Before Crimea was Russian, or Ukrainian, or even Soviet, it was Turkish. Well, Ottoman. And Russia had already annexed Crimea once before 2014, long before — in 1783. This was after a six-year war with the Turks, in which the Russians essentially wiped out the Ottoman navy. The conflict ended with the Treaty of Kainardrji, signed in 1774, which has come to be seen by historians as the first partition of the Ottoman Empire, the beginning of its long, slow decline. In losing Crimea to Russia, the Ottoman Empire, for the first time ever, lost Muslim subjects to a Christian power. (The Crimean Tatars, who have been especially opposed to Moscow’s newest takeover of the peninsula, are the vestigial limb left behind by the Ottomans, bucking again at its new Russian owner — which has, in turn, cracked down on them.) That war and the treaty that ended it, Bernard Lewis wrote some 200 years later, was “the turning point in the relations between Europe and the Middle East.”
Nor would it be the last time the Russians and the Turks butted heads. Over the next two centuries, they would clash again and again as the Russian Empire pushed deeper and deeper into the Ottoman heartland: the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Black Sea, and the Dardanelles. One young Russian army officer wrote about his experiences fighting the Turks, French, and British at Crimea, in 1854. The work, which came to be called The Sevastopol Sketches, was the second the young man — Leo Tolstoy — ever published.
Which is all to say that what happened yesterday, when the Turks and Russians clashed over who was where when in the skies over a small sliver of land is nothing new in the relations of these two erstwhile empires.
For that is what they are. Both Turkey and Russia have the hearts and souls of massive, multi-ethnic empires, hearts and souls that still beat inside trunks shorn of their expansive limbs, limbs for which they still hunger today. Both exist today as greatly diminished, regional powers struggling to project greater influence — the kind that befits empires and their histories. And, in doing so, they assume their old stances, as if from muscle memory. “When you travel to Turkey, do you trust even one Turk?” wrote Maxim Kononenko, a prominent, pro-Kremlin blogger. “And so it is with all those who spoke in Turkey’s name today. They are all Turks and you cannot trust them.”
Some Russians have described yesterday’s shoot-down in larger historical terms: it is the first time that there has been a real, military conflict between Russia and NATO, wrote the liberal Slon.ru. Russian officialdom, however, is framing this squarely as a conflict between Russia and the hotheaded, trigger-happy Turks. Wednesday’s evening news, dedicated almost exclusively to the incident, made much hayout of the fact that Washington and Europe, even NATO, spent all of Tuesday chastising Turkey and throwing cold water on the idea that one plane and one territorial incursion would lead to a wider conflict.
If anything, NATO and the Europeans are the good guys in this interpretation of events — certainly a first in recent Russian history. Why? Because Turkey, the villain in this story, is trying to derail a grand, historic coalition against terrorism, one that has Russia as its main axis. The de-escalation facilitated by Western powers, the evening news report noted, “is needed so that this conflict doesn’t harm the fight against terrorism in general and against ISIS specifically.” That is, Russia sees itself as doing the work necessary to protect the civilized world against the threat of terrorism, work that benefits France, Britain, and the United States as much as it benefits Russia. (Left unstated is the assumption that it doesn’t benefit Turkey, or its Islamist-sympathizing government.) It is analogous to the way Russia has portrayed its role in World War II, especially recently: Russia fought back the menace of fascism for the good of the ungrateful West, which would have drowned if not for Moscow’s help.
This is why, beneath the propaganda and cynical geopolitical maneuvering, Moscow finds Western critiques about its role in Syria so deeply frustrating, insulting even. To Russia, such complaints are as old as time, centuries-old efforts to block Russian imperial ambitions at every possible turn for no apparent reason — even to the point of lining up with the Muslim Ottomans against Christian Rus in the mid-19th century. And, much to Russia’s chagrin, this constant Western interference greatly slowed Russian imperial expansion.
At the same time, Russia has historically viewed the Turks as a good buffer against European expansion. “If we have allowed the Turkish government to continue to exist in Europe, it is because that government, under the predominant influence of our superiority, suits us better than any of those which could be set up on its ruins,” wrote Karl Nesselrode, the Russian empire’s foreign minister, in 1830. Sound familiar? The instinct for maintaining the stability of unsavory neighboring powers, even as Russia slowly chips away at their peripheries, is an old one, encoded deep in the Russian state psyche. These other powers exist, in one form or another, as mirrors in which Russia can see itself as an empire, and preen.
I mention all this ancient history because the conflict over the Russian plane in Turkish airspace — and, according to my sources in the U.S. government, it was in Turkish airspace — is not about the plane, or the airspace, or the Islamic State, or even NATO. It is about two empires, the Russian and the Ottoman, that continue to violently disintegrate to this day, decades after they have formally ceased to exist. Look at Ukraine and Moldova, look at Syria and Iraq. These are the death throes of empire, the long tails of their legacies, shaking themselves out as the rest of the world tries to contain and smooth the convulsions of transition.
And it is about two men, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, without much irony, see themselves as heirs to the two mantles of these two long-gone empires. They, in turn, have revived those empires in the minds of their subjects, constantly dangling before their eyes the holograms of greatness past. It is no surprise, then, that, as the number of actors and the potential for conflict has grown in Syria, that the first flash of it would happen between two men who feel so keenly their countries’ phantom limbs.
Julia Ioffe is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.