A crack in the wall of trust

A crack in the wall of trust

Almost a decade ago, Russian art was a making a big statement in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The exhibit brought more than 275 Russian works of art to the United States, with some of the works leaving their homeland for the first time. Among the gigantic paintings I saw was one covering an entire wall. It was a single Russian soldier among a sea of dead soldiers. Whether it was Russian or Ottoman was irrelevant. The scene was from the Russo-Turkish War in 1877. 

Such is the grand and hard historic rivalry and cooperation that had persevered over regimes, over decades and over rulers. But then things changed.

Turkey’s insistence on the Turkmen minority’s land grab in Syria turned into a bitter rivalry with the Russians that resulted in the downing of a SU-24 plane over Syrian skies Tuesday morning. Now, a Russian pilot is dead and Turkish-Russian relations are in the deep freeze. More than that, there seems to be a big crack in the wall of trust that was built over the years between the two nations.

As a Washington Post article notes, the rulers of both empires saw themselves as standard bearers of civilizations – the Ottomans as the seat of Islam, the Russians as the champions of the Orthodox Church and the redeemers, even, of the legacy of the ancient Byzantines. 

That is why Russia’s recent intervention in Syrian crisis is more than just “moving into warm waters.”
An intelligence analyst that had dealt with Russians over the years told me that Hatay and the route to Latakia carries a specific importance for the Russian Orthodox Church. Most of the recent fighting revolves around a crucial village called Kasab which was home to many Syrian Orthodox citizens before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It fell first into the hands of al-Nusra and all non-Muslims in the area had to flee to Turkey. 

Having a foothold in the Middle East’s historic and biblical towns also means shadowing the clout of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate in Fener. Suddenly, the Church of Moscow can become more powerful than the Ecumenical Patriarchate as the “protector of Christians.”

Well-informed sources mentioned that the Kremlin also aims to establish a giant military base in the area between Jarablus and Latakia, much like the American base in Arbil in Iraq. Washington is a bit cool to the idea but will not oppose it. That is why cleaning up the corridor that Turkey wants to keep open means more for Russia’s leaders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a cold war spy and a careful statesman. His actions normally speak louder than his words, so it is almost surprising to hear him use phrases like “stabbed in the back.” Remember the Chechen rebel leaders mysteriously killed in the suburbs of Istanbul recently? Russian intelligence has been very active and successful in hunting down its enemies inside Turkey.

Ask an ordinary Turkish citizen on the street whether they would prefer Putin or U.S. President Barack Obama as a leader and the majority would opt for the Russian leader. 

Unfortunately, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s haphazard telephone call to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to mend ties and express condolences has become a bigger PR problem. Ankara should stop leaking unpronounced statements and start taking Moscow seriously. Otherwise, relations will be in the fridge for a long time.