Maxim Shemetov / Reuters An activist holds a placard that reads "Bring Turkey to account" to protest in reaction after a Russian war plane was shot down by Turkey, in front of the Turkish embassy in Moscow, Russia November 24, 2015.

Clash of Empires

Why Russia and Turkey Fight

In the fall of 1914, two German warships—the Goeben and Breslau—took refuge in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople to escape British naval pursuit. Following secret negotiations between the German and Ottoman war offices, the Goeben and Breslau, along with an accompanying Ottoman naval squadron, then moved to bombard the Russian port cities of Novorossiysk, Odessa, and Sevastopol. This, according to Wilhelm Souchon, the commander of the German Mediterranean squadron, was the ideal pretext for forcing the otherwise neutral Ottomans to get involved in the Great War, “even against their will.” Russia was the Ottomans’ “ancient enemy,” and by lending two German battleships to Constantinople’s strategic priorities in the Black Sea, Germany, Souchon believed, could win over the empire. Souchon was right.

Last year, in an article about the geopolitics of the Black Sea, I argued that the course of modern Russian-Turkish relations was set in 1783, when the Russian tsar’s armies captured Crimea in what was the Ottomans’ first significant loss of Muslim territory. The shock—and the desire to prevent the next loss—prompted the Ottomans’ Westernization and their efforts to balance against Russian expansion through European alliances. The most significant balancing act came during the Crimean War of 1853–56, in which British, French, and Ottoman forces successfully beat back Russian attempts to take the territory.

Despite that war’s outcome, however, the Russian naval presence in the Black Sea gradually strengthened over the next 60 years. With it came Russian territorial gains against the Ottomans on the ground. In fact, for more than a century, they continuously lost territory to the Russian empire, both in the Caucasus and in the Balkans—a trauma that still haunted the empire’s thinking in Souchon’s time and continues to do so today.

In other words, it made a certain amount of sense for Souchon to believe that two German battleships would give the Ottomans psychological license to do what they probably wanted to do in the Black Sea anyway.

The Goeben and Breslau.

The Goeben and Breslau.

HISTORICAL BLINDERS

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