Ukraine War: Turkey Is the Pivot Point Between Russia and the US – History Shows Us Why

Yves here. I’m running this post as a reader critical thinking exercise. Yours truly is far from expert on the subject of Türkiye or Turkey as the author of this article prefers. However, yours truly has been paying attention of late and it seems that this piece engages in quite a few omissions and oversimplifications, generally of the US backing/Russia non-favoring sort. For instance, there’s nary an acknowledgement of the US trying to oust Assad save the disingenuous depiction of US as acting to support the Kurds, a group we’ve consistently exploited. It fails to mention that Erdogan saw the US as backing a 2016 coup attempt against him.

Similarly, it contains this unsubstantiated Big Claim:

Turkey-Russia relations today are not built on trust, mutual sympathy, or even mutual interest; rather, they rest on the acknowledgement that Russia, in particular, could do tremendous damage to Turkey if it wished.

In keeping, it omits that a big, if not the big, reason for Erdogan’s faltering popularity is the poor health of Türkiye’s economy and that Russia and Türkiye have entered into a wide-ranging series of deals, including Turkish banks taking the Russian Mir card to promote tourism (Russia and Türkiye anticipate having a Western sanctions work-around in place by 2023), Russia turning to Türkiye for import substitution of many non-essential goods it once procured from Europe, such as buttons, and recently, Erdogan’s enthusiastic embrace of Putin’s proposal to locate a regional oil hub in Türkiye.

By Georgios Giannakopoulos, Visiting Research Fellow, Centre for Hellenic Studies, King’s College London/ Lecturer in Modern History, City, University of London. Originally published at The Conversation

The war in Ukraine has put Turkey into the geopolitical spotlight. One of Nato’s earliest member states, with a special relationship with Russia, Turkey is attempting to balance its competing interests, as well as increasing its own influence.

Meanwhile, Turkey is in the middle of launching a military operation into Syria which challenges its relationship with Russia and the US, as well as causing the UN to worry about “military escalation”. In late October Turkey launched an operation targeting Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq and is currently threatening a land invasion into the Kurdish regions of Syria. Russia is the Syrian government’s main ally, and the US is backing the Kurds in northern Syria.

Both Russia and the US, who are on opposing sides in the ongoing Syrian conflict, responded by urging caution. According to recent reports, Russian officials are actively involved in brokering a deal between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish fighters. Meanwhile, the US remains concerned about a possible Turkish ground operation hampering its anti ISIS operations in Syria.

What can Turkey’s history of being a balancing point between western powers and Russia tell us about its present role?

Over the past 100 years Turkish leaders have pivoted between a relationship with the west and one with Russia, to win or extend economic, geopolitical or social power. In 2022, with the Ukraine war close to his borders, Turkish president Recep Erdogan has positioned himself as the powerbroker and peacemaker between the two sides in the Ukraine war. History shows us why Turkey is well positioned to do that.

Brotherhood and Friendship

In March 1921 the Turkish nationalists and the Russian Bolsheviks signed a treaty of “brotherhood and friendship” in Moscow. The preamble of the treaty affirmed that the Soviets and Turkish nationalist forces headed by the soon-to-be Turkish president Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk and Russian leader Lenin stood in solidarity against the forces of western imperialism.

The treaty was signed while the Greek-Turkish war in Anatolia and the Russian civil war were still raging. Lenin proclaimed that “Turkey herself resisted plunder by the imperialist governments with such vigour that even the strongest of them have had to keep their hands off her”. Atatürk similarly saw the alliance as a pact against western imperialism. This, as historian Sam Hirst has convincingly argued, was part of a wider “transnational anti-imperialist moment” and marked Soviet Russia’s commitment to supporting global anti-colonial struggles. In return, Turkish nationalists received material support in their struggle for national independence from the new Russian government.

Following the establishment of the independent Turkish state in 1923, the Russo-Turkish relations shifted gears. Gone were the references to global anti-colonial struggles. Their dynamic became more pragmatic and businesslike addressing mostly matters of trade and commerce within a framework of mutual discontent with the western liberal international order.

In the aftermath of the second world war, Russia’s demands over territory and the status of the internationally significant Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits pushed Turkey towards joining the newly formed Nato. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin famously explained the Russian demands for a military base in the Dardanelles as a question of protecting Russian security and not relying on a weak and “unfriendly” state (Turkey). There was talk of war over the straits, which control passage between the Aegean and the Mediterranean seas, but in the end Russia accepted the status quo. And then came Stalin’s end. But the picture did not change much in the coming decades. Turkey, alongside Greece, had by now become one of the frontiers of the cold war. This time it looked towards the US for an alliance.

By the 1990s, the end of the cold war heralded a new era of mobility and diplomatic ties, despite points of contention with Russia around Turkey’s policy towards the new “Turkic” states emerging from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in the Caucasus and central Asia. Between 1992 and 1996 Russian and Turkish officials signed 15 bilateral agreements and protocols. The Black Sea region became a locus of bilateral economic cooperation. Officials expected natural gas and oil to become for the region what coal and steel had been for western Europe: forces of economic unity and paragons of regional peace and security.

Kurdish Issues

In the dawn of the new millennium a war in Iraq and the emergence of the Iraqi Kurds as a regional force further complicated Turkey’s relationship with the US who had supported the Kurds against Saddam Hussein. In contrast, the partnership with Russia deepened through trade, energy and regional security and cooperation. Russia became one of the key pillars in the reorientation of Turkish policy away from the failed promises of integration into the European Union, towards Asia and the Middle East. Putin and Erdogan have both capitalised on a feeling of resentment against the west and are prone to weaponizing anti-western sentiments. Crucially, their autocratic style of governance limits foreign policy decision making to a small clique of loyalists.

But the transformation of Syria into a region of proxy wars on Turkey’s borders, with a sizeable Kurdish population seeking autonomy and statehood, created new tensions. There was also a massive wave of refugees fleeing the war into Turkey. And when in 2015 Turkish forces downed a Russian plane flying over the Turkish airspace carrying military personnel to Syria the Russo-Turkish relations came to a standstill. Russia responded swiftly with a series of economic measures targeting specific sectors of its second largest trade partner.

World Bank, CC BY-ND

As the above chart shows the crisis proved to be short, largely due to Turkey’s efforts to mitigate its effects and seek an understanding with Russia. This did not prevent President Erdogan from condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Scholars have aptly summed up the recent dynamic of Russo-Turkish relations as:

Turkey-Russia relations today are not built on trust, mutual sympathy, or even mutual interest; rather, they rest on the acknowledgement that Russia, in particular, could do tremendous damage to Turkey if it wished.

Today, Erdogan is trying to pull off a difficult balancing act: to fulfil Turkey’s Nato obligations while maintaining its alliance with Russia. He also is positioning himself as the only leader who can do diplomatic deals and establish back channels between the Russians and the Americans. The stakes are high and the Turkish presidential elections are looming in June 2023. Erdogan is not doing particularly well in the polls, and may be counting on national security issues and growing his international influence to boost his popularity as he heads towards the ballot box

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  1. vao

    The picture is even more complex when we include those other theatres where Russia, Turkey and the USA/NATO/EU are playing a role, sometimes contradicting an opposition in one place by a cooperation in another:

    1) Armenia/Azerbaijan. Turkey supports Azerbaijan, while the USA tend to support Armenia, with Russia has defense treaty with Armenia, but tryes to appease the conflict.

    2) Iran. Turkey and Iran have some common interests — e.g. in keeping the Kurds down, fighting drug traffic, and cooperating on energy routes —
    with Iran of course allied with Russia and enemy of the USA/NATO — with whom Turkey is allied.

    3) Georgia. The battlefield between Russia and a NATO ally (or would-be) is calm for now, but Turkey also has its interests (including some irredentist tendencies towards some Georgian territories).

    4) Libya. Russia and Turkey support opposing forces in the mess created by the NATO/EU — and in which the USA/NATO/EU still believe to be playing a determinant role.

    So the intrication level of relations between Turkey, Russia and the USA go well beyond the already complicated Syria and Ukraine matters; there does not seem to be any straightforward strategy for Turkey to follow, but systematic alignment with the policies of the USA — or of Russia — is simply not in the cards.

    1. Jams O'Donnell

      Another little matter is Turkeys growing desire to join the SCO and BRICS. In order to do so (at least in the case of the former), Turkey would have to leave NATO. This seems to be a more likely prospect as time passes, and the US promotes policies which are disadvantageous to Turkey, while Turkey grows closer to Russia in various small ways. When the Ukraine debacle is resolved (inevitably mostly as Russia desires), then Turkey will become more likely to take this step to leave the West’s foundation organisation. Should it do so, then the possibility arises that a) NATO will more or less collapse (Turkey has by far the largest land force in NATO), b) Germany will be encouraged to follow in these same steps, and c) if Germany goes, ~France is likely to follow. ‘Collapse of stout party’.

  2. James E Keenan

    “There was talk of war over the straits, which control passage between the Aegean and the Mediterranean seas …”

    Shouldn’t that be “between the Black and Mediterranean seas”?

    1. Polar Socialist

      In this context, yes.

      Oddly enough, in the article this article links to, the only person talking about forcefully taking the control of the straits is Sir Winston as a punishment for Turkey for sitting on the fence the whole war. The Soviets were working on a bipartite agreement with Turkey about them together guaranteeing the passage for all Black Sea parties, but the anglosphere – thus being left outside – was strongly against this.

      And even then, Soviet Union was more adamant about Turkey returning some Georgian and Armenian provinces than the access to the Mediterranean. That was the focus on the bipartite deal from the Soviet side that they were not willing to compromise on.

      1. Revenant

        Should it? The Montreux Convention pre-dates Stalin. The Dardanelles lie west (?) of the Straits of Bosphorus. Perhaps the point was that once through the Bosphorus by treaty right, Russia still risked being bottled up in the Aegean / Sea of Marmaris?

        Frankly who knows if an article is not precise what was intended!

  3. Stephen

    I think the reality is that Turkey pursues her national interests, or at least what she perceives them to be. Sometimes that means she works with Russia, other times not. No need for them to be playground best friends at all times in the way that the UK (for example) has completely allowed its national interest to be seen as synonymous with pleasing the US.

    Building on this, the author seems to think that an interest based independent foreign policy of this type is a weakness but it is probably a strength. He needs to relook at Palmerston’s comment that a great power (he was referring to Britain) has no perpetual allies but does have eternal interests and it is those that matter.

    So I think the article is conceptually flawed as well as leaving out key facts of the type that Yves refers to. I have not checked the authors affiliations beyond Kings College but they may be interesting too.

    1. David

      Yes, well, the first thing I noticed was that this is a (cough) Greek author at the Centre for (cough) Hellenic Studies, which I see gets its funding in part from “leading Greek and Cypriot charitable foundations, including A.G. Leventis, Stavros Niarchos and Alexander S. Onassis.” Its mission is to promote “knowledge and understanding of Greek history, language, and culture of all periods, and in particular the fostering of research with a comparative focus, whether cross-cultural or exploring the diachronic spectrum of Hellenism itself.”

      Now far be it from me to suggest, etc. etc. but given what I’ve observed of Greeks and Turks taking bites out of each other over the years, you have to wonder.

      1. Jay

        You’re correct. More forcefully, it’s meaningless junk. Erdogan has a vast amount to gain from Putin. Eg basf has already relocated a good amount of manufacturing to Turkey from Germany because of the continued availability of Russian pipeline gas.

      2. Adrian D.

        Kings have plenty of contracts with the UK Gov too – mostly based in their ‘Department of War Studies’, but I’m sure it all sloshes around too.

        They’re the institution who gave Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat much of his undue credibility with a similar Research Associate position. On that basis alone I now take anything from anyone there with more than a pinch of salt.

      3. Revenant

        City University is also famously pro-Hellenic. It has a big maritime school, including a lot of shipping services specialities (insurance, law etc) and big donors. Not spook-adjavent like Kings AFAIK but, given the name and location, very much close to Money.

        Having said that, writing Turkey is scared of Russia is hardly misdirection. It is probably true if a bit jejune to point it out! And I’ll bet Greece is too….

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      I think Turkey’s power status is misunderstood. Erdogan is irrelevant. Turkey has a larger population and a larger youth population than Germany while educating the 30 and under population at the same rate as Germany. Even before Erdogan when Ankara was working on meeting EU requirements, Berlin made it no secret they wouldn’t let Turkey in. It would weaken Berlin’s standing overnight.

      Unlike the UK, modern Turkey is in a better location and isn’t the result of a tribute point from colonial empires. The US probably can’t help but see it as a regional competitor. If it wasn’t in NATO, Turkey might be public enemy number 1.

      A “pro-US” government or administration will have the same problem, the US doesn’t tolerate allies or junior partners.

  4. KD

    The biggest question is not Turkey and Russia, but whether Erdogan survives as the leader of Turkey. Turkey is experiencing significant and escalating inflation (and working with Russia is related to propping up the currency and keeping things from completely overheating). Erdogan is not necessarily doing well in the polls. There are at least two scenarios here: i.) Erdogan wins in free and fair elections, ii.) Erdogan “wins” in “free and fair” elections.

    Given how ideological the EU and the US is about “democracy”, if Erdogan holds onto power under questionable election tactics, it is possible he will face huge diplomatic push-back, and he would have to more heavily align with Russia. In fact, it is possible even if he wins in a fair election, the US and EU types will push misinformation claiming the election was rigged to force him out anyway. [This discussion of polling itself could be misinformation designed to prim things.]

    On the other hand, if he wins and it appears that the election was legit and the West doesn’t attempt to challenge the result, he then has more diplomatic options. However, until he overcomes the election, he probably needs to keep all his options open.

    Neglected is what happens if he loses, and that depends on who he loses to, and how closely aligned they are with the West or Russia. From the standpoint of RF, I would imagine they would not want to get overcommitted because Erdogan could be gone next year, and they might see a hostile executive take his place, and it would make it harder for them if they had all their eggs in one basket.

    I in the past have asked for more coverage of Turkey because it probably is going to play the role of brokering some kind of resolution of the Ukraine crisis at some point. As an aside, I think the article overstates the case that Turkey is afraid of RF (probably a dig on Erdogan to imply he is a coward, along the lines of the homophobic stuff MSM likes to run about Putin and Trump) and there are a lot of economic and political benefits to (furthering) ties with Russia. Denying this may be an attempt to make the argument that Erdogan is going against Turkey’s national interest because he is “scared” of Putin, even though he is in NATO and has an Article V guarantee.

    Issues in Syria are probably something Russia and Turkey can deal with (but also something Russia can seriously muck up for the Turks if they want). The Kurds are hostile to both the Turks and the Assad regime, and are the American proxy. (The other interesting player in this is Israel, and their geopolitical interests, and whether they are being served or harmed by the Ukraine conflict. David Goldman from all evidence appears to be a rabid Zionist and has been very critical of the Ukraine involvement because he sees it as in the long-term dangerous to Israel’s security likely due to the blowback in Syria and Iran. . . not that anyone in the US foreign policy establishment obviously cares about Israeli security.)

    1. Gus Wolfcrow

      Given US/NATO attitudes overall and Greek attitudes toward Turkey, there probably is some intent to take shots at Erdogan there. But there’s also probably a recognition on both Turkey’s and Russia’s part that they have a centuries-long and mixed history, often in conflict. Both likely know that Turkey once ruled the southern coast of today’s Ukraine and much of the Caucasus until Russia took it from them, and Russia has had an interest in the Straits for a very long time. US foreign policy routinely ignores longer-term history, and that makes it very hard for our leaders to capture the dynamics in play in much of the world, creating a lot of quagmires we struggle to extricate ourselves from.

      1. Jay

        > But there’s also probably a recognition on both Turkey’s and Russia’s part that they have a centuries-long and mixed history, often in conflict.

        This is nonsense. Why? Because you could say it about any pair of interacting countries in the world, eg the UK and USA or France and Germany. But if you focussed on the burning of Washington or the Alsace Loraine dispute and ignored everything else you’d get a very warped view of their relationships…

        1. nippersdad

          I have often been amazed at how conversant Eastern cultures are with their long histories even as populations such as ours would be stymied at a request to describe the war of 1812; how many people here even know that the British burned Washington? Had you asked all of those “Founders” worshippers on the right, who were calling the French “Cheese eating surrender monkeys” because of Iraq, who our greatest ally was in the Revolutionary war, would they have even known about the French connections? Would they have cared?

          Stephen, above, mentions Palmerston’s quote about great powers having no eternal friends, only interests. That is something that has been internalized here, and lies at the root of such phenomena as all of those Nazis in Ukraine suddenly disappearing on February 22, 2022.

          Both the Turks and the Russians fought the Mongols, and you can rest assured that they can cite chapter and verse of those wars because even their popular culture features long television shows, like Ertegrul*, to keep them fresh. These peoples have long memories, and it would be a mistake to underrate that fact.


          1. Redolent

            “These people have long memories…”

            Contrast that with the many ‘upstanding’ women/men currently in the fold of the ‘Educational Solutions’ of the Heritage Foundation’s revisionist history…which I place in
            juxtaposition to ‘The Big Short’…
            in the continuum of America’s global policies.

    2. Will

      Call me a cynic, but I’m thinking no matter how Erdogan holds on to power, there will be “huge diplomatic push-back” from the defenders of democracy if he doesn’t fall into line. Then again, a sane person would tread carefully for fear of pushing him into the arms of Russia so there’s probably nothing to worry about.

    3. hk

      I don’t think it’d matter much to Western democracy mongers how Erdogan wins: if he wins, it would be “free and fair,” not free and fair, because he won, much the way 2016 and 2020 elections were rigged depending on whom you ask.

      Elections are like fiat currency: if you don’t trust them, they are worth nothing.

    4. Jams O'Donnell

      “Not that anyone in the US foreign policy establishment obviously cares about Israeli security”

      – Surely you jest? US policy in the ‘Middle East’ is almost entirely based around Israels wishes (and oil). Or was that sarcasm? If so, my bad.

      1. KD

        Guilty as charged. However, I am amazed at so many pro-Zionist Neo-Cons braying for this Ukraine War when as Goldman suggests, it could have very bad consequences for Israel’s security in the long-term. On the other hand, the current crop of Neo-Cons don’t exactly play 4 dimensional chess.

  5. Skip Intro

    The article and disclaimer also neglect the recent terrorist attack in Turkey, which they seemingly blamed on the US, refusing condolences. Turkey has been snubbed by the EU for ages, and provocations like refusing them arms or arming Greece can only push them even farther towards Russia.

    1. elkern

      That map also has two bodies of water labeled “Adriatic Sea”, one of which is known more widely as the “Black Sea”. Where did they get a map that bad???

      Perhaps even worse, the author says that the Bosporus Straits “control passage between the Aegean and the Mediterranean seas”.

      Accurate geography would make this piece a little more credible, maybe.

  6. Kulaber

    I also think that there are flaws in the article, if it is not dishonest. The shooting of the Russian air fighter and killing of the pilot, the military coup (attempt) and the murder of Russian diplomat by a police officer in Ankara were all claimed to be organized by Fettullah Gulen organization. Some believe that Erdogan was informed by the Russian intel about the preperations for the coup and even if this is not true, it is obvious that Russians prefer to see Erdogan as president instead of another one from the opposition.
    Gulen is in Pennsylvania, USA and many in the organization escaped to EU countries following the attempt, none of them were returned to Turkiye. Indeed majority of the public in Turkiye have distrust to USA and EU if not against and do not see the Western Club as allies.
    The public has distrust to Russians too but this is due to decades of anti-communist propaganda during the Soviet times. Since Turkiye is a NATO member and the media outlet shaped mainly by the same organizations, anti-Russian/Putin propaganda continued following collapse of Soviet Union to date.
    The opposition parties have formed an alliance in which the ex Prime Minister Davutoglu and ex Minister of Finance Babacan participate with their new parties. Davutoglu had taken the responsibility of the shooting of the Russian fighter when he was the Prime Minister. This alliance of the opposition takes Support from US and EU. We’ll all see if this counts positive for them in the public eye.
    I agree that Turkiye-Russia relations today are not built on trust, mutual sympathy but I definitely believe that they are based on mutual benefit. In regards to tremendous damage to Turkey, it may be correct but same can be said for US-Turkiye or EU-Turkiye or as we start to see nowadays, for Russia-EU relations too and i do not think it would be one way, both sides would take wounds. In the end, although there are conflicts between Turkiye and Russia, the benefits seem to outweigh the conflicts. Same can not be said for US-Turkiye or EU-Turkiye relations.
    It can not be said that politicians usually work for the long-term interest of their country except a few, especially the opposite since 2000’s. How it goes with the situation in Ukraine will have huge impacts on further political shaping.

  7. KerSer

    Big Claim indeed. I can only wonder why the author of this piece spent an entire article explaining Turkey’s growing ambitions and aspirations of an independent foreign policy, only to change his mind at the end and ascribe Turkey’s cozying up to Russia to Russia’s ability to hurt Turkey. In reality, Turkey’s strategy is to play each side off against the other, offering herself to the highest bidder on each occasion, recognizing the leverage her geographical position renders her gives her. As commenter Stephen noted above, “Turkey pursues her national interests, or at least what she perceives them to be”.

    However, it should be mentioned that this strategy does not come without risks (obviously: no opportunity without risk!). Siding with each side, paradoxically, gives each side leverage to do damage to Turkey may they so feel the need to. For example, the upgrade of Turkey’s F-16 fleet depends on Congress giving the go, something it has been reluctant to do lately. See also Turkey’s getting kicked out of the F-35 program (a blessing in disguise according to some, although I’m in no position to judge). Exposure to Russia via the S-400 and nuclear programs likewise gives Russia leverage over Turkey there. It should also be mentioned that the straits issue is not as simple as it seems. I’m not so sure that Russia would be enthusiastic over Turkey extending its control over not only the straits, but also the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean.

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