Recently, a group of members of the Russian Duma called for the renunciation of the so-called 1921 Treaty of Brotherhood between Russia and Turkey.
This move follows a series of recent confrontations between Turkey and Russia along the old fault lines of the Ottoman and Russian Empires.
While the Duma is likely to reject the request to renounce the treaty, this episode offers an insight into the prevalent thinking about Turkey among many of Russia’s political elite.
Underneath the geo-political tensions in the Middle East, the South Caucasus, and the Balkans simmers a tension between Russia and Turkey going back centuries.
Simmering for centuries
When the Russian fighter plane was shot down last November by Turkey after illegally crossing into Turkish air space, many commentators were talking about a new confrontation between Turkey and Russia.
However, for those who follow the region, there was nothing “new” about this at all.
Russia and Turkey have long competed against one another for influence in the region. Since the 16th century Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire) and Russia have gone to war at least 12 times – nine times had some connection to the Crimea Peninsula.
Russia's recent military intervention in Syria is not its first. In 1772, Russia landed troops in the Syrian Levant to back a local strongman against the Ottoman Empire.
Russia’s recent military intervention in Syria is not its first. In 1772, Russia landed troops in the Syrian Levant to back a local strongman against the Ottoman Empire.
In 1879, Russian forces made it as close to Constantinople as the modern-day location of Ataturk Airport.
During World War I, the two powers traded blows in Eastern Anatolia and across the South Caucasus, resulting in devastating losses for both sides. Russia even armed local Kurdish forces during the war.
Russia has long coveted the Turkish Straits and it despises the 1936 Montreux Convention which gives Turkey sovereign control over them. Control of Constantinople (later Istanbul) has been a dream for Russian admirals for generations.
After World War II there was even a failed attempt by Moscow to claim large swaths of Turkey, including the Black Sea port of Trabzon, for the Soviet Union.
Old habits die hard
Undoubtedly, Turkey’s decision to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1952 was a result of the Soviet Union’s aggressive behaviour. But since the end of the Cold War, Russia continues to push the envelope with Turkey – and NATO.
Recently a group of members of the Russian Duma called for the renunciation of the so-called 1921 Treaty of Brotherhood between Russia and Turkey. While the Duma is likely to reject the request, this still offers an insight into the prevalent thinking about Turkey among many of Russia’s political elite.
Today Russia is probing and entering Turkish air space, transiting its warships through the heart of Istanbul with sailors on deck armed with shoulder-fired missiles, and supporting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s arch-nemesis Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia is arming the Syrian Kurds, to the dismay of Ankara, and also just reinforced the 5,000 Russian troops already based in Armenia, most of which are a mere 10km from the border with Turkey.
Moscow has also implemented a wide range of economic sanctions against Turkey and has cancelled important energy deals. Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the persecution of the Tatars who live there continues. During imperial times this alone would have been cause enough for war between the two countries.
An important player
It is no surprise Turkey is worried. As a member of NATO the Alliance should be worried too.
Turkey has the second largest military in NATO after the US. They have commanded the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan twice and have sent thousands of troops to serve under the NATO flag in multiple military operations.
Turkey is also rumoured to play host to US tactical nuclear weapons which form an important part of NATO’s nuclear deterrence capability. Turkey is home to an X-Band radar crucial for NATO’s missile defence and Ankara contributes to NATO’s rapid reaction capabilities and joint initiatives such as Baltic Air Policing.
Furthermore, Turkey has close cultural and economic relations with the Central Asian Republics in the heart of Eurasia – a region becoming increasingly important.
The geo-political reality
Without a doubt Western Europe and the US’s relationship with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is complex. Many of the actions of Erdogan’s government, especially when it comes to the crackdown on media freedoms, sits uncomfortably with many in Washington DC, Paris or London – and for good reason.
But while these concerns need to be addressed with Ankara, it should be done so outside the NATO framework.
NATO needs Turkey today for the same reasons it did during the Cold War. Like it or not, this is the geo-political reality and it is time policymakers acknowledge this.
NATO should not cut off the nose to spite the face. In the face of Russian aggression and ISIL’s barbarity, pragmatism is the only way forward with Turkey. This means fully engaging with Turkey inside NATO – not pushing Ankara away.
Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.