The downing of a Russian Su-24 fighter near the Syrian border by a Turkish F-16 last month has put a chill on Russian-Turkish relations, ending an era of good feelings and burgeoning travel, trade, and educational contacts. In the ensuing war of words, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of facilitating and personally profiting from ISIS oil sales “on an industrial scale” and has levied a series of economic sanctions on Turkey. Erdoğan, far from apologizing, denied all wrongdoing and accused Putin of “slander.” Turkey’s patience, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu pointedly warned Russia last weekend, “has a limit.” The Russians have a different understanding of limits; they have acted to suspend or curtail nearly all bilateral economic associations with Turkey. Visa-free travel, inaugurated in 2011, has also been suspended.
Because Turkey is a member of NATO, the Russo-Turkish clash has also affected U.S.-Russian relations, which were already tense due to Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine, as well as disagreements over the Syrian civil war. These tensions have given rise to fears of a new Cold War or, worse, a hot war spiraling into World War III. So far the U.S. government has done little more than back Turkey’s claims as regards the Russian warplane’s flight path and the radio warnings it was given prior to the shootdown. This has been enough to convince Moscow that the U.S. government stands behind Turkey.
Whatever the truth about the incident—and about Russia’s claims of ISIS oil sales in Turkey—Western statesmen should continue to tread lightly. For Moscow, U.S.-Turkish cooperation in support of the Syrian opposition remains serious business—and not just because Syria under Bashar al-Assad is a Russian client dating back to Soviet times. The dangers go much deeper than suggested by the facile notion of a new Cold War.
From the Russian perspective, the Syrian story fits into a pattern of Western hostility dating all the way back to the Crimean War of the 1850s, when Britain and France (along with Piedmont-Sardinia) teamed up with the Ottoman Empire against Russia. Then as now, fears of Russian expansionism to the south spurred Western powers into a somewhat improbable (and reckless) embrace of an established Islamic power and its more extreme Islamist clients in the Caucasus.
A close look at the history of the Crimean War (1853–56) reveals some uncanny parallels. The Russia of Czar Nicholas I (1825–55), like Putin’s increasingly illiberal Russia today, had an unsavory reputation in the West. Nicholas I’s reign was literally born in reaction, with the repression of the so-called Decembrist Uprising of liberal-minded army officers who had tasted European liberties during the Napoleonic wars. In foreign affairs, Nicholas I positively embraced his role as “gendarme of Europe” in the Metternich system, sending troops to suppress popular rebellions, most recently in 1849 to help Austria (already busy fighting Italian rebels) defeat an insurgency of Hungarian nationalists led by Lajos Kossuth. In this way the reactionary Czar helped, in his view, to restore peace, law, order, and the monarchical principle, or, in the view of European liberals, to snuff out the promise of the democratic “springtime of peoples” of 1848.
As if obeying an unwritten law of geopolitics, the Western powers coupled the growing distaste of “respectable opinion” for reactionary Russia with a strange new respect for the Ottoman Empire, previously viewed as the “terrible Turk.” In 1839, Sultan Mahmud II had launched the Tanzimat, a series of reforms that partially (though not completely) dismantled sharia law, including the death penalty for apostasy from Islam, lifted in 1844. As if to put the finishing touches on Turkey’s diplomatic courtship of the Western powers, Mahmud’s successor, Abdul Mecid I, offered political asylum to Kossuth and other European exiles of the failed revolutions of 1848.
In Britain and France, Turcophilia began to seem like the natural accompaniment to Russophobia. The Turks listened to Western advice, opened their economy to European imports and firms, adopted liberal reforms, and accepted refugees. Nicholas I stood for brutish reaction, crushing freedom fighters wherever they appeared (including in the Caucasus, where the anti-Russian holy war of Imam Shamil, the “Lion of Daghestan,” became a fashionable fundraising cause in English society). Thus was born the peculiar diplomacy of the Crimean War, which saw the leading “liberal” powers, Britain and France, goad the Ottoman Empire and its Islamist Caucasian allies, into holy war against Christian Russia.
While Western literature on the conflict speaks of Russian expansionism, this is a misreading of causation. The diplomatic crisis began with a demand lodged by French Emperor Napoleon III that control of (literally, the keys to) the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem be transferred from Greek Orthodox to Catholic Christians. By sending a warship into Ottoman territorial waters, Napoleon III made perfectly clear that he was trying to provoke Nicholas I.
The Czar took the bait. In March 1853, after sounding out the British Ambassador to St. Petersburg over a possible partition of the Ottoman Empire (it was during this conversation, leaked to London, that the Czar first spoke of the Ottoman “sick man”; contrary to legend he never actually said “sick man of Europe”), Nicholas I dispatched a diplomatic mission, led by the imposing Cavalry General Alexander Menshikov. Declaring, in an exaggeration of the truth, that a 1774 treaty gave Russia protection rights over all Ottoman Christians (in fact the treaty granted this right only in certain areas, like the Danube Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia and later Serbia), Menshikov demanded an imperial sened re-affirming these rights.
The ensuing negotiations were complex, but their essence was captured when Ottoman Foreign Minister Rifaat Pasha warned Menshikov: “Do not push us to extremes, or you will compel us to throw ourselves into the arms of others.” Catching the hint of possible British or French intervention on the Turkish side, Menshikov dropped Russia’s demand for a binding diplomatic sened, saying that a “free but solemn engagement” from the Sultan would suffice. But the Turks, urged on by Britain’s ferociously Russophobic Ambassador Stratford Canning, refused, stacking the deck for war.
Russia made the first move when the Czar’s troops crossed the Pruth River in early July 1853. But war enthusiasm rose on all sides. It was the Ottomans, not the Russians, who rejected a mediation plan brokered in Vienna. It was in Constantinople that Islamic holy war demonstrations erupted in September. It was the Ottomans, not the Russians, who first declared war. Even after taking the plunge four weeks later, the Russians, despite having crushing superiority on all fronts, delayed, unsure of British and French intentions. After receiving an ultimatum from London that Britain would not do anything unless Russian troops either crossed the Danube or attacked Turkey’s Black Sea coast, Nicholas I erupted, “This is infamous!” Not until the inferior Ottoman fleet taunted the Russians by cruising past the Russian base at Sevastopol did the Russian fleet, on November 30, 1853, bombard Sinop and thereby provide France and Britain their casus belli.
In this slipshod way began the bloodiest Great Power conflict between 1815 and 1914. The Crimean War left virtually all sides embittered (except, perhaps, opportunistic Piedmont-Sardinia, which somehow leveraged the war into Italian unification). Embarrassed British statesmen, having come during the war, in the words of Lord Clarendon, “to know more about the united ignorance and stupidity of the Mahomedans” than they cared to, veered to the opposite extreme by 1876, with the publication of Gladstone’s anti-Turkish-atrocity polemic on the “Bulgarian Horrors.” Showing how complete the reversal was, Stratford Canning endorsed Gladstone’s Russophilic polemic—which was translated into Russian and sold “at cost,” helping pan-Slavists make the case for Russia’s “humanitarian” invasion of Turkey in 1877.
Statesmen often have short memories. But we should not let them off the hook so easily. In 1853, Canning had ginned up a war with Russia, knowing perfectly well that Nicholas I had begged Britain to cooperate in finding a solution to the Eastern Question. Some 23 years later, Canning threw in with Gladstone’s Russophiles, who were urging a new Czar to invade Turkey to defend Ottoman Christians against Muslim atrocities. Will today’s Western statesmen come to feel similar regrets two decades from now if they goad Erdoğan into erecting a wall of enmity with Putin’s Russia, leading perhaps to much worse than a fighter shootdown?
Many in the West view Putin today as Nicholas I was viewed in 1853. From his regime’s anti-democratic tendencies to its positions on gender and sexuality, Putin is an unapologetic reactionary. In his strategic moves in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria, Putin has become a latter-day gendarme of Europe, who stands for raw national interest versus the wobbly internationalism of the EU and UN.
And now Erdoğan is reprising the role of Abdul Mecid I against Nicholas I, playing on Western Russophobia as he goads Putin into a showdown in Syria. The existence of NATO, with all its attendant infrastructure linking Ankara, Brussels, and Washington, makes his work easier than it should be, considering the increasingly strident authoritarianism of Erdoğan’s Islamist government, which departs further every year from the democratic values of the other alliance member states. No matter how atrociously Erdoğan treats domestic opponents, Kurds, or anyone else who stands in his way, Western “Cannings” support his hard line against Putin.
They should be careful what they wish for. Buyer’s remorse has already set in for many U.S. policymakers over the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Qaddafi in 2011, with the chaos engulfing postwar Iraq and Libya helping fuel the growth of ISIS. In Syria, whatever the intentions of Western policy regarding the opposition, evidence suggests that it is extremist groups like like Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate) and ISIS that have flourished, with the connivance, if not the direct encouragement, of Turkey. Erdoğan, in turn, has been operating on the belief that Turkish membership in NATO gives him carte blanche in Syria, and against Russia. If this belief is mistaken, it should be unequivocally and publicly contradicted.
Putin’s Russia may be no more attractive as a partner than the Russia of Nicholas I. We would be fools, however, to repeat the mistake of the Crimean War by throwing ourselves into bed with just anyone who happens to oppose him. NATO or no NATO, the Cold War is over, and Russia is all but begging the West to cooperate in preserving what is left of Syria before it turns into another jihadi wasteland—or, at the very least, to refrain from taking sides once again in a Turkish-Russian dispute that, let’s be honest, has nothing whatsoever to do with NATO. Left to his own devices, Erdoğan would no more have provoked Putin to the brink of war than the Ottomans, absent Canning’s cheerleading, would have fought Russia in 1853. This is not our fight.