The past, in particular a shared desire to right perceived historical wrongs, is making it more difficult for Turkey and Russia to smooth over their present differences.
Turkish-Russian relations have been in a tailspin since the late November shoot-down of a Russian fighter by Turkish jets. Given the current level of rancor, a relatively minor slip could turn the diplomatic spat into a major international crisis. Recent incidents in the Aegean and Black seas involving Russian warships and Turkish commercial vessels underscore the high degree of existing tension. In an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published December 15, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called on Russia to take steps to deescalate tension. “There is a limit to our patience,” Cavusoglu was quoted as saying.
Reducing tension promises to be challenging. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, preside over political systems that tend to emphasize security interests above all else. The fact that Russia and Turkey are former empires (and historical rivals) whose strategic peripheries overlap make the two countries’ policy elites particularly wary of each other. Foul play in one another’s “near abroad” is viewed as a gross offense that needs to be punished: trade and mutually beneficial energy relations count for little when raison d’état is at stake.
Not too long ago, Putin and Erdogan seemed to have great chemistry, but the ongoing Syrian civil war has proven the undoing of their friendship. From a historical perspective, the Syrian conflict, as well as continuing sectarian clashes in Iraq, can be seen as tragic consequences of the badly managed disintegration of the Ottoman Empire during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a rule, former land-based empires with their blurred borders between the national “core area” and the periphery do not have a terribly impressive track record of turning imperial borderlands into good neighbors and loyal allies.
No wonder, then, that the imperial past still heavily influences Turkey’s and Russia’s present-day thinking. Both countries’ identities to a significant extent are shaped by their respective imperial legacies. While both countries’ elites insist that their strategy does not involve a restoration of empire, they are also quick to point out that Russia and Turkey are not “ordinary nation states.” They also both like to talk about their regional “primacy” or “privileged” interests in their strategic environment.
Furthermore, politicians in both countries regard themselves as being not just politically but also morally responsible for what is transpiring in former imperial borderlands. The task of reintegrating their immediate neighborhoods appears high on the two countries’ agenda. The concept of the Russkii Mir (Russian World), along with the “Eurasian Union,” and the idea of the historical “Ottoman sphere” in which Turkey plays a role of bölge gücü (regional hegemon), reflect the persistence of imperial imagery in both countries.
“We know that we cannot get back the lands that were under the control of the Ottoman Empire before 1917,” a senior Turkish official told Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, several years ago. “But do not make the mistake of thinking that the borders that were dictated to us at the end of the First World War by the victorious countries – mainly the UK and France – are acceptable to us. Turkey will find a way to return to its natural borders in the south – the line between Mosul in Iraq and Homs in Syria. That is our natural aspiration and it is justified because of the large Turkoman presence in that region.”
That viewpoint helps shed light on Turkey’s motivation for shooting down the Russian jet in November. It was meant to signal Ankara’s displeasure with Russian air attacks that targeted Turkoman militia members operating in Syria.
The reference to the Turkoman minority group as a pretext for expanding one’s sphere of influence should sound familiar to Putin. After all, the Kremlin cited the plight of sootechestvenniki (compatriots) – Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine – as a pretext for Russia’s involvement in Ukrainian affairs.
More broadly, the Erdogan government sees Russia’s military operation in Syria as a serious challenge to Ankara’s strategic objectives in the region. The fate of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, is not the only problem dividing Moscow and Ankara. Turkish leaders believe Russian interference hinders their ability to shape a regional geopolitical landscape. Russia’s pounding of Turkoman fighters in the northern parts of Latakia province is weakening Turkish-sponsored rebels and is undermining Ankara’s efforts to create a “buffer zone” along the Syrian border. If Russia continues its operations there, Turkey’s ability to control this swath of Syrian territory will diminish.
In the end, the signal Erdogan sent Putin could produce a result diametrically opposed to what Ankara wanted or expected. Having called the Turkish president a “back stabber,” Putin has vowed to exact revenge on Turkey.
“They’ll regret it,” Putin promised. “We know what to do.”
The fact that Turkey and Russia seem to have slipped into their default positions of rival (former) empires does not bode well for their shared neighborhood. Ankara and Moscow are well aware of the risks of a direct confrontation. Thus, if tension keeps escalating, they may opt to wage proxy wars in their respective “post-imperial peripheries.”
One possibility is that Russia may try to play a Kurdish card. The Turkish government considers the Kurdish enclave inside Syria to pose as serious a national security threat as ISIS. If Moscow opted to help form a contiguous band of Kurdish-controlled territory stretching along Turkey’s southern frontier, Erdogan might end up regretting the government’s decision to bring down that Russian fighter jet.
Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at Uppsala University and at Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden.
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