Russia and Turkey: Prospects for long-term cooperation


Turkey’s turn towards Russia began with the resignation of Ahmet Davutoglu in May 2016 and only strengthened after the failed pro-US coup on July 15th drew the ire of both Russia and Turkey. Experts are wondering just how long and deep the rapprochement between the two countries will be especially following the meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In order to provide a qualified answer to this question, one needs to understand the motivation behind the current form of rapprochement and the long-term factors which contradict or, on the contrary, contribute to a possible alliance between Russia and Turkey.

Common values

To begin with, let us examine the values which lie at the heart of these countries’ long-term planning of public policies and understanding of their states’ and societies’ place in the world. In terms of these societies’ values, both Russia and Turkey are quite conservative and close to each other. Their political regimes are also committed to protecting the ideas of traditional religious and moral values and rejecting the excesses of Western liberalism. In both countries, the activity of religious institutions is quite high and is supported by the political leadership, yet neither Putin nor Erdogan can be called religious radicals. Both feature a conservative outlook combined with an adoption of both the legacy of previous leaders and Western legal and political models. At the same time, Russia and Turkey’s similar conservative trends are not paired with a Western course towards ultra-liberalism, the promotion of gender ideology, or other new values of Western society. Conservative Russia and Turkey are objectively on the same side in opposing the godless West.

Rethinking Byzantium

Certain differences exist between Russia and Turkey’s understandings of their current policies as a kind of continuation of earlier interrupted imperial tradition. Both Moscow and Ankara see themselves as neo-imperial centers and refer to the models of the Russian and Ottoman Empires. Here lies the risk of antique ideologues manipulating historical facts taken out of their specific temporal and geopolitical contexts. The history of relations between Russia and Turkey is not limited to the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. Even during these times, there were periods of peace and alliance between the two powers (such as the Unkiar Skelessi Treaty of 1833 and the joint suppression of the liberal revolution in the Danubian Principalities in 1848). Before this period, Russia and the Ottoman Empire had complex, difficult relations and witnessed both periods of wars and alliances with one another. At the same time, the famous writer of the 16th century, Ivan Peresvetov (some historians believe this was the nickname of Ivan the Terrible), considered the Ottoman state system a model to be imitated.

Reviving policies peculiar to the 18th and 19th centuries in the context of the 21st century is impossible for both Russia and Turkey. The major ideological reasons justifying opposition in previous times have disappeared, such as Turkish domination over the Christian peoples of the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus.  Even the zealous supporter of capturing Constantinople, the Russian diplomat, thinker and author of the concept of "Byzantinism", Konstantin Leontiev, considered the preservation of Ottoman rule over all of its Asian holdings and the establishment of a Russo-Turkish, anti-Western and anti-liberal alliance to be desirable in the 20th century.

The appeal to the Russian Byzantine heritage symbolized by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s occupying of the place of the Byzantine emperors during his visit to Mt. Athos, along with the revival of the Byzantine model of symphonic relations between the Church and State in Russia, do not mean that Russia is returning to the anti-Turkish policies of the 19th century. An in-depth study of the question in fact shows that both Russia and the Ottoman Empire were the heirs to Byzantium. First and foremost is the Byzantine religious and political responsibility and mission of Katehon (a force that prevents the coming of the Antichrist), while territorial, political, and economic points of view are secondary. Moreover, the ideology of Hellenoturkism developed by the 9th century Greek thinker George of Trebizond qualified the special role of the Hellenic element in the empire and the Ottoman emperors’ inheritance of Byzantium. In the beginning, the Ottoman project did not aim to destroy Christianity in its subjugation of Christians. The same can be said of the Russian imperial idea: Russia did not destroy Islam by subjecting Muslims.

The intellectual concepts of neo-Byzantinism and neo-Ottomanism and their expression in the field of foreign policy can be constructed as conflicting ones, but not necessarily. The very idea of the Third Rome in its origins presumed the transfer of the imperial role from fallen Constantinople to Russia to be an embodiment of the Byzantine ideal in Russia in a more pure form than its state in real Byzantium. Paraphrasing William Blake, it was about “building Constantinople on Russian peasant land,” not conquering the city that had lost its spiritual and imperial mission. The question is who, how, and why these historiographical concepts are posed and in whose interests. By turning to history, politicians are not interested in unrealizable and outdated concepts, but in how the bases of ideologies can meet today’s challenges. Both neo-Byzantinism and neo-Ottomanism are meant to find their own alternatives to the Western-centric ideological outlook and substantiate the sovereignty of Russia and Turkey.

Eurasian roots

One particular platform for Russia and Turkey’s ideological rapprochement is Eurasianism. From the very beginning, Russian Eurasianism positively perceived the Turkic, Turanian factor in Russian history and theoretically justified the geopolitics of Russia as a continental power. In the early 2000’s, Russian Eurasianists actively advocated the establishment of a geopolitical alliance between Ankara and Moscow. Eurasian concepts are increasingly popular in Turkey, as Turkish Eurasianism interprets the county as part of the space of ancient Turanian civilization, emphasizing the identity of the Turks as distinct from both West and East. Turkish Eurasianism provides for an unambiguous rejection of the Atlanticist course of previous years and a reorientation of the country’s rapprochement with Russia and China towards a more active policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The general ideological core of Russian Eurasianism (continentalism, the Turanian factor) can form the basis for a long-term convergence of the two countries.

Alignment of interests

The leaders of both nations tend towards a realist interpretation of international politics. This means that they still put the interests and sovereignty of their own countries at the top of the agenda rather than values. Russia is interested in the consolidation of the former Soviet space and countering the US and NATO as the main threat to its security. Turkey also now no longer has good relations with Washington, especially since the failed pro-American putsch. From the standpoint of individual interests, Syria, Central Asia, and the Caucasus could become potential points of conflict between Turkey and Russia. But now Ankara’s main task is ensuring the political unity of Turkey’s territory. A real civil war is raging in the East of the country, which means that Turkey is not ready for expansionism. It needs to preserve itself first. A nationally-centered Turkey focusing on Russian-Turkish Eurasian integration does not present a conflict of interests.

But even in the case of a solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey and the transition to a more expansionist policy, the possibility of harmonizing interests between the two countries still exists. Today we can see common work on Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Fields of conflict through diplomacy are beginning to turn into fields of convergence. The Turkmen-populated areas of Syria and Iraq, as well as their Kurdish regions, could be declared a natural sphere of Turkish influence. Russia de facto recognizes the special relationship between Turkey and Azerbaijan while de jure recognizing the territorial integrity of the latter. Moreover, if Turkey were to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and included in Eurasian integration processes, then Russia would not hostilely react to a strengthening of Turkish influence in Central Asia. Of course, certain competition would continue, as is the case between Russia and China, but such would bear a civilized form.

The only thing that Russia would not accept is any interference by Turkey in domestic Russian affairs or Turkey’s participation in American projects aimed at consolidating US hegemony. This is what Davutoglu’s course under the guise of Turkish expansionism posed. This ended naturally with the collapse and aggravation of the Kurdish question due to the overall destabilization of the Middle East. If instead of the “Trotskyist” version of neo-Ottomanism aimed at inciting a global or regional Islamist revolution leading to instability and radicalism in the region (as Davutgolu pursued during and after the “Arab Spring”), Turkey were to pursue a pragmatic national (some kind of neo-Kemalist) or sovereigntist anti-Western, neo-imperial course, then Moscow could support Ankara as an allied state and independent center of the Sunni world opposed to US hegemony and the pro-American Wahhabi monarchies of the Gulf.