The history of the Ottomans and the Russians is ancient. The long list of conflicts between the two spans almost 500 years, with battles across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Both have seen meteoric rises and slow declines, periods of irrelevance on the world stage, and now, more importantly, a coupled renaissance as shadows of their former empires. But what hasn’t changed over the centuries are the battlefields and areas of influence where the two clash.
A quick look at a map of the Russian and Ottoman empires quickly sheds light on why this is so. The two empires shared borders in the Balkans, the Caucasus Mountains and, at times, Ukraine. As a general rule, two countries or empires that share a border are bound to come into conflict sooner or later. In this case, it is important to understand that the Russian and Ottoman territories on the periphery changed hands frequently. A city could find itself a possession of the Ottomans in one century, while the next it would be under the protection of the tsars of Russia. With this historical context in mind, it is easy to see why Turkey and Russia continue to compete for influence over these regions: they have historically been the possessions of both empires, and significant cultural and historical value is attached to them. assigned. In recent years, this long-running contest for influence has manifested itself in nearly half a dozen disputes. Although they may seem distant and unrelated in a history book, these wars are strategically linked.
The first is the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, which began in 1988 and pitted the armies of Armenia and Azerbaijan, two countries in the Caucasus, against each other. For those unfamiliar with this region, it is located between the Caspian Sea to the east, the Black Sea and Turkey to the west, the Caucasus Mountains and Russia to the north, and the Persian deserts to the south. Historically, the Caucasus region was used by the Ottomans and Russians to invade each other. This has become true again in the modern era, as post-Soviet Russia sought to exert influence over Azerbaijan and Armenia and broker a peace agreement between the two nations. This was a delicate position for the Russian Federation for two reasons. First, the conflict was between two former Soviet satellite states, with many Soviet veterans volunteering to fight for both sides. Second, Russia has had to deal with other nations interfering in its former sphere of influence by supporting Armenia or Azerbaijan. In this case, Turkey chose to support Azerbaijan.
It was the first time in the modern era that Turkey and Russia behaved like old adversaries in tension for hundreds of years, even if it was unintentional. By choosing to support Azerbaijan, Turkey was weakening Russia’s influence in the region and creating the conditions to threaten Russia’s allies in the future. For Turkey, this conflict has become a perpetual thorn in the side of Russia, with the constant threat of war and refugees located on the Russian border. Over the past two years, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has repeatedly revived with momentum squarely in favor of Azerbaijan. Since 2020, Turkey and Russia have discussed the issue several times, but violence erupted again this month.
The second major conflict in the modern era was the Kosovo War and the breakup of Yugoslavia, which again occurred in a region where Turkey and Russia had historical and ethnic ties. Because of this history, both countries sought to act on the world stage to influence the war. The conflict served as another wake-up call for Russia – it was the second time a former Soviet zone of influence had fallen to war, and other nations had stepped in to tip the scales against Russian interests . Turkey, meanwhile, realized that it had been able to achieve limited goals both in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and now in the Balkans. Moreover, like the Nagorno-Karabakh war, tensions began to rise again in the Balkans in late 2020, with reports of clashes on the Serbia-Kosovo border as recently as last month.
The next round of conflicts radically changed the strategic landscape of Russia and Turkey. Longtime Russian allies, Syria and Libya both descended into civil wars in the spring of 2011. Russia intervened in 2015 on behalf of Bashar al-Assad and stabilized his grip on power. Turkey intervened in Syria in 2016, pushing its southern border and seizing territory. For the first time, Turkey intervened directly in a Russian zone of influence and threatened the territorial integrity of a Russian ally. This model of intervention has also extended to Libya.
Details are scarce, but at some point in 2019 the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, appeared on the battlefield in Libya and supported the Libyan National Army and the Libyan House of Representatives, one of the two competing governments of Libya. A year later, in 2020, Turkey began providing military support to the Government of National Accord, Libya’s UN-recognized government. Syria and Libya became frozen conflicts after Turkey and Russia held a long series of conferences and negotiations. A repeated pattern had now emerged.
Where Russia appeared within reach of Turkish influence, Turkey could and would react. It was never enough to bring the two countries to war, but enough to tip the scales towards balance or just slightly in favor of Turkish interests, forcing Russia to concede something in the negotiations. If Russia suddenly had the upper hand in Syria, Turkey could engage in Libya, a round of negotiations could take place and the two could agree on an acceptable outcome. This pattern could repeat itself endlessly as world events changed, as economies grew and deteriorated, or as governments collapsed. If one country loses in both Syria and Libya, provocations in Azerbaijan or Armenia could force the other back to the negotiating table. It seems there have been too many frozen conflicts for anyone to handle effectively, but just enough to force concessions when necessary. This balance seemed durable, until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
In its preparations to invade Ukraine, Russia gathered much of its combat power throughout its territory and concentrated it in Europe. The move was nothing short of a big gamble. It now appears that Russian leader Vladimir Putin believed that Ukraine would quickly collapse and be absorbed into the Russian Federation. After six months of conflict, it is clear that he was wrong. Heavy casualties, international arms shipments to Ukraine, crippling economic sanctions and embarrassment have so far been Putin’s reward. Meanwhile, Turkey has been arming Ukrainian forces with drones, much like it did in Libya. Ukrainian officials claimed that these drones had a major impact on the battlefield and helped them thwart Russian offensives.
But now a new question hangs over all these conflicts. With Russia’s failure to achieve its goals in Ukraine, outbreaks of violence in Serbia, Libya, and now Armenia and Azerbaijan, is the delicate balancing act coming to an end? Putin declared a partial military mobilization on September 21 and rumors began to circulate that he might declare martial law and announce a general mobilization for war to regain the upper hand in Ukraine. Although it sounds bizarre, it’s important to remember that just six months ago we were told that a ground war in Europe was a fantasy. And even if Putin chooses to defuse Ukraine, Turkey continues to escalate the situation in Syria as it plans to push deeper into the country. Libya’s frozen conflict also appears to be thawing, as violence erupted in Tripoli last month. And now Azerbaijan and Armenia seem to be approaching the threshold of war. It looks like the delicate balancing act could finally come crashing down as nation states feel the initiative turning in their favor while the world’s greatest powers have their attention elsewhere.
Andrew Hinton is currently a doctoral student in physical therapy and a former US Army analyst.