Turkey and Russia: A Remarkable Rapprochement
Editor’s Note: This is an essay from “Policy Roundtable: The Future of Turkey’s Foreign Policy” from from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.
Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia has arrived amidst the most significant crisis in the history of U.S.-Turkish relations. The purchase has not only spurred a further deterioration of these relations but has also changed the fundamental structural dynamics of the crisis so as to make impossible a return to the status quo ante. Despite the fact that the S-400 deal had been in the works for two years, the delivery of the weapon system this past July appears to have caught American policymakers genuinely by surprise, but it should not have. Moments of close and even enthusiastic cooperation between Ankara and Washington over the past decade and a half have acted as so much dust in the eyes, obscuring the reality that, since the end of the Cold War, U.S.-Turkish relations have been on an overall downward slope. Yet, today, incredulous American policymakers cling to the notion that Turkey is akin to a wayward child who, after throwing an emotionally gratifying tantrum, will have no choice but to come to his senses and resume behaving properly, in this case supporting the American-led global order. The inability of those in Washington to grasp the causes of the crisis has prevented them from comprehending its potential consequences for American foreign policy.
The current crisis is not rooted in the whims of an autocratic, anti-Western, and Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan. To the contrary, the purchase of the S-400s reflects the fulfillment and manifestation of long-standing Turkish foreign policy aspirations and, what is more troubling for Washington, a marked decline in U.S. authority and power around the globe. In 2003, the United States embarked on a project to transform the greater Middle East in its favor. That project has not only failed to secure a more liberal, prosperous, and stable Middle East, it has also alienated Turkey, a lynchpin of America’s Middle East, Eastern European, and Eurasian policies. The larger meaning of the S-400 crisis is that Washington has to reconsider all these policies, not just its relationship with Ankara.
Turkey’s Relationship with Russia
A source of American disbelief about Turkey’s readiness to buy arms from Russia has been the assumption that Turkey and Russia are fated by geography, history, and culture to be adversaries. The idea that the two countries could be partners or even allies seemed unthinkable. It is true that a long-running and bloody rivalry between the Ottoman and Russian empires — the two have fought some 12 wars with each other — left indelible marks on the cultural and historical memories of both. Yet, there have been significant episodes of cooperation. Russia backed Istanbul in 1832–33, when Mehmed Ali of Egypt began advancing on Anatolia. Acting at the behest of the sultan, the tsar deployed Russian soldiers near Istanbul to deter any attack on the Ottoman capital, and thereby helped preserve the empire. The tsar subsequently converted that deployment into a treaty alliance that lasted almost a decade. Even on the eve of the most epic Ottoman-Russian conflict, World War I, the Ottomans established a Turkish-Russian Friendship Committee in March 1914, and in May 1914 pitched the idea of an alliance to the Russians. Historical grievances did not define Ottoman foreign policy toward Russia.
The most relevant instance of Russian-Turkish collaboration came during the Turkish War of National Independence (1919–22), when the Russians provided essential financial and military aid to the Turks. Even before he emerged to claim the mantle of the Turkish National Forces (Kuva-yi Milliye) in May, 1919, Mustafa Kemal engaged representatives of the Bolsheviks to discuss a possible alliance. Upon taking command of the nationalist movement, he promptly followed through to form an alliance with Vladimir Lenin and Bolshevik Russia. Soviet Russia subsequently delivered to Kemal and his forces both arms and funds. Kemal’s outreach to Lenin was a geopolitical masterstroke, but hardly a Machiavellian or even particularly clever one. It was neither a betrayal nor compromise of the Turkish Nationalist program, nor even controversial. Indeed, Kemal’s rivals either made their own overtures to the Bolsheviks or backed his.
The Turkish alliance with Soviet Russia against Britain, France, and the other imperial powers reflected Kemal’s insistence on uncompromised sovereignty and “total independence.” These were the fundamental principles of the nationalists who were determined to erect a self-standing nation-state out of the rubble of an empire. The gold and guns that Soviet Russia supplied enabled the Turks to prevail militarily in Anatolia and defy the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, by which the victors of World War I agreed to partition Anatolia between Britain, France, Italy, Greece, and Armenia and leave a rump Turkish sultanate in the north of Anatolia and a potential Kurdish state in the southeast.
Kemal’s crowning success was the military victories that rendered the Treaty of Sèvres null and void and made the founding of the Turkish Republic possible. The Turkish Republic would likely not exist had the Soviets not backed him. Kemal had no interest in Bolshevism as a form of social organization, and indeed suppressed the nascent Turkish Communist Party. But he did grasp the Soviets’ potential as geopolitical allies. Soviet aid in the form of money, arms, and ammunition was critical to his success in the War of Independence. Indeed, so important was that aid that, in 1928, Kemal personally ordered that the monument to commemorate the victory of his forces also depict the first Soviet ambassador to Turkey, Sergei Aralov. Known as the Republic Monument, it stands today in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The new Turkish Republic and the Soviet Union would enjoy sympathetic relations into the 1930s.
Stalin’s territorial and other demands on Turkey at the end of World War II pushed the Turks decisively toward the West and into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which it joined in 1952. For the next five decades, Turkey would maintain a pro-Western orientation. Yet, even during the Cold War, Turkey found a sometimes sympathetic audience in Moscow. A thaw in relations between Turkey and the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, for example, facilitated the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Greece, in response, withdrew from NATO military command. The prospect of NATO members Greece and Turkey coming to blows undoubtedly thrilled the Politburo.
The End of the Cold War and Turkey’s Reorientation
The collapse of the Soviet Union fundamentally transformed Turkey’s geopolitical situation. The greatest threat to Turkey’s security had dissolved and for the first time in centuries Turkey no longer shared a border with Russia — a number of buffer states now separated the two. In addition, the Russian Federation was one half the size and less capable than its Soviet predecessor.
Ironically, it was the Turks who initially worried that the end of the Cold War would imperil their relationship with the United States. There was a real fear in Ankara in the early 1990s that Washington would abandon Turkey now that it no longer needed a guard on NATO’s southern flank. Gradually, however, the Turks began to recognize that the end of bipolarity offered more, not less, room for diplomatic maneuvering. The deeper currents of Kemalism, namely the suspicion of all great powers and the aspiration for total independence, began to reassert themselves in the shaping of Turkish foreign policy.
One of the more striking examples of this reorientation came in March, 2002, when Gen. Tuncer Kılınç, secretary-general of the Turkish National Security Council, voiced his belief that Turkey should turn from the West and seek allies in Russia and Iran. Kılınç was not speaking as a private citizen, nor was he a loner. A significant portion of Turkey’s officer corps, then the self-appointed guardians of Kemalism, shared his distrust of the West, his belief that Turkey was overly dependent on the West, and his desire to diversify Turkey’s relations beyond the West.
The Kemalist worldview presents contemporary Turkey much like its late Ottoman predecessor — beset by predatory Great Powers intent on weakening it from within and without and ultimately partitioning it. This worldview has been inculcated in Turkish citizens through school, military service, and the media for over seven decades. It is very much hard-wired into Turkish memory. In its cruder manifestations, it is known as “Sèvres Syndrome,” a reference to the abortive Treaty of Sèvres of 1920.
Kemal blocked the Great Powers’ design for Anatolia and preserved Turkish sovereignty by working with Moscow. Ankara’s contemporary pivot to Moscow must be seen in a similar fashion. There is nothing mysterious or inscrutable about it. Sentiments of authoritarian solidarity, the default explanation for many American observers, have no more to do with it than they did with Kemal’s outreach to Lenin. American policies, and the Turkish sensitivities and fears that they arouse, are the primary drivers.
The future of Russo-Turkish ties will depend to a great deal, perhaps decisively, on the future of U.S.-Turkish relations. If the United States and Turkey remain allies — even troubled ones — Ankara is unlikely to deepen its ties with Russia beyond what it is doing now. The same aspirations for independence and uncontested sovereignty that push Turkey to distance itself from the United States will, especially when coupled with a historically informed wariness of Russia, work against Turkey becoming a close and enthusiastic partner of Russia. If, however, U.S.-Turkish relations grow still more confrontational, Ankara may deepen its relationship to Moscow. Moscow will seek to widen and exploit the rift between Washington and, ideally, exploit it so as to disrupt the internal dynamics of NATO.
A Remarkable Rapprochement
The Turco-Russian rapprochement is all the more remarkable for having occurred in the wake of the most severe standoff between the two countries since the Cold War. In November 2015, the Turkish Air Force downed a Russian SU-24 attack aircraft that had violated Turkish airspace while it was flying combat missions against Turkish-supported militias in Syria fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Earlier that year, Moscow had deployed air and ground assets to Syria to bolster Assad’s wobbling regime, which was battling an array of opposition groups, including the Islamic State. The Syrian Civil War was of intense interest to Ankara. Not simply because it drove over two and a half million refugees into Turkey, but even more so because it opened the questions of Syria’s — and by extension Turkey’s — borders and territorial integrity. Like Turkey, Syria became a state after World War I — its borders are hardly time-honored. Indeed, Damascus has never recognized Ankara’s sovereignty over the region of Hatay, ceded by France to Turkey in 1939. Most alarming to Ankara, however, was the prospect that the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, in the form of its Syrian subsidiary, the Democratic Union Party, and its militia, the People’s Protection Units, would consolidate itself on Syrian territory. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party is far and away the Turkish Republic’s number one security threat. It has been battling the Turkish state for close to four decades. During the 1990s, it used Syria as a sanctuary from which to wage insurgency inside Turkey. That insurgency is ongoing and has claimed some 40,000 lives. When the besieged Syrian government withdrew its forces from northeast Syria, Syrian Kurds led by the Democratic Union Party established a de facto autonomous government there. The achievement of autonomy, and perhaps eventually independence in the event of Syria’s break-up, would boost the Kurdistan Worker’s Party by allowing it to demonstrate a capacity to administer territory.
Ankara’s preferred solution to the Syrian Civil War was the overthrow of Assad. When President Barack Obama loudly declared in August 2011 that Assad must step aside, Ankara, like the rest of the world, interpreted this as an American commitment to seeing Assad toppled. Thereupon, Turkey, both in cooperation with, and parallel to, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, began backing Syrian opposition groups in a bid to bring down the Assad regime.
Assad, however, proved tenacious. Obama remained unwilling to intervene directly, even after declaring ominously in 2012 that Damascus had crossed a “red line” when it employed chemical weapons, and after the extensive American covert effort to train and arm Assad opponents proved stillborn. The impotence raised doubts among the Turks about the commitment and staying power of the United States. The metastasis of the so-called Islamic State inside Syria further complicated matters. In 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin moved to bolster the Syrian government by deploying air elements and supporting ground units to Syria, and in September of that year, those forces commenced military operations. Predictions from Washington of Russian overextension and folly proved badly mistaken. Russian air support, coupled with the presence of ground forces from Iran and Hezbollah, turned the tide decisively in favor of the Syrian government. The Russian air force attacked Turkish-backed militias with special gusto and Turkey and Russia thus found themselves engaged in a proxy war.
That proxy war could have flared into a real one when the Turkish F-16 intercepted and shot down the Russian SU-24. The Turks unquestionably acted boldly, and, as it turned out, recklessly. If the Turks’ calculation was that the threat of an armed clash with a NATO member would cause the Russians to pull the throttle back on their operations inside Syria, they misfired entirely. Putin refrained from military escalation but vowed sternly that Turkey would pay a price for what he angrily termed “a stab in the back” from “the accomplices of terrorists.” Turkey’s economic dependence on Russia, particularly in the spheres of energy, tourism, and agriculture, represented a vulnerability. Russia accordingly imposed a range of retaliatory economic measures.
However foolhardy the downing of the Russian jet may have been, Washington’s cool attitude toward Ankara in its wake signaled that Turkey would be on its own in managing Russia. Similarly, the Obama’s administration’s incoherent diffidence in Syria — blending noisy rhetoric against Assad, massive albeit ineffective covert support for the armed opposition, and an abashed but firm refusal to intervene directly — left Turkey in a lurch. Ankara’s support for anti-Assad rebels, including a motley assortment of jihadists, had been no more successful than Washington’s. And with Russia having demonstrated that it was in the driver’s seat in Syria, Ankara calculated that it had better work with Moscow or face a severe and chronic threat from Syria. Less than a year later, in a stunning turnaround, Erdogan formally apologized for shooting down the jet, and even offered compensation to the family of the Russian pilot who died. Turkey endorsed and began participating in the Russian-sponsored negotiations on Syria in Astana, Kazakhstan. The story of how Putin bent Erdogan to his will is remarkable and would make an excellent case study in coercive diplomacy.
Erdogan’s 180-degree turn from being Putin’s defiant opponent to his supplicant did not come without blowback. Just as the Astana talks were to begin in December 2016, an off-duty Turkish police officer gunned down the Russian ambassador to Turkey in a macabre assassination in an art exhibit in Ankara. The provocation, however, failed to shake either Ankara’s or Moscow’s determination to put aside their past differences.
America and the Kurds
If American irresolution in Syria and the failure of its own misadventures there left Turkey feeling exposed and vulnerable to Russian power, America’s collaboration with the People’s Protection Units caused Ankara to conclude that it had been betrayed and thus might now even need Russian power. The 2014 decision of the Obama administration to train and arm the Kurdish militia in Syria created, in the words of then-deputy assistant secretary of state for Southern European and Eastern Mediterranean Affairs, a “ticking time bomb” in U.S.-Turkish relations. The “strategic contradiction” of arming the greatest enemy of a treaty ally created “foreseeable consequences that are now on painful display.” Foremost among those foreseeable consequences was the alienation of Turkey from the United States and the former’s rapprochement with Russia.
Adding insult to injury was the coyness of American officials, who knew that the People’s Protection Units was a subsidiary of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party but attempted to obfuscate this fact by pushing the Syrian Kurdish group to change its name. The commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Gen. Raymond Thomas, acknowledged in public that U.S. officials had asked the group to “rebrand” itself for the sake of camouflaging its status as a Kurdistan Workers’ Party militia. In response, the People’s Protection Units adopted the name, “Syrian Democratic Forces.” The change in name fooled no one, least of all the Turks. Then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter testified in 2016 before the Senate that the People’s Protection Units was tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats openly affirmed in the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community that the People’s Protection Units is the “Syrian militia of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).”
Aside from an overt invasion, there is nothing that could be more inflammatory to the Turkish national security establishment and public alike than collaboration with the Kurdish separatist group and its subsidiaries. It triggers the Sèvres Syndrome. The fundamental goal of the Kemalists in founding the Republic of Turkey was to forge out of the disparate Muslim communities of Anatolia an indivisible nation, unified as a single whole and loyal to the state, and thereby impervious to the fracture and partition that brought down the Ottoman empire. The belief that outside powers are intent on using Kurdish nationalism to subvert and break up Turkey from within has haunted the Turkish Republic from its very beginning. Experience, not delusion, instilled that belief in Kemal and the other founders of the republic. Imperial Russia had been fostering Kurdish revolts inside Ottoman Anatolia in the years directly preceding World War I, and in the years after the war, British officials explored ways to use the Kurds to undermine Kemal and the republic. The Soviet Union supported Kurdish separatism in various ways throughout the Cold War, and Russia did the same in the 1990s. Indeed, such support was a major factor cementing U.S.-Turkish relations during those years. The vast majority of Turks hold the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the People’s Protection Units responsible for countless suicide bombings and terror campaigns inside Turkey. Once America began collaborating with Kurdish separatists, Turkish alienation from America was inevitable.
The recent withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria and the cessation of American support for the People’s Protection Units has removed a major point of contention between Washington and Ankara. Yet, the precipitous nature of the withdrawal and Washington’s harsh criticism of the ensuing Turkish operation and its threats of economic warfare and sanctions have generated their own problems. Although President Donald Trump had repeatedly declared his intent to withdraw from Syria, his own staff stubbornly refused to prepare for it. As one analyst warned in April of 2018, “It is time for his [Trump’s] national security staff to listen to him and to devise a sequential drawdown policy that fits with the spirit of the president’s demands, but takes deliberate and uncomfortable steps to protect U.S. interests.” As predicted, the failure to do that has led to a debacle. Although U.S. forces were not overrun or formally humiliated, the evident lack of planning in their withdrawal has revealed disorder and disorientation in American policy. Trump’s subsequent declaration that he is “fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path,” has reinforced the appearance of confusion while simultaneously offending Turks across the board and lending Erdogan cover against criticism that he has mismanaged the struggling Turkish economy.
The American pullout was surely a disappointment to the People’s Protection Units, but it should not have been a surprise. Predictably, the Kurdish militia responded to the Turkish invasion by choosing to turn to the Syrian government, which, with Russian backing, can now easily deter the Turkish army. The status of the Syrian Kurdish group and the question of Kurdish autonomy inside Syria remains to be negotiated. Although not a disaster for the People’s Protection Units, this turn of events has certainly disrupted the goal of laying the groundwork for a sovereign state. While Turkey’s operation in northern Syria has likely fulfilled its primary objective, the damage it has done to relations with the United States leaves Ankara vulnerable to pressure from Moscow, given Russia’s position inside Syria and its other sources of leverage over Turkey.
American Support for Fethullah Gülen
Although it is virtually impossible to think of a more inflammatory act than working with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, America’s curious sympathy for the guru-like Turkish religious figure, Fethullah Gülen, would make an excellent candidate. Gülen, who has a long and demonstrated track record of attempting to subvert the Turkish Republic by helping his followers infiltrate Turkish bureaucracies, in particular, the armed services and police, has been residing in the United States since fleeing arrest in Turkey in 1999. Although in 2008 the Department of Homeland Security rejected Gülen’s application for residence as duplicitous, an appeal on Gülen’s behalf led by American diplomatic and intelligence officials resulted in Gülen being permitted to reside in the United States. Despite the fact that Gülen’s followers in America were subsequently revealed to be engaged in systematic fraud of American taxpayers in multiple states, as well as in a number of far more serious illegal efforts inside Turkey, as attested by credible government critics and supporters alike, Gülen continued not just to reside in the country, but even to retain access to prime media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post.
There is a great deal that is unknown about the failed coup of July 2016. Turkey’s own government could have done — and could still do — a better job providing a recounting of events. But there can be no doubt that the putschists were deadly serious about overthrowing Erdogan and his government. The violence, which resulted in the deaths of over 300 people, vastly exceeded that of earlier coups and attempted coups in Turkey. Although the precise role that Gülen played is unknown, the contention that he was not involved is implausible. Incontrovertible evidence exists that demonstrates that some of Gülen’s longest serving and closest disciples played leading operational roles in the coup. American and European support for the target of the coup, the Turkish government, was noticeably tepid. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt lamented the lack of support, and then warned that it would be “a disgrace for Europe” if Putin became the first leader to meet with Erdogan after the coup. This is exactly what happened when Putin received Erdogan in St. Petersburg on Aug. 9, 2016, underscoring the message that Russia was more reliable than the United States or any Western European state.
Providing residency to Gülen is deeply provocative to the Turkish public as a whole, not just to Erdogan’s government. Gülen is one of the most reviled men in Turkey. Opposition to him spans the spectrum of Turkish opinion. Indeed, criticism of Gülen and U.S. support for him is more deeply rooted in Erdogan’s secularist critics than his followers. As is the case with its relationship with the People’s Protection Units, America’s dalliance with Gülen has increased Turkish wariness of the United States in all corners of the country. As Ambassador James Jeffrey has remarked, Gülen’s presence in America is “embarrassing.” Given the facts above, it is no surprise that over 80 percent of Turks view the United States as a threat.
The first shipment of S-400 missiles arrived in Turkey this July, on the three-year anniversary of the failed coup. The timing was deliberate, and celebratory media coverage further reinforced the symbolic importance. Erdogan declared the purchase “the most significant agreement in our history,” a hyperbolic statement to be sure, but not a meaningless one. In fact, the meaning is quite clear: The Republic of Turkey, which for decades had been a steadfast, if sometimes disgruntled, ally of the United States and the West more generally, now prefers to distance itself from the West for the sake of its own security. Although bold and risky, the purchase of the S-400 and the broader turn to Russia cannot be ascribed primarily to Erdogan’s supposed erraticism, still less to his Islamist orientation or any ideology aside from mainstream Turkish nationalism. The turn to Russia is in keeping with fundamental tenets of the foreign policy laid down by Mustafa Kemal, and, as argued above, in fact has its precedent in Kemal’s personal diplomacy.
And just as Kemal turned to Russia to seek support against Western, particularly British, threats, so today the dangers that Ankara perceives coming from the United States drive what is, on the one hand, a stunning rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow and, on the other, a rebuke to Washington. That the Turks have done their share of damage to the U.S.-Turkish relationship goes without saying, and the dangers that they perceive from America are exaggerated. Moreover, Erdogan’s chronic rancor toward Europe has left Turkey further isolated, and thus vulnerable to Russian power. But the inability, or unwillingness, of American policymakers to craft policies that take into account the fundamental security concerns and sensitivities of a country that has, for decades, been a key partner of the United States in the Middle East, the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and Eurasia must be central to any explanation of the current turn in Turkish-Russian relations. The mutual willingness of Washington and Ankara to rebuild their ties will be the key determinant of the future of the Turkish-Russian relationship. Turkey, Russia, and even the United States in the coming years will all be vulnerable to domestic turbulence and each inevitably will encounter crises in their foreign relations. Many things can change. As this piece goes to press and U.S.-Turkish relations continue to deteriorate, however, one can only expect that the trajectory of Turkish-Russian relations will continue in a positive direction.
Michael A. Reynolds is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies and Director of the Program in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies in Princeton University. He is the author of Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918 (Cambridge, 2011), a recipient of the American Historical Assocation’s George Louis Beer Prize.