The Centennial of Turkish-Russian Relations

It has been 100 years since the signing of the Treaty of Moscow between the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on March 16, 1921. This treaty enabled Moscow to recognize the Ankara Government and laid the foundations of a friendship that continues today. The Treaty of Moscow has not lost its importance and validity even after many years; on the contrary, its significance is growing day by day and is still considered as a “milestone” of Turkish-Russian relations today.

In this regard, Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM) presents the opinions of the experts in their fields and academicians to interpret the events between the two countries for the last 100 years as well as the Turkish-Russian relations today since the Treaty of Moscow.

Asst. Prof. Emre OZAN (ANKASAM Consultant for Turkish Foreign Policy)

Dr. Emre Ozan stated that, “The Treaty of Moscow, signed in 1921, shows that diplomacy is as decisive as military victory in the success of the War of Independence. The treaty should be perceived as a product of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s successful diplomacy. Atatürk’s success in diplomacy was not clear only in the National Struggle but also after the proclamation of the republic. Even though Ottoman-Russian relations have witnessed rivalries and wars throughout history, close cooperation with the Soviet Union during the period of Atatürk is an important turning point in Turkish foreign policy.”

Reminding that hostile relations prevailed between the two countries during the Cold War period and that there are vicissitudes in Turkish-Russian relations today, Ozan said, “However, the days when both sides saw each other as enemies or rivals are now over. Many international problems require partnership. Although disputed issues in relations are still important, Turkey and Russia have demonstrated the ability to keep them at a certain level in recent years. This is a great achievement for Turkey.”

Hasan KANBOLAT (President of Ankara Policy Center)Hasan Kanbolat

Stating that the Treaty of Moscow is a formation that ended the wars between the two states and started the period of stability that has lasted until today, Hasan Kanbolat said, “The Treaty is extremely important. It is a treaty setting our Black Sea and Eastern borders. Turkey secured its eastern borders and turned its face to the West and waged the War of Independence successfully. However, when the treaty was signed, dissolution of the empires was not completed yet. Therefore, the treaty was based on trust between the two states.”

Stating that the Treaty of Moscow prepared as basis for cooperation between the two countries, Kanbolat said, “The Treaty of Kars was signed immediately after the Treaty of Moscow. This has further increased bilateral cooperation. The agreement is significant not only politically and militarily but also because it constitutes the foundations of the commercial and industrial dimensions between the two countries. That is why it is one of the founding treaties of the Republic of Turkey.”

Referring to Turkish-Russian relations today, Kanbolat said, “It is seen that political and military relations between the two countries are developing. From an economic perspective, it can be observed that the Soviet Union took part in the most important heavy industry moves since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. This situation has not changed today. The opening of Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, Turkey’s the biggest project is being built by the capital and the support of Russia. The trade volume of 100 billion dollars is intended to be achieved between the two countries, even though the equilibrium will again be in favor of Russia. Russia’s exports have also exceeded Turkish exports in agriculture and livestock for the last two years. Therefore, balanced trade relations are not only important for Turkey, but also for Russia.”

Prof. Sait YILMAZ (Esenyurt University- Political Science and International Relations)

Prof. Dr. Sait Yılmaz interpreted that, “Although the relations between Turkey and Russia reveals cooperation and convergence, especially with the Astana Process in Syria, it is mostly shaped by Moscow’s interests and the limits it imposes, and this causes some problems in the relations. For instance, Russia has borders in Syria. Unfortunately, as soon as these borders are crossed, it was seen that Turkish troops were attacked. A similar scenario is experienced in Libya as well. The situation exposes that the Ankara-Moscow relations are not based on mutual interests but there are differences in their interests.”

Stating that we are not in a real friendly relationship with Russia, Yılmaz said, “The biggest reason for this is that this situation is against Russian culture. The Russians see themselves as a hegemonic power with the United States of America (USA). Russians are not emotional like Turkish. At this point, the most important feature of Russia is following aggressive policies directly such as annexing Crimea and occupying eastern Ukraine unlike the U.S., acting indirectly.”

Despite all these, reminding that Russia is being contained by the West in recent years, and especially trapped due to the sanctions imposed on it because of Ukraine, Yılmaz said, “Because of this entrapment, Russia began to emphasize its relations to Turkey. It is because of both its interests on energy and also seeing Turkey as a good investment place economically.”

Halil AKINCI (Ambassador, Retired)

Ambassador Halil Akıncı made evaluations about the last periods of the Russian Empire and said, “During the period of Tsarist Russia, there was a constant state of war between the two states. In addition to its territorial claims, Russia helped countries such as Serbia, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire. In the 1920s, with the new governments established in the two countries, the territorial claims were no longer a priority. Moreover, having lost Kars and Ardahan in 1878, Turkey reclaimed them. In other words, Turkey has gained territory for the first time. With the Treaty of Moscow signed in 1921, the borders became permanent between the two countries. Signing the Treaty of Kars with Georgia, Avzerbaijan and Armenia in October of the same year also reinforced this situation.”

Emphasizing that the relations of Turkey and Russia thrived with the Treaty of Moscow, signed 100 years ago, Akıncı said that “The first reflection of the Treaty was the Treaty of Friendship and Neutrality signed in 1925. In the 1930s, textile industry was founded by the Russians in Turkey, and the first industrialization plan was also made with the support of Russia. However, by 1945, the agreement was not extended and the Cold War broke out between the two countries, as in the rest of the world. However, the Soviet Union demanded the Straits, Kars and Ardahan.”

Akıncı said, “The Cold War was reflected in Ankara-Moscow relations heavily until 1954. However, after the death of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s withdrawal of its territorial claims and demands on the Straits was the basis for a rapprochement in relations. This detente resulted in the announcement of the former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes that he would visit Russia in July 1960. Ironically, the Coup of 1960 froze Turkish-Russian relations until 1965.”

Reminding that with the former Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel’s visit to Russia in 1967, Moscow started to be more involved in the heavy industry of Turkey again, Akıncı said “The aluminum industry, oil refineries, iron and steel facilities that Western states did not want to establish in Turkey, and even prevented from being established, were built with the loan given by Russia, on the condition that the money was paid with Turkish goods. Thus, in 1960 the pessimism of the Cold War was overcome and the Soviet Union became important again as country that contributed most to Turkey’s industrialization.  In the 1980s, relations gained a new economic dimension, and it was seen that the most important factor of this was the payment of 70% of the natural gas price we received as goods and services. Therefore, Turkish contractors entered the Soviet market. Following this, other steps were taken in other fields and economic relations between the two countries improved.”

Akıncı stated, “In 1991, before the Soviet Union officially dissolved, the Friendship Agreement, which the Russians did not extend in 1945, was signed again. The Article 16 of the treaty is very important. The article, ‘The Soviet Union encourages the relations of the Soviet Republics with Turkey.’ This shows that the trust between the two countries is at a high level. The treaty, in 1992; that is, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was re-signed with the Russian Federation and the general framework of Article 16 was preserved.”

Stating that agreements and relations related to that follow a “zig-zag” course, Akıncı said, “The parties continued these relations by bypassing the issues that could not be reached, and developed relations based on the agreed points. As a matter of fact, this approach prevented deep frictions between the two countries. Relations will continue with this pragmatic approach.”

Finally, Akıncı made it clear that “When all these are evaluated, it is observed that the relations were contentious on the one hand and the existence of relations that develop in harmony on the other hand. Turkey tries to balance its relations with the West on its the relations with Russia and Russia is trying to keep Turkey away from the West as much as possible. However, it should not be forgotten that the determining factor on the tone and scope of the relations is the attitude of Moscow.”

Cenk BAŞLAMIŞ (Journalist)

Journalist Cenk Başlamış stated that “The anniversary of the Treaty of Moscow signed on 16 March 1921, ‘the Centennial of the Turkish-Russian relations’ was celebrated between Turkey and Russia. This treaty defining the border of Turkey today is important historically; however, the history of diplomatic relations between the two countries goes back to the 1490s. Relationships started 524 years ago went through different processes ranging from war times to friendly relations. The Turkish-Russian wars cover an important period of time in 350 years between 1568-1918. As the two empires spent exactly 69 years in a state of war and, approximately fought every 25 years.”

Reminding that it was not a coincidence that Turkey and Russia fought many times in the past, Başlamış said, “Both countries, pursuing leadership in the same region, are ambitious and challenging. Although this seems to be contradictory, this situation has forced the two countries to cooperate frequently throughout history. It is possible to explain this situation as ‘better be an ally rather than a rival.’ This tactic is forcing Turkey and Russia to cooperate in many areas today, such as working closely in Syria. Under normal circumstances, neither Ankara nor Moscow would want to see their opponent in the Syrian field. There is also an aspect of compulsory cooperation that concerns the third countries: both sides tend to use their mutual relations as leverage against the West.”

Finally, he concluded that “We often witness headlines such as the ‘Turkish-Russian honeymoon’ and ‘Turkish-Russian strategic partnership’ in the media. However, Ankara-Moscow relations are mainly based on pragmatism and have the potential to deteriorate due to the frequent conflict of interests.”

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Özge Eletek 1999 yılında İzmir’de doğdu. İlk ve orta öğretim hayatını İzmir’de tamamlayan Eletek, 2017 yılında Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nü kazandı. Çeşitli düşünce kuruluşlarında birçok konferans ve seminere katılan Eletek, Ankara Kriz ve Siyaset Araştırmaları Merkezi’ndeki stajını sürdürmektedir.