Russia, Nato, And The Turkish Question In Ukraine

By Jonathan P. Henderson

History is repeating over a century after World War I. Russia’s latest mass military deployment along the Ukrainian border is reigniting anxiety over another worrisome escalation of tensions. (See my article, “Has America’s Payola President Sown the Seeds of War?”) Whatever ramifications lie ahead for NATO after the British Royal Navy's recent game of chicken with its Russian rival in the Black Sea remain unclear. Yet with fellow NATO ‘frenemy’ and the lone member with a Muslim majority, Turkey, the potential for conflict with the Russian bear for influence over the Eurasian landmass finds new possibilities.

The Russo-Turkish rivalry is not new. Both nations attribute some combination of historical, cultural, and geographic links to their progenitor, the Roman Empire. In Constantinople, established by Constantine the Great as its first Christian capital in 330 AD, the heart of Nicene Christianity was found, embodied by today’s Orthodox Church. In 1453, the city, and thus the last remnant of the Roman Empire, was toppled by the Muslim Turks, which consolidated into the Ottoman Empire. Nearly 250 years of warfare beginning in 1676 were motivated by Russian initiatives to capitalize off of waning Ottoman influence throughout ‘the world island’ (Eurasia, North Africa) stretching from a warm water port in the Black Sea off the coast of Crimea, to west of the Dnieper River in modern Ukraine. Once Peter the Great’s tsarist forces captured the fortress of Azov in 1696, the Russians embarked upon a long term progressive expansion southward to amass territory for additional buffer zones adjacent to the Turks, as well as Europe and Persia. In addition, the Russians sought a sea lane linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean by way of the Bosporus Strait which separates the warm water port of Constantinople in Europe from Anatolia in Asia. The last Russian victory in 1878 over the Turks thoroughly crippled the Ottoman caliphate, cementing its dubious distinction as 'the sick man of Europe', and inevitable collapse 45 years later. Yet Russia never captured Constantinople, the erstwhile capital of Islam's last caliphate renamed ‘Istanbul’, before Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in 1917.

Equally important was the tsar’s quest to form a Pan-Slavic coalition to conquer and reclaim the Caucasus and the Balkans for the Orthodox Church. As Greek nationalism exploded throughout the Balkans into the Turkish territories of Bessarabia (Moldova), Romania, and the former Yugoslavia during the 1820’s, the searing racial and ethnic tensions between Muslims and the region's Slavic Orthodox majority have repeatedly drawn interest from Russia. This remains true today when the current situation involving Ukraine, home to the second largest population of Orthodox Christians, is closely linked to the presence of ethnic Russians in the eastern quarter of the country and Crimea. Also, transnational relations principally located within the autocephaly of an Eastern Orthodox Church experiencing a remarkable renaissance after 70 years of Soviet suppression are critical, with the excuse to protect this and the interests and integrity of ethnic Russians closely linked to Moscow’s recent threats to sanction NATO member Latvia for removing the Russian language from its public schools. In 2008, Russia fought a war in the southern Caucusus with neighboring Georgia, whose primary religious institution is the Georgian Orthodox Church. Moscow maintains its military presence to combat separatist forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Additionally, the West fears that Russia will reclaim sovereignty over Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship and a former Soviet satellite, in which 48% of Belarussians identify as Orthodox Christians

When in December Turkey announced its willingness to support the Russian-annexed Crimea’s return to Ukraine, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu emphasized this would place heavy emphasis on “the areas of military cooperation and the defense industry.” Turkey’s interests in the Black Sea, according to Harun Karčić in The National Interest, are motivated by “the annexation of Crimea (tipping) the balance of military power in the Black Sea in favor of Russia.” This jeopardizes Turkey’s ability to defend the Bosporus Strait against Russia, which still seeks easier access to the Mediterranean Sea. Thus for Turkey and Ukraine, the strategic calculus is seemingly a ‘full-court press’. Two years ago on June 10 th , Speaker Andrey Paruby of Ukraine’s parliament stated that his country could join the European Union around 2025 or 2027. In perhaps a diplomatic ‘quid pro quo’, Turkey, like Ukraine, seeks entry into the European Union. While Moscow creeps into Western Europe by weaponizing its monopoly on the European Union’s reliance on Russian oil and natural gas pipelines that run through Ukraine, Ankara leverages its role as NATO’s southern flank. Turkey exploits the EU’s open borders policy in the Schengen area by threatening the bloc’s 28 members to either grant Turkey entry, or face its wrath by it releasing millions of Syrian refugees into the Balkans. The nation that is most impacted has of course been neighboring Greece.

From the 15 th to the early 19 th century, most of Greece and the Aegean islands belonged to the Ottoman Empire. Now, 47 years after the last conflict with its fellow NATO ‘ally’ Greece after it invaded Cyprus, the paranoid Turkish government, “wracked by fissures after a failed 2016 coup” according to Victor Davis Hanson, engages in near-daily military altercations with its Hellenic rival in the Mediterranean over the Dodecanese Islands, which hold a demilitarized status according to the 1947 Treaty of Paris and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Located there is an abundance of oil and natural gas. Greece―where 90% of the population identify as Orthodox Christians―shares religious and cultural ties with Russia and Ukraine. Like in 1974, any future conflict would surely end in a stalemate, an economic catastrophe (recall the Greek debt crisis and bailout in 2015, and near exit from the EU), and the nigh destruction of NATO’s southern flank. Russia would doubtless profit, as relations with Greece have blossomed as a consequence of the troika-backed austerity program.

Further inland in Central Asia, the 1920 Soviet annexation of Russian Armenia, another nation with an Orthodox Christian majority, confined Armenians into a territory less than 10% the size of its ancient homeland. But one last bit of business between the new Soviet Union and Turkey remained. Their final treaty, signed in 1921, led to Moscow returning the districts of Kars and Ardahan (which Tsarist Russia had acquired in 1878) to Atatürk’s new government. A century later, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having largely dismantled the secular nature of the Turkish state in place since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk dissolved the Ottoman Empire in 1923, recently ordered that the Hagia Sophia, the center of Orthodox Christianity located in Istanbul (renamed from Constantinople), be returned to its status as a mosque as it had been under Ottoman occupation. Thus when President Joe Biden officially recognized the Armenian Genocide as a reality inflicted by the Ottoman Empire during World War I back in April, it may not have been influenced out of conscience, but because Turkey deployed American-designed fighter jets to Muslim-majority Azerbaijan to project its influence and role in the future conflict with Armenia, a major Russian ally.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a ‘frozen conflict’ after the Cold War over claims to the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, an Armenian enclave located inside of Azerbaijan. Russian state media TASS alleges that Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide only serves to “(raise) the stakes in the struggle for influence in the Caucasus―Russia’s sphere of strategic interest,” while also applying additional pressure on Turkey’s provocations in Armenia, according to Vladimir Vasiliev of the Institute for US and Canadian Studies