Turkey and Russia: Days of Future Past?

Turkish-Russian relations, which could be described as hostile during the 1990s, have steadily improved after March 2003 as a result of the disappearance of divisive issues such as Chechnya and the Kurds, convergence of Russia's and Turkey's stance on Iran, Syria and other states in the Middle East and North Africa before the Arab Spring, as well as increasing trade and tourism between the two countries and energy deals. Russia and Turkey under the leadership of Putin and Erdoğan marked a golden era in bilateral relations between Ankara and Moscow.

The two leaders were even described as a "band of brothers" due to the similarities in their leadership characteristics and their strategies based on priorities that placed a high premium on stability in their neighborhood before the Arab Spring owing to their overlapping interests and interdependence. Both leaders are also similar in successfully addressing the dreams of their people of past glories attained at the days of Ottoman and Russian empires.

Yet the re-emergence of divisive issues and finally the downing of a Russian SU-24 fighter jet by Turkey after it violated Turkish airspace, and Putin's interpretation of the incident as a "stab in the back that will have a serious consequences for Russia's relationship with Turkey" mark a severe revision of this friendly relationship.

Actually, challenges in the Turkish-Russian relations commenced with Turkey's support to Syrian opposition; increasingly continued with Turkey's decision to host the NATO missile defense system; Turkey's stance towards Crimean Tatars following Russia's annexation of Crimea, and finally worsened by Russia's direct military involvement in Syria that target all opposition groups and its support to Kurds, particularly the PYD that has a link to the PKK and the downing of the Russian fighter jet by Turkey.

History of Turkish-Russian Relations The current developments remind me of the Turkish-Russian historical relationship that had been described as long histories of conflict, deep structural differences, divergent views and intense geopolitical rivalries between the Russian and Ottoman empires in the Black and Mediterranean Seas. The interest in extending Russia's influence from the Black Sea and acquire warm water ports into the Mediterranean led to numerous conflicts and wars between Russia and Ottoman empires.

Crimea was one of these geostrategic locations in Turco-Russian historical relations. The Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 led to major Russian victories including in Crimea and the reestablishment of Russia through the right to free navigation on the Black Sea. In 1783, the Russian empire annexed Crimea. By 1812, Russia had managed to secure control of the entire northern coast of the Black Sea.

Russia also has sought to control the eastern Mediterranean for centuries. It has been stymied by the Ottoman Empire, later by Turkey, and by British and U.S. naval power throughout. The roots of the "Eastern Question," which involved competition between the great powers, Russia and Britain, for influence over the Ottoman Empire without triggering a great power war, date back to the nineteenth century. A series of agreements signed between 1915 and 1917 put Kurdish populated areas under the control of Britain, France, and Russia and the final settlement of the "Eastern Question" promised Kurds their own country.

Repercussions of the Past in the Future

Since the early 2000s, Alexander Dugin's "Neo-Eurasianism" have gained popularity and contributed to the ideological orientation of Putin's quest for neo-Russian Empire. He is seen as the driving conceptual force behind Putin's initiative for the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Dugin's dream of a Russian strategic alliance with European and Middle East states, primarily Iran realized when the strategic alliance decided between Iran and Russia.

The US retired General David Petraeus accused Putin of rebuilding a Russian Empire. Russian moves in Syria are designed to bolster and hold on their naval base in Tartus, Syria to preserve Russian influence in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. Through this geostrategic corridor they would have direct access to the Mediterranean Sea and an energy corridor that might even be an alternative to the Persian Gulf. Russian-Iranian alliance would open new transportation routes, with Iran getting stable access to the Mediterranean Sea through Iraq-Syria-Lebanon.

Turkey's strategic vision of pursuing a neo-Ottoman sphere of influence based on becoming the leader of democratizing Arab countries in the post-Arab Spring era led to strategic miscalculations. More importantly, this vision has contradicted the ambitious neo-Russian Empire. The resistance of Sunni groups with the support of Turkey in Syria against the Shiite Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad does not serve Russia's interest in the region, because Russia supports Shiite Iran and Shiite Alawite Syria against the spread of the Sunni Salafist form of Islam. The Muslim communities living in Russia's Caucasus that practice Sufism and has turned gradually into Salafism. Growing Salafi insurgents have increasingly targeted state-backed Sufi religious leaders that are accused of assisting the government crack down on "true Islam." There is an understanding that the Shiite Iran-Iraq-Syria shield may protect Russia from the Sunni support for Northern Caucasus Muslims rebels.

Turkey has basic differences in proposing solutions for the changing political structure in Syria, including support to moderate Sunni opposition groups instead of the Kurds. Moreover, Turkey considers the PYD, a leading force in the fight against the terrorist ISIL, a terrorist organization that has links to Kurdish separatists - the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Turkey. Russia, which sides with al-Assad's regime and is bombing the Syrian opposition forces, did not list the PKK as a terrorist group and supports the Kurdish groups in the region, and contradicts the Turkish side.

The End of Pragmatism Disagreements between Ankara and Moscow on foreign policy issues such as the NATO missile defense system agreement signed between Turkey and NATO, Patriot missiles to be deployed on Turkey's border with Syria and Turkey's support to Syrian opposition did not negatively affect the strong economic and energy friendship between the two countries previously.

Acceptance of Turkey to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as dialogue partner in June 2012 at the Beijing Summit of the SCO - despite disagreements between Russia and Turkey on several issues - was the clear evidence of shared pragmatism that helped to keep Turkey-Russian relationship strong. This pragmatism continued when Turkey did not follow the EU member states to join the sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Crimea despite Turkey's historical ties with the Crimean Tatars.

However, the re-emergence of divisive issues like Chechens and Kurds and finally the downing of the Russian plane ended this pragmatic approach. It led to increasing Russia's existence and military involvement in the region, particularly its support for the PYD has become another contention between Turkey and Russia in Syria. Moreover, the applicability of Dugin's argument "Iran and Russia should expand relations with Turkey, China and India in order to forge a powerful lobby force against the U.S." has been shelved for Turkey by Putin.

Russia's possible military retaliation and NATO's stance towards this retaliation, which does not seem among the options at least for now but still on the table owing to a Russian MP's statement, might have repercussions on NATO's role under Article V and the perceptions of the Nordic states that have felt uncomfortable with Russia's aggressive expansionist policy since the Ukraine crisis.