The Turkey-Russia row and a changing balance of power

Turkey’s past tussles with Russia offer no guarantee of similar outcomes today, while geopolitics, rather than history, also holds lessons for Egypt

History does not repeat itself. However, this does not mean that history does not re-appear one way or another in the continuing ramifications of events. What truly repeats itself is geopolitics.

Or, more accurately, geopolitics change only rather slowly. Hence, the underpinning power of such geopolitics becomes a critical factor in determining the course of events.

Geopolitics changes extremely slowly because geography itself does not change. What changes is the political dimension of this geography. Most of the catastrophic mistakes made by policymakers emanate from their lack of awareness of this difference between the stability of geography and the changing elements of politics.

Let us take for instance Russia’s regional standing and its relations with what is known today in Moscow as the near neighbourhood.

Russia rose as a power only in the 16th century. Prior to that, the Duchy of Moscow was nothing but a small emirate under the control of the Tatars. Upon the decline of the Tatars’ influence, the Duchy of Moscow started expanding gradually. Over the next two centuries it had to fight against the empires of northwestern Europe: Lithuania, Poland and Sweden. With the reign of Peter the Great into the early 18th century, it can be said that Russia became an Eurasian power to reckon with posing a constant threat to the Ottoman state.

‘Never provoke Russia’

By virtue of its Christian Orthodox character, it was regarded as a balancing power in the European continent. Today, and following the recent escalation in the Turkish-Russian crisis, which erupted as a result of the shooting down by the Turkish army of a Russian fighter jet that violated Turkish airspace, some people find it convenient to invoke the history of the bitter conflict between tsarist Russia and the Ottoman sultanate.

A few days ago, Norman Stone, Professor of European History at Oxford University, published an interesting commentary about the Turkish-Russian crisis. Stone, who moved to teach in Ankara and Istanbul several years ago, concluded his commentary by noting that the lesson every Turkish leader should remember is “never provoke Russia”. Recalling the series of Russian-Ottoman wars and how the Russian troops nearly reached Istanbul on two occasions in the 19th century, Stone insinuated that Turkey would be the loser as a result of the escalation in the crisis.

It is true that Turkey would undoubtedly lose due to this sudden turbulence in the relations between the two countries; those relations had just been normalised and rebuilt in earnest a little over 10 years ago. Yet, it is necessary also to remember that despite the imperatives of geography and the invocation of the historical experience, the Russia of today is not the Russia of the 19th century and the Turkey of today is not the Ottoman state.

Centre of Christian Orthodoxy?

Tsarist Russia had been in a state of offence against its southern neighbourhood. Since the Russians seized control of the Crimean Peninsula in the 1870s, Tsarist Russia constructed a three-dimensional strategy for its push toward the south: the establishment of a foothold on the Mediterranean coast and seizing control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits; the transformation of Russia into a centre of Christian Orthodoxy and making a claim of responsibility for protecting the Orthodox of the Orient; and the establishment of a Slav Nationalist League that gathered Russia together with the Slav peoples of the Balkans.

However, Russia in post-Soviet times no longer poses the same sort of danger to Turkey. Nor does it occupy the same position in the international arena and in the power balance of the European continent.

The 1936 Montreux Convention settled sovereignty over the Bosphorus straits in favour of the Turkish republic and went on to regulate passage through them, whether for countries overlooking the Black Sea or for other countries of the world. No one party to the convention can single-handedly revoke it, especially when such a party is not a main superpower.

Russia has lost the imperial extension it enjoyed at the peak of tsarist expansion and during the Soviet era. It does not seem likely, in the shade of the current power balance and the transformation of the nation state into a constituent unit of the world order, that any of the former Soviet Union states is on its way to abandoning its own sovereignty in favour of returning to the Russian umbrella.

Despite the short-term rapprochement with the Western bloc states, or the Euro-Atlantic nations, Russia is once again claiming to be the principle centre of power and is adopting a policy of confrontation and interplay with the Western states. On the other hand, while the Western bloc states managed to preserve the NATO alliance in the wake of the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact dissolved. Since then, NATO has pursued a policy of massive expansion into Central and Eastern Europe.

Today, and despite the fact that Russia is a state that overlooks the Black Sea, the other states along the sea coast are either members of the NATO alliance (including Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria) or are considered to be closer to the Western bloc than to Russia (including Ukraine and Georgia). For the first time since the emergence of Russia as a significant European power, nearly all the Balkan states – except for Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina – have become members of NATO.

In other words, the majority of the countries that have Slav and Christian Orthodox majorities in the Balkans cannot be regarded as friends or allies of Russia.

In addition to all of this, Russia witnessed a steep economic decline in the 1990s in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, prompting president Boris Yeltsin to adopt a free-market management.

Afterwards, Russia regained cohesion and saw some economic growth in the first decade of the new millennium thanks to the huge rise in energy prices. However, Russia has been going through an economic recession for the past two years, which is expected to continue to next year, whether due to the huge fall in the prices of energy or due to the sanctions imposed on it by Europe and the United States in consequence of the Ukraine crisis.

In other words, and irrespective of Moscow’s threatening language, perhaps one should not exaggerate the magnitude of the danger and harm Russia poses to Turkey.

Anti-Turkey Egypt under Sisi

Russia is not the only example that warrants attention when it comes to assessing the relationship between geography and politics. Egypt is another, especially after the Sisi regime started its endeavour to build an anti-Turkey East Mediterranean axis. The tripartite meeting this month between Egypt, Cyprus and Greece, which is supposed to become a regular meeting, is one of the most conspicuous features of such an Egyptian policy.

Despite the lack of any tangible evidence yet, some Egyptian media reported recently that it might be possible that the Hebrew state, perhaps also Jordan, could join the Egyptian, Cypriot and Greek meeting.

Of course Egypt did not become a centre of power until two decades after the ambitious Ottoman governor, Muhammad Ali, started to rule the country. Muhammad Ali launched an expansionist push into the Levant and toward Anatolia. His adventure continues to cause controversy among historians about the true nature of its objectives. Ali’s war caused substantial damage to the Ottoman state at the time when it had not yet completed its endeavours to build a modern army to replace the Janissaries system that was cancelled in 1826.

The international balance of power in the Mediterranean put an end to Ali’s adventure. Although he was able by the end of the war to secure his reign and the reign of his dynasty over Egypt, he was nevertheless obliged to shrink his army and dismantle most of the industrial installations he had set up to serve the army. In other words, the war did not end up with massive losses for the Ottoman state alone but for Egypt too.

It would be possible to say that the seeds of the British colonial seizure of Egypt were sown during Ali’s expansionist wars against the sultanate half a century earlier.

Independent Egypt, whether as a monarchy or as a republic, re-emerged as a regional heavyweight in the Orient just like Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Being a Mediterranean state, geography provides Egypt with the opportunity to play a major role in the East Mediterranean. The problem is that the Sisi regime does not realise that geography alone is not sufficient to qualify a certain state to behave as a regional superpower.

Egypt’s military is suffering from a huge decline in resources and capabilities, and Egypt stands on the verge of economic decline and financial ruin. As for the other countries with which Egypt is seeking alliance, one of them is practically bankrupt while the other is a small island that has been living through division for the past four decades.

And as for the Hebrew state, which is likely to join this alliance, it is, from the point of view of the majority of the Egyptian people, an enemy state. In other words, irrespective of the objectives the Sisi regime has in mind, it is too early to see the viability or the likely impact of the East Mediterranean alliance he is pursuing, let alone the fact that such efforts may indeed lead Egypt into another disaster.

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