How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Relations between Turkey and Russia have been fraught ever since the Turkish air force downed a Russian bomber that briefly violated its air space in November. But the tensions between the two countries had been escalating for months before that, first over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and then over Syria. As a result, in the span of two years, the two countries have largely undone the entente they had built over the past 15.
Built on economic cooperation, shared discomfort with a Western-dominated international order, and the personal chemistry of their semi-autocratic leaders, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Russo-Turkish entente was, in many ways, a historical anomaly. The drivers of the latest confrontation are far deeper than the loss of a single warplane, and likely herald a return to the geopolitical rivalry that has been the norm for Russo-Turkish relations throughout history.
Today’s confrontation is, in fact, less striking than the 15 years of rapprochement preceding it. After all, the historical predecessors of the Russian Federation and the Turkish Republic were rivals for most of the past five centuries. Much of Russia’s imperial expansion, beginning with the annexation of the Crimean Khanate in 1783, came at the expense of the Ottoman Empire (and its vassals) along the northern Black Sea coast, the Balkans, and in the Caucasus. Russian gains from the declining Ottoman Empire upended the balance of power in Europe and sparked the United Kingdom and France’s efforts to maintain the Ottoman state as a buffer, notably during the 1854–56 Crimean War. Russia’s ambitions to seize the Turkish Straits and complete the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire helped provoke World War I.
The Russo–Turkish rivalry survived the collapse of both the Ottoman and Russian Empires, apart from a brief rapprochement in the early 1920s when Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) joined forces against Western imperialism. Turkey did manage to stay neutral during World War II, but the victorious Soviet Union revived imperial Russia’s longstanding ambition to control the Straits. Josef Stalin demanded a joint Soviet–Turkish control over the straits and the right to establish military bases in Turkey.
Ankara resisted, leading Stalin to push for a Communist revolution in Turkey. In response, U.S. President Harry Truman offered Ankara assistance under the terms of the Truman Doctrine, and in 1952, Turkey joined NATO. Kemalist Turkey subsequently became a bastion of anti-Communism and a pillar of the Western alliance. The Soviet Union never gave up its efforts to weaken Turkey. Among its tools for doing so was support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebellion against Ankara in the 1980s.
Russia’s weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the retreat of Russian power from Turkey’s borders (aided by the emergence of buffer states in the South Caucasus) removed the military threat and allowed the two countries to focus on economic cooperation.
Ankara and Moscow continued to tussle, however, largely over their shared neighborhood. In the early 1990s, Turkey attempted to leverage historical and cultural ties to replace Russia as the patron of the largely Muslim, Turkic-speaking Central Asian republics. Ankara and Moscow also supported opposite sides in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno–Karabakh, which was frozen by a 1994 ceasefire. A bigger challenge was the war in Chechnya, where Russia accused Turkey of backing separatist rebels.
With both economies stumbling badly around the turn of the century, Ankara and Moscow agreed to address their geopolitical concerns and focus on deepening economic cooperation. Moscow refused asylum to PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and cancelled the sale of advanced S-300 air defense systems to Greek Cyprus. A 2001 agreement addressed the tensions between the countries over the Caucasus and Central Asia. Under a January 2002 agreement, Russia withdrew support for the PKK while Turkey adopted a harder line on Chechen and other North Caucasus groups operating from its soil, despite the widespread sympathy that they enjoyed among the Turkish public (hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens trace their ancestry to the Caucasus, from which many Muslims fled in the face of nineteenth-century Russian conquest).
With less at stake strategically, economic ties between Russia and Turkey flourished. By 2008, Russia had become Turkey’s largest single trading partner. Energy has been the most important component of the economic relationship. Turkey, which has little in the way of hydrocarbons, imported more than 40 percent of its oil from Russia in 2009 (although this number has since plummeted). Russia still supplies the country with about 57 percent of its natural gas. Economic ties extended to nuclear power, construction, tourism, and other sectors as well.
Aiding the Russo-Turkish rapprochement was growing alienation from the West and the rapport between Putin and Erdogan. Both opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, on the Russian side, renewed NATO expansion and the so-called color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine revived fears that the West was seeking to roll back Russian influence. On the Turkish side, fruitless EU accession talks, combined with the admission into the union of Greek Cyprus despite its rejection of a UN-sponsored peace plan deepened Ankara’s frustration. The two countries sought to position themselves as mediators between the West and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program, and Ankara even took a relatively accommodating stance over Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Such cooperation notwithstanding, however, the Russo-Turkish entente rested on shallow geopolitical foundations, which have tottered repeatedly over the past few years as regional conflicts proliferated. Before Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet, Ankara and Moscow had sought to wall off their disagreements on Syria while continuing to cooperate elsewhere. But crises in the Caucasus, Ukraine, and the Middle East have all left Russia and Turkey at odds, reducing Ankara’s margin of security and placing strains on the Russo-Turkish relationship that the downing of the jet merely brought into focus.
For one, Russia’s annexation of Crimea fundamentally altered the balance of power around the Black Sea, with Moscow bolstering its naval and anti-access/area denial capabilities around the peninsula even as it expands its military footprint in Syria. Turkey now faces the prospect of encirclement by Russian naval power.
In addition, mounting violence along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact and the Armenia–Azerbaijan frontier threatens to drag Russia and Turkey into a proxy conflict. Moscow’s efforts to peel Baku away its energy-driven alignment with Turkey and the European Union have not helped.
Further, Syria has already turned into a proxy conflict, with Ankara not only seeking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, but also supporting Sunni rebel groups that Moscow considers terrorists. Russia (along with Iran) has provided the Syrian regime unstinting support, including through a direct military intervention that has allowed Assad to regain momentum on the ground in recent weeks, scuttling international peace talks in Geneva. But the war has been a disaster for Turkey. More than 2.5 million refugees have made their way to the country, and the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD) has established a Kurdish proto-state right on Turkey’s border, even as Ankara’s war with the PKK inside Turkey has heated up again.
Ankara has tried to contain the crisis, but Moscow has used it to whip up nationalist sentiment against Turkey while imposing sanctions that may cost the Turkish economy 0.5 percent of its GDP this year. Russian forces have also increased air attacks against Turkish proxies in Syria and ramped up support for the PYD. Russia understands that Turkey is under enormous strain from the refugee crisis, terrorist attacks linked to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), and renewed warfare with the PKK, and seeks to press its advantage.
As in previous eras, Turkey sees the expansion of Russian power as a threat to both itself and the regional balance of power. In response, Turkey has had little choice but to try patching up ties with the West. Ankara immediately called for NATO consultations after the downing of the Russian plane. More recently, it signed a deal with the European Union, which offered Turkey financial assistance and renewed discussions of Turkish membership in the union, and Turkey offered more help stanching the flow of refugees to Europe.
The Russo–Turkish rapprochement of the past 15 years was only possible because the geopolitical environment was unusually benign. A weaker, more introverted Russia posed less threat to Turkish interests. Turkey was at the same time looking to lean away from the West, and saw in Russia a useful partner. Under the circumstances, Ankara and Moscow found it easy to cooperate on trade, energy, and even regional diplomacy.
In the past few years though, traditional geopolitics has made a comeback. Now Russian and Turkish interests increasingly diverge in the Caucasus, the Black Sea, and the Middle East. The annexation of Crimea dramatically escalated the threat Turkey faces to its north, while the Syrian and Kurdish conflicts have created an open wound on its eastern border. And, once again, Russo-Turkish relations are defined by a struggle for regional primacy.