Turkey, Relations with

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Through most of the 500 years preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Turkey were enemies. Initially it was an expanding Ottoman Empire that conquered traditionally Russian lands, but then as the Ottoman Empire weakened, it was tsarist Russia's turn to expand at the expense of the Ottomans. Highlighting Russian expansion was the Treaty of Kuchuk Karnadji in 1774, which not only gave Russia the Crimea, but also the right to intervene in the Ottoman Empire to protect orthodox believers. Then, in the nineteenth century, it was Russian military pressure, in cooperation with Britain and France, that helped free Greece from Ottoman control in 1827. While the Russian drive against the Ottoman Empire and Moscow's efforts to control the Turkish Straits failed during the Crimean War (18531853), twenty years later (in 18761877) Russia helped free the Bulgarians from Ottoman control in a war against the Ottoman Empire. During World War I, Russia and the Ottoman Empire were on opposite sides, with Russia's ally Britain promising the straits to Moscow to help keep it in the war.

Following World War I, when the communists seized control of Russia and Kemal Attaturk took power in Turkey, there was a brief warming of relations as Moscow supplied weapons to help Turkey drive out the armies of their common enemies, France and Britain. During World War II, Turkey was ostensibly neutral but appeared sympathetic to the Germans, and at the end of the war Stalin demanded bases in the Turkish Straits and Turkish territory in Transcaucasia. Stalin, however, was unable to implement Russian demands because of U.S. support for Turkey. At the same time, however, by solidifying its control over the Eastern Balkans, Moscow posed a threat to Turkey on its border with Bulgaria.

Throughout the early stages of the Cold War, Turkey was a loyal member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), sending troops to help the United States in the Korean Warmuch to the anger of Moscow. Relations between Moscow and Ankara, however, began to warm in the 1970s (in part because of the U.S.-Turkish conflict over Cyprus) and in the 1980s the two countries negotiated an important natural gas agreement. Still, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations could be seen as correct if not particularly friendly.


Since the end of 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved, Turkish-Russian relations have gone through three stages. The first period, 1991 to 1995, saw a mixture of economic cooperation and geopolitical confrontation; the second period, 1996 to 1998, witnessed an escalation of the geopolitical confrontation, and the third period, 1998 to 2003, following the economic crisis in Russia in August through September 1998, saw the relationship transformed into a far more friendly and cooperative one.

In the first period trade was the primary factor fostering the relationship. By the time of the Russian economic crisis of 1998, trade had risen to $10 billion per year, making Turkey Russia's primary Middle East trading partner and at the same time creating a strong pro-Russian business lobby in Turkey, composed of such companies as Enka, Gama, and Tekfen. Indeed, Turkish companies even got the contract to rebuild the Russian Duma, damaged in the 1993 fighting, and Turkish merchants donated $5 million to Yeltsin's 1996 reelection campaign. Moscow also sold military equipment to Turkey, including helicopters (prohibited for sale to Turkey by NATO) that the Turks could use to suppress the Kurdish uprising in Southeast Turkey.

If economic and military cooperation was evident during this period, so was competition. With the collapse of the USSR, Moscow feared Turkish inroads into Central Asia and Transcaucasia seen by the Russian leadership as the soft underbelly of the Russian Federation. Reinforcing this concern were Turkish efforts to promote the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline route for Caspian Sea oil that would rival Moscow's Baku-Novorossisk route. For its part, Turkey complained about the Russian military buildup in Armenia and Georgia, about the ecological dangers posed by Russian oil tankers going through the straits, and about Russian aid to the Kurdish rebels. On the other hand, once the first Chechen war had erupted in December 1994, Moscow complained about Turkish aid to the Chechen rebels.

Relations between Turkey and Russia sharply deteriorated in 1996 after Yevgeny Primakov became Russia's foreign minister. Primakov sought to create a pro-Russian grouping of states such as Greece, Armenia, Syria, and Iran to outflank Turkey. Furthermore, he supported the sale in January 1997 of a very sophisticated SAM 300-PMU-1 surface-to-air missile system to the Greek portion of Cyprus, something that, if deployed, would threaten the airspace of a large part of southern Turkey. Turkey took the proposed SAM-300 sale seriously and threatened to destroy the missiles if they were deployed. Finally, Moscow stepped up its diplomatic support for the Kurdish rebellion, allowing Kurdish conferences to be held in Moscow.

The only bright spot in Turkish-Russian relations during this period came in December 1997 when then Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin came to Ankara to sign the Blue Stream natural gas agreement, which would increase the amount of natural gas Turkey would import from Russia from 3 billion cubic meters per year in 2000 to 30 billion cubic meters per year in 2010, with 16 billion cubic meters coming from the Blue Stream pipeline under the Black Sea and 14 billion cubic meters coming from enlarged pipelines through the Balkans.

Following the Russian economic crisis of August-September 1998, confrontation gave way to cooperation in the Russian-Turkish relationship. This was due to a number of causes. First, Primakov's efforts to build an alignment of Iran, Armenia, Syria, and Greece against Turkey fell apart as Greece and Turkey had a major rapprochement. Second, the economic crisis weakened Russia so that Primakov, who had become prime minister in September 1998, realized that Russia simply did not have the economic resources to implement the multipolar diplomatic strategy he had sought to promote, at least until Russia had rebuilt its economy. The consequences for Russian-Turkish relations were almost immediate, as Russia began to prize Turkey as an economic partner instead of confronting it as a geopolitical rival. Thus in October 1998, Russia refused to grant diplomatic asylum to Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan. Next, Moscow acquiesced in the deployment of the SAM-300 system on the Greek island of Crete instead of on Cyprus. Then, Moscow indicated it would not oppose the Baku-Tibilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Finally, Moscow stepped up its efforts to find external funding for the Blue Stream natural gas pipeline, which it made the centerpiece of its policy toward Turkey.

This change in policy direction toward Turkey was reinforced after Vladimir Putin became Russia's president in January 2000. In October 2000 Russian prime minister Mikhail Khazyanov came to Ankara and stated that cooperation, not confrontation, was the centerpiece of Russian policy toward Turkey, and in November 2001, at the United Nations, then Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov signed an action plan for Turkish-Russian cooperation in Eurasia.

Tensions remained over Kurdish and Chechen issues, over Russian military deployments in Transcaucasia, and over the passage of Russian oil through the straits. However, by the beginning of 2003, even with an Islamist now heading the Turkish government, Russian-Turkish relations were better than at any time in the last 500 years. Whether this rather halcyon condition will continue is a question only the future can decide.

See also: central asia; foreign trade


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Freedman, Robert O. (2002). "Russian Policy toward the Middle East under Putin." Demokratizatsia 10(4).

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Robert O. Freedman