By Jennifer Chantrell
The recent Russian military incursion into Ukraine has shocked the world; even until just a few weeks ago the Ukrainian people were relatively complacent that Russia would not invade Ukraine. The Russian –Ukrainian conflict, however, has been ongoing since 2014 when pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukraine region known as the Donbas, came into conflict with the Ukrainian government over their wish for unification with Russia. The Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (regions) of the Donbas region declared independence from Ukraine in 2014, an act that is not recognised by the Ukrainian government. Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have existed since that time. In February 2022, Russia officially recognised the breakaway regions and sent in its military to support the separatists. The Russian Army has since made further incursions into Ukraine.
The recent invasion follows tensions over the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union and become a member of NATO. Ukraine amended its Constitution in 2019 to make provision for membership to NATO and the European Union.
Ukraine is situated in a geographically sensitive region. Its southern border shares the Black Sea with Turkey and Russia. The question arises, how might the war in Ukraine affect Turkish – Russian relations? The Turkish government has condemned the invasion of Ukraine in strong terms, as it did Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Ukraine has called for Turkey to ban Russian warships from the Turkish Straits that connect the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, which is part of Russia’s southern coastline. Turkey hasn’t as yet decided to comply with the Ukraine request, but should it do so, an expansion of the current military conflict in the region is suddenly a conceivable prospect. The question is, would Turkey dare to close the Straits to Russia? Turkey treads a delicate balance as it currently maintains diplomatic and trade relations with Russia, as it does with Ukraine. While Turkey maintains friendly relations with Russia, there are areas where Russia and Turkey diverge in foreign policy, such as the Kosovo, Armenian, Libyan, and Syrian conflicts. In 2016 the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in Ankara. The inciting factor was Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war. Furthermore, Turkey is a member of NATO, an organisation which, to President Putin, is a ‘red rag to a bull’. Nevertheless, Turkey and Russia share strategic interests, including the TurkStream natural gas pipeline. The pipeline, constructed under the Black Sea, transports gas from Russia to Turkey enabling the bypassing of the Ukrainian and Romanian pipelines.
In times past, up until the First World War, relations between Russia and Turkey were acrimonious owing to the conflict in the Balkans. Russia withdrew from the war when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. Under the secret Constantinople Agreement in 1915, the Allies ceded the Turkish capital, Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, to Russia, in the event of an Ottoman defeat. Constantinople was the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Christian church until the conquest by the Ottomans in 1453.
In regard to religion, Russia has traditionally followed the Eastern Orthodox tradition and religious observance has been on the rise since the termination of the Soviet system. Around 36,000 churches have been built in Russia over the past few decades and old ones destroyed during the Soviet era are being restored. With the resurgence of religion in Russia, religious items are taken on symbolic journeys throughout the land to support the faith. In cities and towns, people line up in their hundreds or even thousands to honour the icons and relics. One might consider the recent construction of the Military Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, commemorated in June 2020, as an indication that Russia makes a strong connection between religion and warfare; the protection of the motherland being a pillar of Russian society.
The military cathedral was conceived to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two, its stated purpose is honoring both Russia’s participation in the conflict and its war dead. However, an article in The Conversation complained that the new military cathedral was a potent symbol of Russian militant religious nationalism and was a key element in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The video ‘The Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces’ describes the cathedral’s construction and purpose and is compelling viewing.
Religion is also a dividing issue between Ukraine and Russia, although both are predominantly Eastern Orthodox. In 2018, the Patriarch of Constantinople granted independence to the Ukrainian church, a move that upset Moscow. Moreover, to add to the tensions in the Orthodox world, in July 2020, the Turkish government converted the former sixth century Eastern Orthodox cathedral, Hagia Sophia, into a mosque. Turkey’s President Erdogan stressed that Turkey has exercised its sovereign right in converting it back into a mosque. Formerly, Hagia Sophia was maintained as a museum, which pacified to some extent, the Eastern Orthodox Christians. Russia’s official response to the conversion of the Hagia Sophia was, however, surprisingly muted; the TurkStream pipeline being considered a major factor in Russia’s reticence to express overt opposition.
Nevertheless, now that President Putin, to the surprise of the Ukrainian people and the rest of the world, has unleashed his military, what action might he take against those who oppose his agenda? Should Turkey consider closing the Black Sea to Russian shipping, would Putin retaliate, and by what means? He has already raised the nuclear alert. The Black Sea is an important maritime transit point for Russia’s oil and grain. Three of the countries that border the Black Sea are members of NATO, Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria. Turkey holds the legal rights to close the Straits under certain conditions.
While it is not expected that Turkey would go as far as to close the Straits to Russia, it does have to fulfill obligations to NATO, an organization that President Putin is hostile to. There is no telling what pressures might be applied to Turkey in regard to its relations with Russia and what implications might emerge as a result. Factors such as differences in foreign policy or religious outlook might be ignited in the process. Therefore, vigorous efforts for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis should be pursued, not only to bring a halt to the Russian – Ukrainian conflict, but also to prevent the possibility of its expansion further into the region.