Why do Russia and Turkey distrust and despise each other?

Russian Cossack troops taking over the Turkish fortress of Khadjibey
Russian Cossack troops taking over the Turkish fortress of Khadjibey

If you’re watching the news and paying attention to events in the Middle East with it’s seemingly endless wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and of course the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you’ve probably figured out that people there just can’t seem to get along. Recently though two actors in the region, Russia and Turkey, have been in the news a lot, and not for their mutual admiration of each other.

So what gives? Why do Russia and Turkey seemingly despise each other?

The mutual animosity between these two former imperial heavyweights goes back centuries. However, the most recent bout of tension between the two is due to the Turks shooting down of a Russian military plane. The story from Ankara is that the Russian plane violated Turkish airspace, despite being given several warnings. The Turks even released a muffled recording of their message, though the Russians state that there was no such warning, nor did they cross over into Turkish airspace. Evidence though seems to point to Turkey’s version of the story. In fact, the Turks claim that the Russians violated their airspace again just a couple of days ago. 1

Russian and Turkish troops fighting Shipka Pass
Russian and Turkish troops fighting Shipka Pass

But aren’t the Russian and Turkish borders quite far from one another? By looking on a map, the answer is a definite yes, especially from the part of southern Turkey where these airspace violations are allegedly occurring.

So, why would Russian military aircraft be flying over or near southern Turkey anyway? The reason is due to the Russian military supporting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, a man who the Turkish government (and much of the world) loathes. Assad however is a close ally of Russia and even more so Iran. In fact, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Iranian government have teamed up and made it abundantly clear that they will not allow the Assad regime to fall to those whom they label as “terrorists.” Russia now has temporary military bases in Syria, with the Iranians orchestrating much of the ground support and logistics for Assad’s forces and allies.

However, conflict between Russia and Turkey is nothing new. In fact, their animosity for one another goes back several hundreds of years, at least to the 16th century during the reigns of the Czars (Russian Emperors) and the Turkish Ottoman Sultans. In fact the governments of these two peoples have staged one of the longest ongoing conflicts in European history.

Russia and Turkey’s Tumultuous History

The conflict between the two began in 1568 with the first Russo-Turkish War. This first encounter was between the Ottoman Sultan Selim II and Czar Ivan IV, a.k.a. Ivan the Terrible of Russia. Though a relatively short conflict with few gains/losses in territory or other concessions, it was the start of a series of more such wars to come. Generally, the Russian forces defeated the Turks in most of the conflicts (the exception being the Crimean War) as the forces of the later were under siege on multiple fronts – the Austro-Hungarians in the west and the Iranian Safavids in the east. In fact from the 17th century onward, the Ottoman Empire was in a state of decline while the other powers of Europe began to gain both technological and military advantages.

Ironically, the end of World War I brought revolutions in both Russia and Turkey that resulted in the overthrow and abolishment of their respective monarchies. The last Czar was overthrown by the Bolsheviks who installed a Communist system of government (which became the Soviet Union) and the Ottoman Empire was abolished by Kemal Ataturk who founded the modern Republic of Turkey, the state that we have today. This also deepened divisions between the two states as the Turkey, being a democracy, fell into the orbit of the West and proved to be an important ally against their fight against the Soviet Union in particular and global Communism in general. Turkey’s inclusion into NATO and the stationing of nuclear missiles within a short-range of the Soviet Union also didn’t help to thaw relations between the two.

Things arguably got better with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and many lucrative trade deals between Russia and Turkey were signed. However, the ongoing Syrian conflict has rekindled the rivalry between the two countries with no end in sight.

Putin and Erdogan
Putin and Erdogan

The reasons for Russia’s support are many including preserving its influence in the region (and also the world) as well as arms sales. In addition, Syria for the past several decades has been the home of Russia’s only naval base in the Middle East. The other concern that Putin has is with the further spread of Islamic extremism. This is a legitimate concern as Russia has fought two bloody wars and several other armed conflicts against Islamic extremists on its territory, most notably in Chechnya and Dagestan.

The current Turkish government is both essentially Sunni Muslim and an staunch opponent of Assad. They are also eager to see peace and stability on their southern border, but without the Assad regime in Damascus.

The current conflict in Syria has proven to be just another in a series between Russia and Turkey. Let’s hope that the situation doesn’t decline to where both countries, as has often happened in the past, go to war with each other.

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