Russia and Turkey: Consistency versus Unreliability

In this brief analysis and evaluation, we shall consider the Ottoman Empire and Turkey as a single concept, since ‘neo-Ottomanism’ is currently all the rage in Turkey, even if it simply reflects the hubris of the post-imperial rigor mortis of an empire that died formally in 1923. Before looking at the last few years, let us note that, even when the Russian Empire was in a weakened state, it won most of its wars against the Ottomans, between the Sixteenth and Twentieth centuries, and the one that it did not win quickly and decisively, by taking Constantinople – was the result of mainly English intervention.

In its later days, the Ottoman Empire was indeed maintained by the British and Austro-Hungarians, for their own selfish strategic reasons. Today it is the US and their foreign policy subset Britain that prop up Turkey, through Turkish NATO membership (dating from 1952), the IMF, arms supplies, and turning a blind eye to the illegal occupation of Cyprus.

In 1919, as the Ottoman Empire was in terminal decline, a famous British diplomat wrote: ‘For the Turks I had, and have, no sympathy whatsoever. Long residence at Constantinople has convinced me that behind his mask of indolence, the Turk conceals instances of the most brutal savagery. This conviction was not diminished by his behaviour towards the Kut garrison or towards the Armenians within his border. The Turks have contributed nothing whatsoever towards the progress of humanity: they are a race of Anatolian marauders: I desired only in the Peace Treaty that they be relegated to Anatolia.’

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But it was not to be: Venizelos’ over-ambitious policy and Greece’s allies consequently ‘betraying’ it meant that the new state of Turkey would control not only Constantinople but Eastern Thrace. And for that, Russia, of all countries, played an important rôle: in 1920, Lenin supplied Ataturk with gold and weapons (yes, the opportunist Ataturk ‘admired’ Lenin for a while!). Why? Because Russia’s traditional friend, Greece, betrayed her by fighting the Bolsheviks in the Ukraine. Plastiras proved to be Britain’s terrier. The Treaty of Kars established Turkey’s borders with the Soviet Union. Since then, Turkey has been key in the Anglo-Saxon’s anti-Soviet and then anti-Russian policies, to the point where Turkey, knowing its geographical importance, has prostituted itself to gain maximum advantage, epitomised perhaps by the invasion of Cyprus, allowed by the US, because of the latter’s radar and military installations in Turkey. Let us remember that it was Turkey’s willingness to allow US nuclear missiles on her territory that precipitated the Cuban missile crisis. Even Turkey’s cowardly shooting down of a Russian aircraft and murder of a pilot was only possible because Turkey immediately rushed into NATO’s underpants for protection.

Seen in the above context, it is quite possible that without Britain’s and the US’s irrational fear of Russia, Turkey as we know it would not exist or would at least be far smaller than it is. In contrast with Russia, an old country with a serious identity, Turks do not always know who they are. Ninety-three years is not a long time in the history of states. The Young Turks and Ataturk were desperate to ape West European habits, perhaps because they were unsure as to who exactly they were, or did not feel cultured enough. They even scrapped their Arab alphabet for the Roman one, and discarded many Arabic words for Turkified European ones. Thus, ‘toilet’ became ‘tuvalet’. Many educated Turks are desperate for Turkey to become an EU member, perhaps envious about their ‘sophisticated’ neighbours. Another British diplomat wrote: ‘Admittedly there are European ethnic strains in the people, but not so strong as the Asian. And their singular language is Central Asian in origin. There is no natural reason why the Turks should be so insistent on their European connexion. It is largely the dictum of Kamal Atatürk that makes them.’

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Modern Turkey is a strange amalgam of Western structures underpinned by Ottoman habits. Their various governments, whether military or not, are still heavily influenced by its huge military, and the contradiction between religion and secularism stills bedevils its development. Russia knows this, and knows that the bazaar mentality prevails in Turkish foreign policy. Rather than provoke a collapse of the shaky Turkish state, Russia prefers to weaken a neurotic NATO, and eventually bring Turkey into its sphere of influence, in the interests of Middle Eastern stability.

William Mallinson is a Former British Diplomat, Professor of Political Ideas and Institutions at Universita Guglielmo Marconi and author of Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus and of The Threat of Geopolitics to International Relations.