Why Russian-Turkish Hostility Makes Sense

Feb. 5, 2016 Tensions between the two countries have heightened again, although this is not surprising when viewed in historical context.

|February 5, 2016

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By George Friedman

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said on Feb. 4 that Turkey is planning an invasion of Syria. He said that images from one spot on the Turkish-Syrian border showed an expansion of transportation infrastructure that could be used to move military equipment and troops. This was in addition to a variety of other charges made yesterday. The Turks responded, with an unnamed official from Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s office telling Reuters that the Russians were “simply diverting attention from their attacks on civilians as a country already invading Syria.” The hurling of accusations by both sides has become a routine matter. The charges and counter-charges are less important than the fact that they have become routine. Until the Russian intervention in Syria, the Turks and Russians had cooperative relations centered around energy and other trade. It’s therefore useful to try to understand what went wrong.

Turkey’s relations with the Russians actually began their descent in the early stages of the Ukrainian crisis, which began in late 2013. The immediate issue for Turkey was the status of the Tatars in Crimea, with whom the Turks have ethnic and religious links and therefore had to make what was at least a pro forma expression of concern and send some observers. The Russians didn’t welcome this, since at the time the Americans and Europeans were attacking them for their actions in Crimea. The Russians had no special relationship with Turkey, but they had enough mutual interests that they would have hoped the Turks handled it differently.

The Turks, of course, had a deeper concern. The events in Crimea gave the Russian fleet in Sevastopol greater freedom to maneuver, theoretically. Previously, Ukraine had given Russia the right to access the naval base in the city. That involved a degree of oversight, slight though it might have been. With the annexation of Crimea, the base was Russian territory. The Turks understood the Russian interest in Ukraine and they understood that it gave the Russians greater freedom of action in the Black Sea. What they did not know was how the Russians planned to use that freedom.

There is a long history here. European Russia has three paths to the oceans, all of them through choke points controlled by foreign and sometimes hostile powers. The port city of Murmansk is one access point, but it leads to the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap. Second, there is St. Petersburg, which leads to the Danish Straits choke point. And the access point is Sevastopol, which leads through the Turkish-controlled Bosporus. Since the final days of the Ottoman Empire, the Russians have wanted to take control of the Bosporus and open their path to the Mediterranean. During the Cold War, they sought to gain influence in Turkey in order to access to the Bosporus. It is in many ways the center of gravity for Turkey and a vital potential asset for the Russians.

There was no question that the Russians would make a move toward the Bosporus after the Ukraine crisis erupted. But it was logical to assume that the Russians, with a stronger Western presence in Ukraine, needed to strengthen their presence in the Black Sea. A stronger Russian force in the Black Sea could be used to block NATO operations in Romania, for example. But the Turks understood that the theoretical buildup of Russian forces in the Black Sea might wind up with intentions not currently considered. It would be difficult for Turkey to predict how the Russians might use this advantage in the future.

This made the Turks uneasy. When the Russians intervened in Syria, this was simply another step. The Russians did not intend this as a move against the Turks. They intended it as a way to demonstrate their ability to influence events in a region that the United States wanted to leave but couldn’t quite figure out how to. It actually wasn’t a threat to the Americans. The United States wanted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out, but certainly not while the Islamic State was deep inside Syria. The U.S. priority was containing IS. At the same time, the U.S. could not openly support Assad. The politics didn’t permit it. The Russian intervention solved this problem for the Americans. They publicly condemned the Russians for interfering, but privately were relieved that they would not see IS taking over Damascus.

The Russians had no need to target Turkey. But Turkey was an enemy of the Assad regime, both because of massacres carried out against Turkmens and Arabs in Syria and because it wanted to have broader influence, but not control, over a critical neighbor. The Turks interpreted Russia’s involvement in Syria as a deliberate intervention against Turkish interests. The much more minor events in the Black Sea could not be seen at the time as building to a danger point. However, it does not seem to me that the Russians really considered the Turkish interests, and underestimated the historic fear. And the Turks overestimated Russian capabilities. In any case, the result of the heightened tensions between the two nations was that a Russian fighter jet was shot down by the Turks in November.

This created not quite a state of war but a state of hostility that was hard to foresee. This hostility led to incidents like the harassment of at least one Russian ship as it tried to pass through the Bosporus, a reminder to the Russians of their vulnerability. They need the Bosporus to support their forces in Syria. And so, the old Russian strategic problem emerged. This led to an endless mutual barrage of claims of provocations, threats of retaliation and the deterioration of Turkish-Russian relations.

This is where geopolitics becomes a useful tool for understanding and predicting events. Russia and Turkey have been historical enemies not just over the Bosporus but over the Black Sea. The Ottomans forced their way into Ukraine and the Russian Empire. The Russians and Turks fought bitter battles in the eastern mountains of Turkey during World War I. The two countries intersect too frequently and in too many ways to fully trust each other. Indeed, they can’t trust each other because each, when strong, can harm the other, and will, in order to secure geographical choke points or to prevent the other from becoming too dominant.

Turkey and Russia are now both at critical points. Russia is trying to maintain its balance economically and strategically. Turkey is intersecting, simply by geography, with four destabilizing regions: Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Central Asia. Both countries have profound vulnerabilities and are therefore hyper-sensitive to the moves of the other. The random events that led to this form a logical pattern from a broader standpoint. These two countries have had many historical encounters, and they measure each new encounter against the old. Distrust is the normal and reasonable condition between these two countries, and we have now merely moved back to a more traditional pattern.