The Sultan and the Tsar: Turkey’s Flirtation with Russia Has a Long History

Ömer Taşpınar

AFP Photo: Yuri Kadobnov

Anyone wanting to understand Ankara’s current military and political engagements with Moscow needs to pay attention to two factors: Turkey’s frustrations with the West and the historic drivers of Turkish-Russian friendship. While the former is well documented, the latter is seldom analyzed.

The conventional narrative about the history between Russia and Turkey is one of bitter enmity based on imperial rivalry. The Ottomans and Romanovs fought more than a dozen wars during the 18th and 19th centuries. Almost all ended badly for Istanbul, so historians must find current references to the friendship between the “sultan” and the “tsar” highly amusing. Yes, Erdogan and Putin are two patriarchs running their domestic fiefdoms with imperial nostalgia but their predecessors were busy with war-war, not jaw-jaw.

The post-imperial era does, however, yield some explanations. For a start, the emergence of modern Turkey as a sovereign nation-state in 1923 was made possible in great part thanks to Soviet military support. It was Bolshevik Russia, under Lenin, that came to the rescue of Ataturk during the 1919-1922 Turkish war of independence. The Soviets rightly saw in the Anatolian military mobilization of Mustafa Kemal an anti-imperialist resistance movement against Western colonizers. That support from Russia at such a critical stage of Turkish history still resonates with the nationalist establishment in Ankara. But to understand the Russo-Turkish relationship even better one must also study modern Turkey’s deeply-rooted resentment of Western powers.

Under Ataturk, the new Turkish Republic tried hard to erase its Ottoman past, but erasing centuries of distrust toward the West proved much more difficult. The Ottoman empire was never officially colonized but the agonizingly long imperial decline was a product of military defeat and humiliation at the hands of Western powers. Even today, the infamous Sevres treaty of 1920 – dividing what was left of the Ottoman empire among Britain, France, Italy and Greece – remains a very powerful symbol of nefarious Western intentions in the Turkish collective memory.

In contrast, Russian support for Turkish independence is remembered fondly and with gratitude. Not surprisingly, a populist like President Erdogan has mastered the art of exploiting this skepticism of the West, frequently portraying military engagement with Russia – such as the purchase of the S-400 missile defense system – as a step toward independence from the United States. “We don’t take orders from Washington,” Erdogan declared recently in defiance of looming American sanctions. “We need to develop our own national missile defense system and our own national defense industry. Cooperation with Russia on technology transfer and joint production will take us in that direction,” he added to cheering crowds chanting Turkish independence slogans.
Such pronouncements are clear reminders that Turkey still considers Russia as leverage in its quest for more independence from the West.

That longing for sovereignty and neutrality has strong roots in modern Turkish history. Ankara strove hard to avoid choosing between the US and the Soviet Union until Stalin made territorial demands in 1945. Turkey also managed to stay on the margins of World War II by not supporting the Allies against Germany. Neutrality, however, did not look like a viable option during the Cold War and in 1952, Turkey joined NATO. Despite that, Soviet Russia continued to enjoy a favorable image in the eyes of the Turkish nationalist left.  Kemalist military circles flirted with the idea of closer relations with Moscow each time there were problems in relations with Washington.

The idea of a major realignment to achieve greater independence has always appealed to the nationalists but it remained outside the realm of realpolitik. In practice, this meant Turkey’s frequent frustrations with the West never acquired a blatantly anti-Russian dimension. From socialist intellectuals nurturing revolutionary dreams, to Kemalist generals harking back to Ataturk’s legacy of “full independence,” the Soviet Union represented a necessary pole of resistance against American imperialism.

Finally, with the end of the Cold War came a new phase in relations with the West and the strategic center of gravity in Turkish foreign policy shifted to the Middle East.  Places such as Iraq and Syria provided new arenas for conflict and nationalist frustration with Washington, mainly because of American support for Kurdish groups. This anti-Western resentment led to the rise of Turkish Eurasianism, which is a Euro-skeptic, anti-American, Russophile movement that includes socialists, nationalists, Kemalists and lately, Erdogan and his AKP.

Today’s Turkey is often described as a country deeply divided between Islamists and secularists. What is often overlooked in this misleading binary representation, however, is the fact that powerful historical symbols like the Sevres treaty still unite Islamists and secularists around the main driver of Turkish politics: nationalism. That Turkish nationalism often takes a prickly anti-Western form should not come as a surprise. While Kemalists are disappointed with a European Union that never rewarded Turkey’s secularization and westernization, Islamists never really aspired to join an entity they always regarded as an anti-Turkish Christian club.

What has remained constant in modern Turkish history, therefore, is a sense of righteous indignation vis a vis the West. The fact that Russia’s anger with the West has similar nationalist roots is not lost on Turkish nationalists. This is why Erdogan and Putin have together formed an “axis of the excluded.” Historically, this nationalist resentment toward the West has fueled Turkish-Russian cooperation. For Washington to ignore it now would be a big mistake.

Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.