Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have had a love-hate relationship over the decades, but their ties are undeniably strong.

The Russian and Turkish presidents have also become known for their antagonistic relationship, particularly when it comes to geopolitics. While both leaders have been accused of clamping down on civil liberties at home, they’ve also positioned themselves as world leaders who can stand up to Western liberal democracies. The tension between these two men is not new, however.

Their relationship has gone through many ups and downs over the past decades. Both men have personal histories that explain how they came to distrust each other so much. Understanding what led to this complicated dynamic between Putin and Erdogan helps us understand why they clash so often today.

Erdogan and Putin: Two men, two countries, and the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic empire that lasted from 1299 to 1923. It was established in what is now Turkey, the Balkans, and the Middle East, and its capital was Constantinople (now Istanbul). By the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was in decline. It lost territory in the Balkans and was no longer the dominant power in the Middle East. The empire ended when Constantinople was invaded and occupied by the Allied Powers in October of 1918. The empire’s territory covered most of Middle Eastern Asia and Mediterranean Europe then. Turkey is its modern-day successor.

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was expanding its influence outside its borders. Many Eastern European nations were under the communist yoke. Moreover, the Middle East was embroiled in the conflict between Israel and several Arab countries, and the United States actively participated in that conflict.

The world was changing, and these leaders watched it happen. They saw the technological revolution of the ’80s and ’90s alter how the rest of the world did business. They saw how nations worked together to banish the specter of communism from Eastern Europe. They saw how the United States worked with its allies to defeat the evil of terrorism from the Middle East. The 19th century had been a period of increasing tensions between the West and the Ottoman Empire, with Russia, Great Britain, and France all seeking to gain more significant political influence in the Middle East. That period of competition and tension culminated with the outbreak of World War I.

The Russian-Turkish war of 1877

Pleven Epopee
Pleven Epopee 1877, more commonly known as Pleven Panorama, is a panorama located in Pleven, Bulgaria, that depicts the events of the Russian-Turkish War of 1877–78. (Source: Klearchos Kapoutsis/Flickr)

Then came the Russo-Turkish War. The war was sparked by the Eastern Question, a diplomatic issue concerning Europe since the end of the Ottoman–Safavid War in 1796. The Eastern Question asked what would happen to the shrinking Ottoman Empire, which had once been a mighty empire stretched across Europe and Asia. Europe was growing closer together thanks to things like trade and railroads, and the Eastern Question was a pressing issue for diplomats. The Eastern Question was also fundamental to the people who lived in the Ottoman Empire. Many different ethnic groups were crammed together within its borders, and the Eastern Question gave them hope that they could one day be free from the Ottoman rule. It was also critical in shaping the relationships between these three countries and their leaders. These are just some of the essential points that shaped the relationship between Putin and Erdogan.

The Russian-Turkish war of 1877 was the first time that Putin and Erdogan’s ancestors had met on the battlefield. The conflict was the result of several geopolitical factors. Putin’s ancestors were part of the Russian Empire, a growing political and military power in Eurasia in the late 19th century. The Ottoman Empire, by contrast, was a declining power. This was particularly true after Sultan Abdülhamid II came to power in 1876, at which point he tried to focus on defending the Ottoman Empire against external threats. Both the Russian and Ottoman empires tried to expand into Central Asia, but the two sides clashed in what is now Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Russian-Turkish war of 1877 ended with a decisive Russian victory.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of modern Turkey

The Russian-Turkish war of 1877 demonstrated how the Ottoman Empire grew weaker as a global power. On the other hand, the war also illustrated how the Russian Empire was rising as a growing regional power. This ever-increasing tension between Russia and the Ottoman Empire came to a head during the so-called “First Balkan War.” The First Balkan War is significant because it was the first time Erdogan’s ancestors participated in a war. The conflict, which took place in the early 20th century, was part of an effort among the Balkan countries to break away from the Ottoman Empire. The Russian-Turkish war of 1877 had left bitter feelings on both sides, leading Russia to support the Balkan countries’ independence movements. This meant that, from the Ottoman Empire’s perspective, Russia was adding fuel to the fire in the hopes of weakening its rival.

The friendship between Kemal Atatürk and Stalin

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and military companions
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Ottoman 5th Army (HQ Damascus) officers. (Beirut, 15 July 1906) (Source: Unknown author/Wikimedia)

Both countries have a long history of hostility towards each other. Russia and Turkey repeatedly clashed throughout the 19th century. The two countries almost came to blows in the early 20th century, but this confrontation was averted thanks to the intervention of Britain. Throughout most of the 20th century, the two countries were on opposite sides of the Cold War. Turkey was a close ally of the United States, whereas Russia was under the yoke of Soviet communism. However, the fall of communism did not end tensions between Russia and Turkey. In the early years of the 21st century, there were several confrontations between the two countries. The most serious of these was in November 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that it said had crossed into its territory.

That being said, there was a brief period during the Second World War when Erdogan’s and Putin’s ancestors were on the same side. At the time, Turkey was part of the anti-Soviet coalition. There is little information about Putin’s grandfather, but he too fought in the First World War. He was a cook in the Russian Army and worked as a policeman. In the early 1930s, when the Soviets and Turks had a strained relationship, Vladimir Spiridonovich was arrested. Little is known about what happened to him, but the most likely hypothesis is that he was executed.

The Soviet leader was eager to meet the Turkish president, and he took the initial friendship between the two leaders was cemented by their joint opposition to Nazi Germany. They were revolutionaries who had transformed their countries and assumed total control of their governments. They were both atheists and had no time for religion. They were both autocrats who did not tolerate opposition and expected absolute obedience from their people.

They were both determined to make their countries significant players on the international stage and were prepared to challenge Western dominance. Nevertheless, they were both suspicious of each other’s intentions. Stalin, who was about to inaugurate a new and bloodier phase in his drive to create a socialist society in the Soviet Union, wanted to know if Atatürk’s Turkey had any interest in joining the Cominform, the Soviet-sponsored association of Communist and pro-Communist parties and movements. Their joint opposition to Nazi Germany cemented the friendship between the two leaders. As a result, they signed the Ankara Pact in October 1939, which guaranteed the territorial integrity of the Second Polish Republic, now under Soviet occupation. This is significant because Stalin was the ruler of the Soviet Union when the country and Turkey established official diplomatic relations.

Putin’s rise to power and his relationship with Erdogan

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a significant moment in Russian and Turkish history. It was a moment that marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. The dissolution of the Soviet Union generated a lot of uncertainty about the future of Russia, along with anxiety about what would happen to certain territories. Putin’s rise to power in Russia in the late 1990s was a reaction to this uncertainty. However, it also represented a highly conservative turn in Russian politics and a turn towards authoritarianism and anti-Western sentiment. Putin’s conservative and anti-Western worldview has led to tense relations with the Western world. It has also led to tense relations with Erdogan, who has adopted a conservative and anti-Western political posture.

2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt

Squares protests Turkish Coup Attempt
2016 Turkish no coup d’état attempt democracy protest, 17 June 2016. (Source: Pivox/Wikimedia)

The 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt was a watershed moment in Russo-Turkish relations. Putin’s response to the coup détat attempt was highly aggressive. First, the Russian president issued a statement suggesting he had waited for an excuse to attack Turkey. Second, he accused Turkey of being behind the coup attempt and demanded that Turkish President Erdogan extradite the people whom Putin charged with organizing the plot.

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For one thing, it was highly suspicious that he had such detailed information about the plot within hours of it happening. In addition, Putin’s response was over the top and aggressive. In the end, Putin’s response to the coup increased tensions between the two countries.

2017 Istanbul New Year’s celebration bombing

2017 was another eventful year in Russo-Turkish relations. It was marked by the 2017 Istanbul New Year’s celebration bombing, which led to a diplomatic dispute between the two countries. The Istanbul attack was the city’s first major terrorist attack during Putin’s presidency. Russian authorities responded by pointing the finger of blame at the Turkish government. The Russian government alleged that the Turkish government had either been complicit with the attack or had failed to stop it from happening. This led to a diplomatic dispute between the two countries. It also led to increased pressure on Erdogan’s government, which came under criticism from the Russian government for failing to prevent the attack.

2018 Ankara Russia’s Ambassador assassination

The 2018 Ankara Russia Ambassador assassination marked a new turning point in Russo-Turkish relations. The assassination of Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, occurred when the two countries were already engaging in a tense dispute over Syria. After the assassination, Erdogan’s government accused the Russian government of being behind the attack. The Turkish government also claimed that the people behind the attack were members of the Chechen mafia, who were Kremlin agents. This led to a new level of tension between the two countries. However, despite the assassination, it seemed like Putin and Erdogan were reluctant to escalate their dispute.

Key Takeaway

The relationship between Putin and Erdogan has been tense since the two men came to power in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This is large because the two men share a conservative, anti-Western worldview and are suspicious of one another. There is also a long history of animosity between Russia and Turkey, a rivalry that dates back to the late 19th century.

Now, Putin and Erdogan are shaking hands yet again to see how they will present their partnership amidst Russia’s continued plans to invade Ukraine.

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