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Putin’s Turkish Nightmare

The revived geopolitical rivalry between Russia and Turkey spells trouble for Putin and his allies.

On the first of October 1939, just three days after the fall of Warsaw and Poland’s destruction at the hands of Soviet and German forces, Stalin summoned Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mehmet Şükrü Saracoğlu, to a meeting in the Kremlin. For a brief period after the First World War the two states shared feelings of antipathy for the West. Stalin’s meeting with the Turkish minister changed this condition.

Was the British-French-Turkish Pact, Stalin asked, directed against the Soviet Union? Without waiting for an answer, Stalin reminded the Turkish foreign minister that Britain and France had not declared war on the Soviet Union even though he and the Germans had carved up Poland together. However, the British and French, Stalin warned, might still do so. In that case, roared Stalin, where would Turkey stand? Stalin, always the consummate bully, also noted ominously that, like Poland, Romania had too much territory.

Saracoğlu quickly reassured Stalin that Turkey could void the agreement with Britain and France in order to avoid war with Moscow. However, a week later, when the British military attaché inquired what Ankara would do if the British bombed the Baku oil fields, the British attaché reported that Turkey was begging for the chance to “settle scores with Stalin.”

Turkey’s scores with Russia were never settled. However, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s initial rapport with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was welcomed by many in Moscow as breaking the historic pattern of Turkish enmity toward Russia.

Predictably, Putin was listening when Erdogan told his NATO allies in Brussels that “Turkey is too big and too influential to surrender to a single axis.” Putin downplayed the Turkish shoot-down in Syria of a Russian aircraft and worked hard to sell Russia’s S-400 air defense system to Turkey. When Putin learned from his intelligence services of the plan to overthrow President Erdogan, Putin informed Erdogan.

Unfortunately for Moscow, Putin’s intervention in the Syrian civil war to protect Christians and other religious minorities, including Shiites and Druze, crushed Erdogan’s hopes of transforming Syria into a Sunni Islamist state under Turkish protection. Putin made a supreme effort to assist Erdogan to save face in Syria, offering Erdogan control of Northern Syria. But the strategic result transformed a local struggle with Ankara into a geopolitical rivalry that looks eerily similar to the centuries of Ottoman conflict with Tsarist Russia and the West.

Events in the Caucasus, the Balkans, and Ukraine are obviating the field of opportunity for cooperation between Moscow and Ankara. Ankara’s successful intervention to support Azerbaijan’s seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenian control has worsened the relationship. Armenia’s humiliation may shake the resolve of others allied with Moscow.

More important, across Turkic Muslim Central Asia and inside the Russian Federation millions of Turkic Tatars who speak the same language heard on the streets of Ankara are thrilled with the success of Turkish arms. Even worse, Azerbaijan is now openly an ally of Turkey and, despite promises not to do so, Azerbaijan now hosts Turkish military forces on its territory. The cost to Russia of standing by Armenia’s Christians in their war with Azerbaijan may still be rising.

Erdogan’s desire to keep Russia off balance in the Caucasus prompted him to sign an agreement with the Ukrainian government designed to deepen Ukraine’s defense cooperation with Turkey. Russia’s adroit foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that encouraging “aggressive” Ukrainian actions towards Russian-annexed Crimea amounted to an encroachment on Russia’s territorial integrity. “We hope,” said Lavrov, “Ankara will adjust its line based on our legitimate concerns.” Hope is not a method.

Moscow may even worry that Kiev offered Ankara secret guarantees that, in return for Turkish support, Ukraine will return Crimea to control of Crimea’s Muslim Tatars. Thanks to Putin, Israel has enjoyed a good relationship with Russia, but in the wake of the recent Gaza crisis, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin has now publicly insisted that Israel stop all settlement activities in the Palestinian territories.

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to meet next month in Switzerland. The announced purpose of the meeting is “to discuss Russian-American relations, problems of strategic stability, [and] topical issues on the international agenda.” Before President Biden goes he should consider the following observations and their importance to Moscow and Washington.

According to Erdogan’s critics, Erdogan’s strategic vision for the Turkish nation is to be recognized on the world stage as a global power. This means Turkey must become a Balkan power, a Mediterranean power, a Middle Eastern power, a North African and even limited African power, a Caucasian power, a Central Asian power, a Eurasian power, and especially a Muslim power.

If Biden were to ask Putin where the next Sunni Islamist Caliphate will arise, Putin would likely tell him: “Mr. President, it’s already here. It’s called Turkey, my nightmare.”

Douglas Macgregor, colonel (ret.) U.S. Army and the former senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense, is a Ph.D., the author of five books, and a senior fellow at The American Conservative.