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.