Both born of empire and led by strongmen, you would think that these two countries would get along like a house afire. However, history shows us a very different picture.

Simply because they're geographically close and have a parallel history - one of shared contention amidst similar aims, Turkey and Russia are not the allies everyone seems to think they are.

Presidents Putin and Erdogan seem like great allies:
- In 2017, Russia lifted all sanctions against Turkey and restored visa-free travel between the two countries.
- President Erdogan supported Mr Putin when the international community levelled sanctions and condemnation following the annexation of Crimea.
- President Erdogan defends Mr Putin from President-elect Biden's 'killer' attack.
- Upon Russian incursion into Ukraine, President Erdogan invokes portions of the 1936 Montreux Convention that forbids all warships from entering The Straits.
- Far from supporting Russia's war efforts, Turkey is attempting to broker peace.

Let's travel back in time to discover the events that came to define these two powers and their relationship.

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The Ottoman Empire

For over six centuries, the Ottoman Empire stretched across southern Europe, into western Asia and down into Africa. Their expansive rule ended the Byzantine Empire when they took Constantinople in 1453; Suleiman the Magnificent redefined what it meant to be Emperor.

That magnificent leader was apparently keen to disseminate his teachings and had a foolproof way to incur loyalty. Even after his death in 1566, the standards he brought about were upheld... for more than six centuries. For comparison, the British Empire spanned 413 years; most of it in concurrent global rule with the Ottomans.

Suleiman the Magnificent set up a magnificent empire
Suleiman the Magnificent established rules for civilisation and government for the Ottoman Empire. Source: Wikipedia

So what made The Ottomans so successful in keeping their vast holdings and establishing their culture?

It all started with a disparate group of Turkish principalities identified as Anatolian Beyliks. One such beylik, on the Byzantine border, was governed by Osman I, who methodically conquered neighbouring Byzantine towns.

Little is known about the provenance of Osman I or the tactics he used to build a strong fighting force; ones that captured so much territory. Suffice to say, though, that he and his band of fighters launched the Ottoman Empire, not the least because the empire's name is derived from his.

It's not that foes surrendered quietly in the face of a fearsome army; early Ottoman history is scarred with battle:

  • The Byzantine-Ottoman Wars describe a series of skirmishes over 200 years. The Ottomans won the final battle.
  • The Bulgarian-Ottoman Wars resulted in the collapse of the Bulgarian Empire
  • The Serbian-Ottoman Wars span centuries; from 1352 to 1878
  • Other important battles: the Battle of Bursa, the taking of Thessaloniki, victory in Kosovo, the Battle of Nicopolis among others.

Conquering Serbian leadership in Kosovo allowed the Ottomans to extend their reach into Europe while Thessaloniki provided crucial sea access, from which they could go on to conquer more distant lands.

Lest we start believing that Ottoman fighters were invincible, let's look at one of their most surprising defeats.

Their devastating loss of the Battle of Ankara (1402) spun the Empire into disarray; they then fought an 11-year civil war. Only the rise of Mehmed I to the sultanate allowed the Ottoman forces to back up, regroup and continue claiming territory and riches.

The Russian Empire hadn't entered the Ottoman scene yet but, during the period of most expansive Ottoman growth, Russia and the UK were fast allies and trading partners.

The Russian Empire

Much like the Ottoman Empire, Tsarist Russia began with one territory, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, absorbing nearby territories. They first conquered the ruthless Mongol-Tatars, neutralizing the fighting force standing in their way of larger conquests. From then on, the gradual process culminated in the consolidation of the entire Northern Rus'.

When Constantinople fell in 1453, Moscow claimed succession to the Eastern Roman Empire's legacy and Ivan III made the double-headed eagle, a symbol of the Byzantine Empire his coat of arms.

His son and successor, Ivan IV, known as Ivan the Terrible, reduced religious influence across the Tsardom. He overhauled the military and established the feudal state by installing a representative body to oversee it.

Already in possession of vast lands, the Russian Tsar nevertheless wanted more. He struck east and west simultaneously, finding more success in the poorly populated tracts that inched the fighting forces closer to Asia. They didn't fare so well in their westward expansion, meeting defeat in the costly and unfruitful Livonian War.

Famine soon struck the Tsardom, which led to civil war and, ultimately, foreign intervention. Russian weakness during this period allowed encroachment on their territory; the Polish army advanced all the way to Moscow but was repelled by a Russian volunteer army.

After that Smuta, known in English as the Time of Troubles, Russia again put in motion its plans for expansion, ultimately arriving at the Pacific coast. Meanwhile, despite Polish seething, Ukraine offered itself up as a sacrificial divide, with Russia claiming everything east of the Dnieper River and Poland claiming all that lay west of it.

That might explain Russia's anti-NATO stance that Ukraine is historically Russian land.

Ivan IV made himself an emperor
Ivan the Terrible proclaimed himself Russia's first emperor. Source: Wikipedia

Beyond Empire: Russian and Turkish States

Even historically, Turkey and Russia have many similarities but one glaring difference was the level of skill and organisation the Ottomans brought to their every endeavour. They established cities with functioning governments, systems of commerce and social hierarchy and encouraged education for all people.

The Russian Empire not only had no such grand visions but they lacked the wherewithal to implement such while keeping their military machine stoked and running. It didn't help matters that they were neighbours, either. The Ottomans supported small Turkic and Islamist states in Russia; actions that infuriated the Tsar.

Thus, there were constant incursions into each other's territories and clashes between troops. One notable instance of such was the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-74.

As expansive as Russian territory is, for all intents and purposes, it is landlocked. Traffic through its northern ports depends on the weather; often, more than half the year, those ports were inaccessible. And, while Russia had claimed territories clear to the Pacific ocean, all of its settlements and, later, industry, lay in the country's eastern regions.

The Russo-Turkish War won the Russians access to the Black Sea and, ultimately, the Mediterranean, from whence they could expand their international reach. You would think a treaty would have been more effective but the parties chose war, in part because of their long history of settling disputes in that manner.

That treaty allowed Russia to stymy the Ottoman Empire in other ways, too. For instance, they often cited provocative actions against the empire as their right to protect and help Turkic Slavs and Christians granted to them by the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca. Trouble was, those factions were fighting Ottoman rule.

Indeed, that became the Russian modus operandi: defeat the Ottoman Empire by aiding and abetting every faction under Ottoman control.

We see that strategy play out today, with China supporting Russia despite heavy Western sanctions. Does China truly mean to undermine those economic punishments' effects?

Early 20th  Century Relations

Despite the two countries' rivalry, the Ottoman government helped excuse Russia from battle by signing the Litovsk-Brest Treaty in 1917. Russia's gratitude lasted mere months, after which came a feint. Vladimir Lenin proclaimed Ottoman leader Mustafa Kemal Pasha a friendly force and ceded back Western Armenia and the Turkish Straits.

Unfortunately, it was a ploy designed to deceive Ottoman forces into believing that they had an ally in Russia. As soon as Ottoman forces were sufficiently weakened by the Triple Entente and the Russian-supplied Kemalist forces determined to establish a free Turkish state, the Russians clawed back all that they had ceded and more.

With the Ottoman Empire now only a nominal force and Turkey still relatively unformed, it's understandable that they would remain neutral during the Second World War. However, they did grant passage to Nazi ships through The Straits, a concession that Russia saw as an act of aggression against it. Russia withdrew from their 1925 non-aggression pact and claimed large swaths of Turkey, including access to The Straits.

At the 1945 Potsdam Conference, Russia insisted it should retain control of The Straits, along with all the territory it has claimed for itself. Turkey and Western powers rejected that claim and, when NATO was established in 1947, Turkey didn't wait long to join. It's been a NATO country since 1952.

Having thus officially declared itself in alliance with The West, the Soviet Union and Turkey had no further dealing for the rest of the Cold War.

The diplomatic incident caused by Russia flying into Turkish airspace strained both sides.
After Russia's support of the Syrian president, one of their aircraft flew into Turkish airspace, creating a diplomatic incident. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Kremlin.ru

Russia and Turkey Today

After the Cold War ended, these two countries reset their relations. It was a different world and Russia, coming out of profound economic distress, needed all the help it could get.

Despite the countries' centuries-long adversarial relationship. Messrs Erdoğan and Putin, both prime ministers at the time, agreed that they had a shared responsibility to the region. Thus, they embarked on a decades-long relationship that lasts, still today. Theirs is a limited partnership, laden with mistrust but effective nevertheless. Together, they've worked on several diplomatic issues, such as the Middle East dispute and Cyprus Problem.

Now, with Russia facing international condemnation for its actions in Ukraine, Turkey steps up once again, to attempt to mediate the discussion. Seeing the futility of talks, now-President Erdoğan has invoked sections of that long-ago treaty that barred Russia from The Straits and Turkish waters.

Upon the first military strike, Turkey did not hesitate to label the conflict a war while still actively working towards a cease-fire, at least, and an end to war, at best.

Now, discover how US-Russia relations have shaped the war in Ukraine.

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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.