighting Syrian (governmental) ones, and of accidental skirmishes.
It seemed that the Russian-Turkish alliance would finally end in February 2020. Relations between the two presidents were becoming tenser and tenser, with both accusing each other of violating their previous decisions. Finally, in February 2020, Assad’s (or de facto Russian) troops attacked Turkish forces. Thirty-six Turkish soldiers were killed in the fighting. At that time, it seemed that the “Tsar’s friendship with the Sultan” would end and that such an imminent decline with so many conflicting interests would have to happen quickly.
President Erdoğan was ready to change his allies, albeit counting on the United States and NATO’s support. However, the West did not live up to his expectations, and the only support that the president of Turkey could count on was the words of support from the western leaders, which alone were not enough to deal with the conflict with Russia. Turkey still tried to push the EU for help, threatening to send out another wave of refugees. Buses with Syrians were even transported to the border with Greece, but the COVID-19 epidemic closed the EU’s internal borders and made this plan impossible.
President Erdoğan further attempted to “scare” Russia militarily. He launched “Operation Shield Spring,” still hoping for the involvement of the North Atlantic Alliance Organization. After six days, however, he was forced to negotiate a ceasefire with Russia. During his visit to the Kremlin, President Putin set up a meeting in such a way as to leave no doubt as to who was on a dominant position in this arrangement. First, he was two minutes late. Second, there was a clock on the fireplace behind the presidents, which represented one of the wars lost by the Ottoman Empire.
The pandemic temporarily put a stop to the situation, and, despite the ongoing conflicts, each side had to focus on its internal problems, especially involving economic challenges. Meanwhile, some importance was shifted to the conflict in Libya. Turkey engaged on the side of the Government of the National Accord of Libya of Fayez al-Sarraj, while Russia on the opposite side of the Libyan National Army headed by Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
In this conflict, however, the aspirations of both countries do not interfere so much. Moscow wants to influence the division of territories in the country, while Turkey only wants to divide areas in the Mediterranean. The opponents of the expansion of Turkish influence in the Mediterranean include Greece and France, which propose to the EU to impose sanctions on Turkey.
Such situations push Ankara towards an alliance with Moscow because if the former wants to negotiate concessions for itself in the international arena, it needs strong allies. At this point, only the Russians unambiguously stand on its side.
The alliance between Russia and Turkey, expected to last just several months, has developed into a long-term cooperation involving multiple areas. This friendship is unpredictable as well as highly dangerous for both NATO and the EU. After all, one should not forget that the Turkish army is the second-largest army in NATO and is located in a key geostrategic position. It also seems that the West is skeptical of the attitude of President Erdoğan, who, when dissatisfied with negotiations (whether they concern refugees or support for Turkish interests in Syria), leaves the negotiating table. President Putin is doing the same, which is why both leaders are not giving up on each other’s positions and are setting tough conditions for different interests without fear of using force. As historical analogies show, Turkey and Russia were able to communicate whenever they had an important convergent interest. However, each time, NATO members represented a more significant partner for Ankara, and, whenever they showed support for Turkey, it demonstrated its loyalty in return. What is lacking in this situation is an unequivocal declaration of the Alliance of supporting Turkey to convince this country to solidarity and loyalty. It seems crucial to have such a partner on its side today. This is all the more true from the perspective of securing the Eastern Flank of NATO. Observing the Russian-Turkish relationship’s proximity, it is increasingly difficult to imagine the two presidents standing apart. It seems that only a change of power in either country could lead to this. After all, the partners are very much needed in today’s geopolitical reality.
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