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
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