Russia and Turkey’s “Strategic Partnership” is Not About Convenience But About a Common Destiny

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has visited Moscow where he held high level meetings with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and the Russian President Vladimir Putin. A number of issues were discussed including proposals to increase trade, to begin trading in national currencies rather than the US Dollar, joint cooperation on a Turkish space programme, security issues, the Turkish deal to purchase Russia’s S-400 missile defence systems and the war in Syria.

During the discussions Cavusoglu stated that Russia is a “strategic partner” of Turkey. He further stated,

“It is not that there are no countries and people who envy our close friendship and co-operation, but we will develop relations between our two countries and increase our co-operation on regional issues for stability in the region and for economic development”.

In turn the Russian President stated that “Our relations with Turkey are getting increasingly more profound and substantive“.

The language used by both sides is indicative of just how rapidly the Russo-Turkish rapprochement of 2016 has progressed in spite of its seemingly shaky beginnings. Today, Russia and Turkey are at a forefront of a multipolar Eurasian alliance that in turn looks to strengthen freer trading ties with multiple mutual partners including China, Iran and the republics of central Asia.

There is little doubt that relations between Russia and Turkey are now at a point which if anything may be higher than the previous high point in mutual relations which existed during the age of Ataturk and Lenin. Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey is often falsely mythologised as someone who “looked west” because of his drive to separate religion from state affairs, his drive to educate the nation, build modern infrastructure and give Turks a better future, rather than succumb to humiliation at the hands of Turkey’s opponents. These characteristics ascribed to Ataturk are true, but what is western about them? Every major non-aligned leader of the 20th century from Nasser to Tito, Jinnah to Gaddafi and every socialist leader from Castro to Stalin, Mao to Mandela wanted the same thing.

Looking at Ataturk’s foreign policy, it was not a western nation that first established relations with the Government of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey but the young Soviet Union which like Turkey was still in the midst of its own civil crisis when Lenin and Ataturk signed an historic Friendship Treaty in Moscow which put to rest centuries of Russo-Turkish antagonism. Indeed, so friendly was Ataturk’s relationship with the USSR that when former World War era triumvir Enver Pasha attempted to lead a Turkic revolt against the USSR in central Asia, the so-called Basmachi movement, Ataturk continued to renounce Enver Pasha and maintained good ties with Moscow.

The 1921 Treaty of Moscow saw the two sides work amicably to settle territorial disputes arising from the aftermath of the First World War while Ataturk also refused to allow Britain and France to do what they did to his Ottoman predecessors and exploit Turkey in order to barricade Russian ships in the Black Sea as the west did after the signing of the anti-Russian London Straits Convention of 1841 – a treaty which prohibited Russian ships from free navigation in the Turkish Straits in wartime.

Instead, Ataturk convinced the major powers of Europe and western Eurasia to agree to the 1936 Montreux convention which rejected the stance of the victors of the First World War’s to internationalise the Turkish Straits. Instead, Turkey assumed full control of the Straits while granting all nations with Black Sea fleets full navigation rights in both peace and war time.

But it was not  just the eastern Soviet power that Ataturk was quick to engage in fruitful relations with. Shortly before his death, Ataturk signed the Treaty of Saadabad with Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq – an inviolable non-aggression pact which sought to ease historic tensions between the great powers of south-western Eurasia as a bulwark against European imperialism.

Of course when it came to literally looking west, while Ataturk worked to normalise post-war relations with Britain and France, what was more important was Ataturk’s desire to retain friendly Turkish relations in the Balkans while paving the way for a new era of post-Ottoman equality between national partners. It was in this spirit that Ataturk was able to reconcile with The Hellenic Republic shortly after a bitterly fought war which Turkey won and moreover, it was this spirit which led Ataturk to sign the Balkan Pact of 1934 with Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania.

Ataturk clearly knew that the future of healthy Turkish geopolitical relations was in having as few enemies and as many partners as possible, all the while avoiding the entangling alliances which were the proximate cause for the ballooning of the crises which led to the First World War.

Ataturk knew that only a strong relationship with fellow Eurasian powers including the USSR, Iran and Afghanistan could prevent imperial Europe from exploiting ancient hostilities in the region. He also knew that creating harmony where there once was discord both in the Balkans and in central and western Europe was the key to a more harmonious development for a Turkish state let down by decades of poor leadership.

Today’s Turkey under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is following a fiercely independent and nationally minded foreign policy that is highly reminiscent of the course pursued by Ataturk. In turn, by working with Turkey, Russia and its Turkish partner together are looking to finish the job that Ataturk and Lenin began in terms of forever eliminating the ability of the western powers to force Russia and Turkey into fighting a future war.

One must never forget that the Russo-Turkish wars of the middle and late 19th century were an outgrowth of a situation that Britain and France provoked by insisting on boxing Russia into the Black Sea with the Treaty of London, thus forcing Russia and Turkey into position of conflict owing to the strategic necessity of Russia requiring a warm water naval port outside of the Black Sea.

Today, Russia maintains a Mediterranean port in the Syrian city of Tartus while Moscow looks to cooperate with Turkey in what appears to be the final military phase of the Syrian conflict in the Governorate of Idlib. Both sides have pledged to work cooperatively in this area which will be deeply important in terms of avoiding any clashes between pro-Damascus and pro-Ankara troops in the region, while the Russo-Turkish partnership will also be important in terms of preventing a western backed provocation in Idlib, the likes of which Russia’s Foreign Ministry have warned of.

While in the early days of the growing friendship between Putin and Erdogan, many dismissed the clear fraternal relationship as one of mutual convenience or even of mutual suspicion, it is now clear that in embracing a shared destiny in terms of economic, security and cultural cooperation, Russia and Turkey have not only changed the course of regional history but have put each nation in a position where centuries of war now stand to be replaced by centuries of cooperation on a win-win model.

Russia and Turkey no longer share a terrestrial frontier but they still share a common global neighbourhood, not least due to their maritime frontier in the Black Sea. By taking good neighbourly relations to a level of a strategic partnership, both nations will be able to insure a more materially enriched future for their own people while working to preserve peace in nations whose security matters are of grave importance to both Moscow and Ankara.

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