June 14, 2019
The last episode of the S400 missiles/F35 fighters controversy has taken Turkey-US relations to unprecedented lows. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan sent a letter to his Turkish counterpart. For some, this was an “ultimatum”. Ankara’s earlier proposal to Washington was forming a “working group”. It now says the language of the letter is incompatible with the spirit of alliance between two NATO members. The huge gap between the “ultimatum” and the “working group proposal” is worrisome to say the least. In the meantime, Russia is making one announcement after the other saying the S400s will be delivered before the end of July. Only a week before the rerun of the Istanbul municipal election Turkish media keeps condemning the “ultimatum”. Anti-Americanism is on the rise.
Perhaps, this is a good time to go beyond the current controversy and look at what is at stake beyond missiles and fighter aircraft.
Ottoman history is generally divided into three periods:
- the period of foundation and expansion during which the Anatolian principality turned into a major world power;
- the period of stagnation; and,
- the period of decline at end of which the Ottoman state was referred to as “the sick man of Europe” before its downfall.
The Treaty of Karlowitz signed between the Holy League (Austria, Poland, Venice, and Russia) and the Ottoman Empire on January 26, 1699 marked the beginning of the period of decline since this was Ottomans’ first major loss of territory in Europe. As Ottoman power continued to wane, Russia launched internal reforms under Peter the Great and started to rise as a major power.
For the next two centuries, Russian policy towards the Ottoman Empire focused on Istanbul and the Straits, their control/conquest for unrestricted access to the Mediterranean. Gradually, Russia’s policy took a Pan-Slavist dimension, the union of Slavic peoples under Russia’s leadership. The two countries had fought wars in the past and were to fight many in the future.
The war of 1806-1812 was one of them. Before a peace treaty was signed, Napoleon launched his invasion of Russia. As Russia waited anxiously for a peace treaty with the Ottomans, the commander of the Army of the Danube Chichagov floated a plan to advance on Istanbul, incite insurrection among the Sultan’s Christian subjects, and resurrect a great Byzantino-Slav Empire. After hearing that the Turks had agreed to peace, Tsar Alexander wrote to Chichagov: “Let us adjourn our projects aimed at the Porte and employ all our forces against the great enemy whom we are faced.” (1)
During the First World War, under the Sazonov-Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1919, England and France agreed to leave Istanbul and the Straits to Russia in case they won the war. By that time the demise of the Ottoman Empire was a foregone conclusion. European powers were only after territorial spoils of the war.
In March 1917, Pavel Milyukov, who briefly served as foreign minister in Prince Lvov’s provisional government following the abdication of Tsar Nichola II, held a press conference outlining Russia’s war aims.
“With the United States poised enter the war on Wilsonian principles, Milyukov took pains to justify Russia’s territorial claims in liberal-nationalist terms. Thus he proposed that Russia would conquer Habsburg territory so as to create an independent Czechoslovak state’ and bring about the union of Ukrainian people on the side of the Austrian regions with the population of our own Ukrainian regions’. ‘The question of Constantinople and the Straits,’ Milyukov stated forthrightly (though dubiously),
“ ‘cannot be considered as involving the interests of the Turkish nation, because the Turkish nation, in spite of five hundred years’ domination, has not spread its roots deeply… The Turks remain an alien element there, resting exclusively on the right of the conqueror, the right of the strongest. The transfer of the Straits to us would in no way contradict the principles advanced by Woodrow Wilson…’ ” (2)
The Bolshevik Revolution and Turkey’s War of Independence put those ambitions to rest, but only for a while.
In 1936, the Montreux Convention restored Turkey’s full sovereignty over the Straits. The USSR was among the signatories. Soon, however, Moscow started asking for its revision. In 1945, it told Ankara that the Straits were primarily a concern for the littoral states and should be defended by Turkey and Russia together. Turkey resisted.
On March 12, 1947, President Truman urged a joint session of Congress to support his calls for U.S. financial and military aid to Greece and Turkey in an effort to protect the two countries from Soviet domination. The Congress approved.
In 1952, the two countries joined NATO.
A year later the USSR formally informed Ankara that it had no territorial claims on Turkey.
As these few examples from the annals of history show – and there are others – getting hold of Istanbul and the Straits remained a priority of Russia’s foreign and security policy for a very long time.
This, needless to say, is no longer the case. However, Russia’s current policy is driving as many wedges as possible between Turkey and the West, primarily the US. As a matter of fact, this is also Russia’s policy towards Europe. If the big prize of the past was Istanbul and the Straits, today’s big prize is a rift in Turkey’s relations with the West and NATO. And unfortunately, these are times of increased competition between major powers.
There is no reason for Turkey not to improve and diversify its cooperation with Russia on a sound, mutually advantageous basis. Nonetheless, we have to bear in mind that Russia, understandably, has its own long-term perspective of our cooperation. This is why Moscow is trying to walk a fine line in Syria balancing its support for the Assad regime with its investment in the future of its relationship with Turkey.
Until our misguided intervention in Syria, Turkey was on the right track. The intervention, however, has totally changed the picture. Today we are home to four million Syrian refuges and across the border are thousands and thousands of terrorists in Idlib. Moreover, we are not exactly on the same page with Russia and Iran on Syria’s future and we are in a confrontation with the US in northern Syria and beyond. There is no easy way of getting out of the corner we blindly put ourselves in. But at least,
- we need to remember that relations of alliance with Washington and excellent relations with Moscow are not alternatives but pillars which support our foreign and security policy;
- we need to study in depth the likely strategic consequences of a rift with the West and putting too many if not all of our eggs in the Russian basket;
- we need to weigh with cool-headedness, realism and historical awareness how the West may see and react to what could be perceived as a shift of axis by Turkey; and,
- both Ankara and Washington need to make a genuine effort with a long-term perspective to avoid being losers in the current controversy.
Finally, there is a lesson for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party: a foreign policy mistake is a thousand times more difficult and costly to redress than an internal policy failure.
(1) Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon, p. 182-183.
(2) Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution, A New History, p. 140-141.