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Russia-Turkey Relations

Russians know that access to the Mediterranean means access to the world. Throug the centuries, Russia's foreign policy was largely focused on providing access to the seas. The relations between Turkey and Russia, both of which share European and Asian features emanating from history, culture and common geography, are deeply-rooted. Russian policy has always played an important part in Turkish history, dating back to the days when Turkey was the core of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey and Russia are historical enemies. There was a hatred of Russia and anything savoring of Russia, which was passed down by the Turks from father to son for generations.

Under the Constantinople Agreement, made a year before the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the UK and France agreed to give Russia control of the Turkish Straits as well as Constantinople, then capital of the Ottoman Empire, in the event of a Triple Entente victory in the Great War. Unfettered access to the Mediterranean Sea was crucial for Russia. In 1914, the first year of the Great War, 50 percent of all Russian exports and 90 percent of its agriculture exports passed through the Turkish Straits.

Pulling NATO member Turkey out of America's embrace is a goal of major geopolitical significance to Russia. Putin's desire to court Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may in the end outweigh Assad's desire to retake outlying border regions now under Turkish control. Erdogan has never made an explicit claim on northwestern Syria, but he has said Turkish troops and their Syrian Sunni allies, former anti-Assad rebels, will remain until Syria has conducted an election. With peace talks stalled, and few signs of much progress toward a political settlement to the war, that in effect would delay for the foreseeable future.

The Ottomans fought at least 15 wars against the czars, eventually losing considerable territory in the process. In 1453 Constantinople was taken by Mohammed II, and became the capital of the empire. From the accession of Mohammed IV in 1648, the Turkish empire began rapidly to decline, the vice and profligacy of the harem and seraglio being reflected in every branch of the state.

Ever since Peter the Great visited Germany, Holland, and England in 1697, Russian leaders have recognized the need for ice-free ports. Russia has tried to control the Straits of the Bosporus and Dardanelles, doors to the Black Sea, and to acquire Constantinople because of significance to the Greek Orthodox Faith. Turkish rulers, since the days of Sultan Ibrahim I in 1640 when a famine was caused by Venetian ships closing the Dardanelles for the first time, have manoeuvred by wars and alliances to prevent Russia from achieving her aims.

The shelter given to Charles XII of Sweden in 1711 led to the first war with Russia, which must have ended in the ruin of that empire but for the cupidity of the grand-vizier, who accepted a bribe to allow Peter the Great and his army to escape. From that time till 1774 the war with Russia was frequently renewed, and, by the peace of the latter year, a large extent of territory and the Black Sea were ceded by the Porte to Russia.

The British desired to prevent Turkey from obstructing the route to India. The integrity of Turkey became of primary concern to Great Britain and the British military gave much more detailed thought to the problem.

The Westernization of Turkey began seriously in 1840. The possibility of a strong and reformed Turkey made Russia uneasy. She had always considered herself the rightful heir to the declining Turkish State. In 1844 the Tsar went to London to propose the partition of Turkey. Britain, suspicious of Russian designs, refused to solve the Eastern Question by so drastic a measure.

In 1854 war was once more declared against Turkey by Russia, when England, France, and Sardinia joined the Porte to enable the Sultan to resist the threatened invasion of his dominions; the burning of the Turkish fleet off Sinope, the campaign on the Danube, the battles of Alma, Inkerman, Balaklava, and the bombardment and capture of Sebastopol, were some of the results of the two years’ war with Russia; Turkey, for the first time in nearly a century, sheathing the sword without the loss of a foot of territory.

In February 1876, the six great European Powers proposed a scheme of reform which was largely accepted by the Sultan. On Jan. 18, 1877, the Grand Council of Turkey refused all interference by the European Powers and Russia declared war on April 21. Turkey was badly beaten and an armistice was signed in February, 1878. The terms of the treaty of peace at San Stephano (March 3) were subsequently modified at the Congress of Berlin.

It was no occasion for surprise when Turkey chose to side with Germany and Austria against the Allied Powers in the Great War. 0n the declaration of war between Germany and Russia, Turkey at once closed the Dardanelles and the Bosporus to all shipping, planting mines at the entrances. This effectively bottled up the Russian fleets in the Black Sea. On 30 October 1914, Russia declared war against Turkey, and the Sultan at once declared war against Russia, France and England.

In Transcaucasia on 26 December 1914, a great Turkish army was decisively beaten by Russian forces, and for some months Turkey was unable to carry on further operations in this field. The Russians continued minor operations, but in the spring of 1917 disturbances in Russia, following the revolution, prevented active military operations.

Turkey recognized the USSR in 1920 and the Soviet Union was the first Great Power that recognized the Government of Ankara during the Turkish War of Liberation.

Since the end of World War II, Turkey had regarded the Soviet Union, the superpower with which it shared a 590-kilometer frontier, as its principal enemy. Because of her strategic position, Turkey became actually the first line of defense for the United States in any aggressive move by Russia. Despite the vigor with which they uphold Turkish independence and the detestation in which they hold the USSR, fear of ultimate and unavoidable Soviet domination might induce the Turks to compromise with the Soviets.

Fear of Soviet intentions was powerful enough to persuade Turkish leaders to join the United States-European collective defense agreement, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in 1952. Participation in NATO made Turkey a partisan on the side of the West in the Cold War that dominated international politics for more than forty years.

Turkish suspicions of the Soviet Union gradually eased during the era of detente that began in the 1960s, paving the way for several bilateral economic cooperation agreements in the 1970s. However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 revived Turkish concerns about Soviet expansionism and led to a cooling of relations that lasted more than five years. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Turkish fears again eased. Ankara and Moscow concluded a number of agreements, including plans for a pipeline to carry natural gas from Soviet gas fields to Turkey.

Economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries were being expanded when the Soviet Union dissolved into fifteen independent nations. For Turkey the practical consequence of the Soviet Union's demise was the replacement of one large, powerful, and generally predictable neighbor with five smaller near neighbors characterized by domestic instability and troubling foreign policies.

Like most states, Turkey perceived Russia as the principal inheritor of Soviet power and influence. Turkish officials likewise shared in the widespread uncertainty over Russia's role in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), formed at the end of 1991, and thus try to avoid policies that might antagonize a traditional adversary. Diplomatic contacts with Russia and the CIS focused on the renegotiation of numerous Soviet-era economic and technical cooperation agreements that were in force when the Soviet Union was dissolved.

Turkey also initiated multilateral discussions with the five states that now bordered the Black Sea—Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Romania — on an economic cooperation project originally proposed before the demise of the Soviet Union. The inaugural meetings of the new group called for ambitious plans to increase trade among member states, encourage labor mobility, and establish a development bank.

In the mid-1990s, the revival of Ottoman-era animosities seemed inevitable because Armenia and Azerbaijan had become independent while fighting an undeclared war over the Azerbaijani province of Nagorno-Karabakh, whose ethnic Armenian majority has been trying to secede. Turkey adopted an officially neutral position in the conflict, although its sympathies lay with Muslim Azerbaijan, while Russia sided with Christian Armenia.

During the Cold War, Turkey protected NATO's southeast flank and maintained chilly relations with Moscow. But as the new great game unfolded in the Caucasus and Central Asia -- and as Russia became for Turkey a source for much needed oil and natural gas -- the two countries were drawn together into a spirit of increasing cooperation.

Turkey and Russia enjoyed a new defense relationship centered on Black Sea maritime security cooperation. Russian DefMin Sergei Ivanov hosted Defense Minister Gonul in Moscow in September 2006 for negotiations on military cooperation. In May 2006, NSC Secretary General Yigit Alpogan and his Russian counterpart Igor Ivanov held talks on regional security issues and military cooperation in Moscow.

By 2007 Turkey's economic and political relationship with Russia continued to develop. Bilateral trade volume between the two jumped to $21 billion in 2006 compared to $15 billion the previous year, and it appears that the two wouldreach their shared goal of $25 billion for 2007. Russia was Turkey's second largest trading partner (and enjoyed a considerable trade surplus, mostly due to energy sales). In June 2006, President Sezer became the first Turkish Head of State to visit Russia since the end of the Cold War, and Putin and PM Erdogan had met many times and reportedly developed a close relationship.

Inherent similarities helped to pull the two countries together: Both are outside of Europe looking in, and feel that Europe does not respect them. Both have strong central state systems and somewhat similar political cultures. And Russians and Turkish secular elites share one additional trait: fear of political Islam.

Turkey is an increasingly important transit hub for oil and natural gas supplies as they move from Central Asia, Russia, and the Middle East to Europe and other Atlantic markets. Turkey is well placed to serve as a hub for oil and natural gas supply headed to Europe and other Atlantic markets from Russia, the Caspian region, and the Middle East.

Through LNG and multiple pipeline connections, Turkey has a reasonably diversified supply mix. However, Russia's Gazprom is by far the largest single supplier, accounting for 57% of Turkey's total natural gas supply in 2013. The share of crude oil from Russia, once the largest source country of Turkey's crude oil, has fallen as Russian crude oil is increasingly being directed toward Asian markets.

Russia and Turkey do not see eye-to-eye on matters like Syria, Ukraine and the role of the European Union. At the same time, they are close economic and political partners. Among other things, Turkey wouldn’t mind joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Community. These and other matters came under discussion between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting in Strelna near St Petersburg on 23 NOvember 2013.

Russian-Turkish trade is at an impressive $36bln a year. More than one half of Turkey’s primary energy comes as oil and gas supplied by Russia. This burgeoning economic partnership also includes a number of joint projects – in Turkey, Russia and also in third countries in the near future – and close cooperation on Russia’s South Stream project, costing $20bln, for a gas pipeline to Europe laid under the Black Sea. Importantly, Turkey has allowed Russia to use its sector of the Black Sea bed for laying the South Stream pipe. This project is taking shape as the alternative Nabucco scheme is on its way to complete failure. Turkish Ambassador to the Russian Federation Aydin Adnan describes Russian-Turkish cooperation on South Stream as a model to emulate.

Both sides wanted to restore peace to Syria. Turkey, however, insists that Bashar Assad must go, while Russia fears his departure would plunge the entire region into chaos. Russia also believes that discussing Syria within the group known as The Friends of Syria – which includes the EU, the US and Turkey and would have Assad toppled – is counterproductive, and all that concerns the Syrian conflict must be looked into at the UN-sponsored Geneva-2 international conference on Syria. Turkey's president on October 06, 2015 questioned the future of relations between Ankara and Moscow after multiple reports of airspace violations by Russian military planes along the Turkish border with Syria. "Some steps that we do not desire are being taken. It is not suitable for Turkey to accept them," Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during a news conference with Belgium's prime minister in Brussels, Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News reported.

Turkey's shooting down of a Russian military jet along its border with Syria on 23 November 2015, which Russian President Vladimir Putin called "a stab in the back from terrorist accomplices,” raised concerns of possible retaliation from Moscow.

On 26 November 2015, Russia announced it would introduce a set of economic sanctions in response to an "act of aggression" after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber. The measures may include an embargo on Turkish food imports, the suspension of Turkish building projects in Russia, and the end of trade liberalization negotiations. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Russia would suspend its visa-free regime with Turkey from January 1, 2016.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sought to ease tensions with Russia. In an opinion piece published in Britain's The Times newspaper 27 November 2015, Davutoglu said, "While the measures to defend our territory will remain in place, Turkey will work with Russia and our allies to calm tensions."

Some claim that Turkey was waging its own mini-war of influence against Russia, not only in Crimea, but also in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Turkish 'deep state' appeared to be ruled by a revanchist imperial ideology.

"It is hard or almost impossible for us to agree with the current Turkish government, as experience has shown," Russian President Vladimir Putin said during his annual press conference on 17 December 2015 Thursday. "And even when and where we say yes to them, we are stabbed in the side or in the back, for unknown reasons to us."

On 27 June 2016 President Erdogan apologized to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over Ankara's shooting down of a Russia's military jet in late 2015 which shattered ties between the two countries. Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Putin had received a letter from Erdogan "in which the Turkish leader expressed his desire to resolve the situation connected to the downing of a Russian military aircraft.... The head of the Turkish state in his message expressed his sympathy and deepest condolences to the family of the dead Russian pilot and said sorry". Erdogan said he wanted to do "everything possible for the restoration of the traditionally friendly relations between Turkey and Russia," according to the Kremlin statement.

The move towards reconciliation with Russia came the same day Turkey mended fences with Israel. The resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu provided Turkey with a “golden opportunity” to mend relations with Russia and other states, former Turkish FM Yashar Yakish said. “The change in the post of the Prime Minister (Davutoglu was replaced by Binali Yildirim) - this was a golden opportunity to launch new initiatives in the foreign policy,” Yakish, who was Turkey’s foreign minister in 2002-03, said.

Russia, which had appeared to patch up briefly strained relations with Ankara, refrained from commenting on the 15 July 2016 Turkish coup. Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters on July 21, "This is an internal affair of Turkey." Peskov also rejected a July 20 report by Iran’s Fars news agency that said Erdogan had received a warning from Russia about an imminent military coup hours before it was initiated. Fars said the warning was based on data Russian military in the region received intercepting "highly sensitive army exchanges and encoded radio messages showing that the Turkish Army was readying to stage a coup." Peskov said "I don't have such information and I don't know the sources which Fars is referring to".

Economically, Turkey had been on the losing end of the standoff with Russia, which, among other punitive measures, barred its citizens from flocking to Turkey's Mediterranean beaches. Russians were the second-largest group of tourists, after Germans, and spent an estimated $3 billion in 2014, or around 0.4 percent of the country's gross domestic product, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), fueling a vital tourism industry. Russia also banned many Turkish food and consumer goods, cut permits for truck traffic, and took other measures that the EBRD estimated would, taken together, shave between 0.3 and 0.7 percentage points off Turkey's economy over 2016.

The presidents of Russia and Turkey vowed on 09 August 2016 to open a new period of close relations as they rebuild ties between their countries after a nearly seven-month rupture over Ankara's shooting down of a Russian warplane in 2015. Speaking during a visitto St. Petersburg, Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Vladimir Putin that Turkey was entering a "very different period" in relations with Russia, and that cooperation between the two countries would help solve regional problems. In a nod to Moscow, Erdogan went so far as to accuse the pilots who shot down the Su-24 on 24 November 2015 of being involved in the July 2016 coup plot.

Henri J. Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, noted August 17, 2016 that Putin was " .... no doubt savoring the Turks’ tortured explanations and is willing to play along. For him this is an opportunity to needle the United States and demonstrate that he still commands clout internationally—not to mention a chance to enjoy watching Erdogan bend to his will. Similarly, for Erdogan and his government, reconnecting with the Russian leader and demonstrating to the West that he has alternatives at a time of major domestic convulsion, residual fear, and uncertainty provides him with some psychological gratification. Russia, however, is not an alternative to Turkey’s Western connections... "

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Page last modified: 28-08-2019 18:55:00 ZULU