Commentary on the relations between Ankara and Moscow by Yuri Emelianov


Yuri Emelianov*


Russian historians usually consider the message of the Great Prince of Moscovy Ivan III to the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II to be a starting point for establishing diplomatic relations between Turkey and Russia. This message was sent on August 30, 1492 just six weeks before Columbus discovered America. While Western Europe was busy exploring the Western Hemisphere the two great powers of the Eastern Hemisphere made their first steps towards discovering each other. Unfortunately the path towards mutual understanding and cooperation was not an easy one. During 350 years (from 1568 to 1918) 12 wars happened between the two countries. The centuries of hostilities came to an end only after the Great October Socialist Revolution. On March 16, 1921 the treaty of Friendship and Fraternity between Soviet Russia and Turkey was concluded in Moscow. Commenting upon this fact V.I. Lenin said that the pact did away with “the blight of eternal wars”. Despite many ups and downs in their relations Moscow and Ankara kept peace for almost a century since 1918.

Even in the years of the cold war after the Ankara Government sighed in 1948 agreements with the USA which allowed Americans to build military bases on the Turkish soil and in 1952 Turkey joined the NATO the Soviet Union in the end of the 50-ies started to develop economic connections with its Southern neighbour to the mutual benefit of the two countries. From 1980 to 1990 the Turkish exports to the USSR increased from $168 millions to $531 millions, while the Soviet exports to Turkey increased during the same period from $167 millions to $1158 millions.     

The relations between Russia and Turkey continued to develop after the collapse the Soviet Union. Since 2001 to 2011 the Turkish exports to Russia increased from $924 millions to $5993 millions dollars, while Russian exports to Turkey grew from $3496 millions to $23953 millions within the same period. Turkey exported mainly foodstuffs, textile and equipment. 70% of Russian exports constituted fuel. 60% of all energy needs of Turkey were provided for by Russian export. Every year more and more tourists from Russia visited Turkey. In 2014 4,4 millions Russians spent their vacations at the Turkish seashore. At that time about 100 thousands citizens of Turkey worked in Russia.

The sudden end to these positive developments came after the Russian plane SU-24 was shot down by the Turkish plane F-16 on November 24, 2015.  As the leaders of the Ankara Government refused to recognize the guilt of the Turkish military airmen for the shooting of the Russian plane and the death of its pilot the Moscow Government resorted to a number of strict measures. On January 1, 2016 the visa regime was reintroduced by the Russian Government and this decision created difficulties for citizens of Turkey who worked in Russia. The Moscow Government recommended that the Russian business did not hire workers of Turkey anymore. Russian tourist companies were forbidden to sell tours to Turkey. The number of Russian tourists visiting Turkey decreased by 80%.  Sanctions against Turkish imports of many vegetables and fruits were introduced. The trade between the two countries declined drastically. Besides the Moscow Government promised to take more resolute measures in order to defend Russian air planes in Syria.

The situation reminisced the crisis in the Soviet-Turkish relations which took place in the end of 1957. In August 1957 the USSR concluded with Syria an agreement on economic and military assistance. Almost immediately the US 6-th Navy moved towards the shores of Syria. By the end of October military maneuvers of the NATO troops in the South-Eastern part of Turkey were scheduled. Turkish armed forces were brought close to the Syrian border. On October 19, 1957 the Soviet Government announced that “in case of the attack against Syria the Soviet Union… will take all the necessary measures to help the victim of the aggression”. New Soviet troops were stationed close to the Turkish border.

In their joint statement made in Washington on October 25 the US President Eisenhower and the British Prime Minister McMillan declared that the two powers were ready to help Turkey in order to stop “the Syrian menace”. The possibility of the global conflict was prevented by complicated diplomatic negotiations.

Like in 1957 the main culprits in the crisis of 2015 were the Western powers. The Western official figures put the blame for the fatal air incident on Russia. In December of 2015 the US analytical source “Startfore” predicted with obvious satisfaction the continued worsening of the Russo-Turkish relations in 2016. The reasons for such a prediction as well as for shooting down of the Russian were obvious. Despite the developing relations between Russia and Turkey they meant by far less to Ankara than the relations with the West and the Persian Gulf countries.

Most of the foreign investments in Turkey belong to the countries of Northern America, Western Europe and Persian Gulf. The greater bulk of its national debt Turkey owes to the financial institutions of the above mentioned countries. Despite the fact that in 2014 there were 4,4 millions of Russian tourists they were outnumbered by 32.4 millions of tourists from other countries. Even in the Netherlands in 2014 lived 364 thousands Turkish workers which is 3.5 more than there were Turls in Russia. Since 1948 many US military bases stocked with hundreds of nuclear warheads were established in Turkey. The US, as well as their European and Persian Gulf allies had powerful economic and military instruments to make Ankara act against Russia in order to stop its military help to Syria.

The sudden reversal of the Ankara policy on June 27, 2016 when the President Erdogan asked pardon for shooting down of the Russian plane and expressed his desire to improve relations with the Northern neighbour could be explained by the acute crisis in the relations between Turkey and the West.  

The exodus of migrants from Asia and Africa made the majority of the West European population dread the prospect of newcomers from any other country. That is why plans of Ankara to gain abolition of visas for the Turkish citizens as a payment for its efforts to keep migrants in Turkish camps failed. The visa issue became the unsurmountable obstacle in the relations between Turkey and the West European countries.

By far more important in the crises of relations between Turkey and the West could be events in connection with the attempts of the Turkish military to overthrow Erdogan. The sudden change in the attitude of Erdogan towards Russia in the end of June could be explained that the Turkish Government was already aware of what might happen in the middle of July and it knew that foreign powers helped the military plotters. The reluctance of the US Government to extradite Fethulla Gulen proved the involvement of Washington in the plot and this became another unsurmountable difficulty in the relations of Turkey with the West.

The impossibility to overcome the crisis in the relations between Turkey and the West in the observable future may make Ankara take further steps towards cooperation with Russia and its allies. Such a turn might be beneficial for Turkey as it might decrease its dependence from imperialist and adventurous activities of the West and the despotic regimes of the Persian Gulf.

Yet it seems to be doubtful that Erdogan may go far in the change of his foreign policy. Turkey too strongly depends from the US and their allies. The normalisation of the relations with Russia did not prevent Ankara to send Turkish troops to Syria helping Anti-Asad opposition. Active participation of Turkey in the Syrian civil war is fraught with new dangers and may bring new unexpected crises in the relations between our countries.



* Note of information. Yuri Emelianov was born in 1937 in Moscow and for 35 years worked in the USSR Academy of Sciences institutes. He is the author of 25 books and over 400 other publications dedicated mainly to the problems of the modern history. He is a member of the editorial board of “Sovetskaya Rossia” with its circulation of 300 thousand copies and he contributes regularly to this newspaper as well as to “Pravda” which is the central paper of the Communist Party of Russian Federation. In the last years Y. Emelianov often took part in the international meetings of the Communist and Workers’ parties.