Russia and Turkey fought twelve major wars in the last few hundred years, but today they face their deepest crisis in a century. With Turkey's downing of a Russian jet last month, these volatile dynamics have already set a dangerous precedent, lowering the bar for the use of force. If a 16-second-long violation of Turkey's airspace could warrant shooting down a jet, the next move from either side could require even less. In Russia, amid virulent media coverage, anti-Turkish sentiment is growing rapidly. If such negative political and popular sentiments continue, what are the risks for Moscow and Ankara?
The Muslim population of both countries is predominantly Sunni Muslim and of Turkic origin, and both have sought to address the emergence of religious extremism at home. They also have Shia allies in the region, in Azerbaijan and Iran. Protecting their ethnic brothers in strategically important bordering regions is an idiosyncrasy common to Russian and Turkish foreign policy. Notably, Turkey has supported the Crimean Tartar community and their vocal stance that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine. Against Turkish protests, Russia has continued its airstrikes against Turkmen rebels in Latakia on the Turkish-Syrian border. Moscow and Ankara, it seems, want to assert themselves in the region with mutually opposing foreign policy.
To their chagrin, both Russia and Turkey are able to exert influence on the other's internal dynamics. In Turkey, the Kurdish ganglion has festered for decades and has become particularly inflamed under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Historically, the Soviet Union supported Kurdish nationalism and during the Cold War used the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to influence Turkish politics. Today, Russia wields strong influence with Turkey's Kurdish community and Russia's mainstream politicians are vocal proponents of arming the Kurds to help their cause.
In his annual address to the Russian Parliament this month, President Vladimir Putin said his country was well aware of how his country would respond to Turkey's shooting of the Su-24 jet. Moscow ruled out military retaliation; it is likely to act on a political level. One possibility is the issue of the massacres allegedly perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire on the Armenians during the First World War, a highly charged topic for any Turkish leader. Russia may strike Ankara where it hurts most, enacting a draft law criminalising denial that the massacres were a genocide, which Turkey rejects.
Over the last quarter of a century both countries have pursued policies aimed at expanding their 'national ideas' across the region. Turkey is assiduously engaged in building the 'Turkic World,' targeting ethnically Turkic populations of the former Soviet Union. The 'Turkic World' encompasses some 140 million people globally. It is a concept that invokes pride in common religious, cultural and ethnic roots. Though seen as harmless in the past, in Russia today the spread of Turkic identity is met with growing disquiet. The latest casualty of the political standoff is ties between Russia's Adyghe State University and academic centres in Turkey.
Russia is home to a vast indigenous Turkic community, with a total ethnic Turkic population of some 12 million Muslims and Orthodox Christians. Meanwhile, Sunni Tatars number around 5.3 million, according to the latest census figures, making them the second-largest ethnic group after Slavic Russians. The Volga and Crimean Tatars enjoy close links with Turkey. In fact, Putin reportedly sought Erdogan's assistance in tackling the Tatars' resistance to Russian annexation of the Crimea. With the anti-Turkish media flurry that followed the Russian jet incident, Tatars have been pressured to denounce Erdogan.
Turkey, on the other hand, does not have a sizeable Slavic population, but is home to communities of ethnic Chechens, Lezginz, Abkhasians and other North Caucasians, loosely referred to as Circassians. Estimates of the size of those communities vary widely, ranging from around 300,000 to up to 3 million. Many maintain close relations with their families in Russia, but not all agree with politicians in Russia's Northern Caucasus when they condemn Turkish policy. Last month, Turkey's Chechen Diaspora organization made a statement dissociating itself from Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov's virulent criticism. Echoing these sentiments, the North Caucasus mass media in Russia deplored the rupture of the "blood ties" with families in Turkey.
Religious and ethnic factors can be potent instruments for bringing states closer together - or pushing them further apart. The current crisis between Turkey and Russia risks opening a Pandora's box of conflict in these arenas. But most importantly, the heated bellicose rhetoric from both Ankara and Moscow risks overshadowing the real dangers and challenges they face in the region.