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With the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter jet still fresh on his mind, Russian President Vladimir Putin had some choice words for his erstwhile ally Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he delivered his state of the nation speech to the Russian Federal Assembly on Dec. 3. Putin angrily lamented "we were prepared to cooperate with Turkey on most sensitive issues and go further than their allies. Allah knows why they did it. Apparently Allah decided to punish the ruling elite in Turkey by taking their sanity."

While Putin may sound a bit dramatic, there is a hard geopolitical truth behind his shock and dismay toward Turkey. Russia knows the importance of keeping Turkey as a friend when it is facing off with bigger powers to the West. That is because Turkey holds the keys to the Dardanelles and Bosporus - the only way Russian merchant vessels and warships can reach the Mediterranean from Russia's warm water ports in the Black Sea. All of Putin's calculations in dealing with the United States are now turning on an uncomfortable reality that Moscow can no longer fully rely on Turkish neutrality in one of the most strategic spots on the map.

Stressing Over the Straits

The year 1946, when World War II had just wrapped up, offers a useful snapshot into Moscow's extraordinary obsession with the Turkish straits. Since losing its empire after World War I, an economically devastated Turkey had struggled to piece together a nation, wisely choosing to sit out the second round of global conflict. A decade earlier, when Hitler's troops had invaded the demilitarized Rhineland and Mussolini was openly declaring his desire to take over Anatolia, an anxious Turkey demanded a revision to the doctrine governing the straits, arguing that the straits needed to be remilitarized and placed under Turkey's exclusive control. The result was the Montreux Convention of 1936, which formalizes Turkey's role as custodian of the straits, ensures freedom of passage for merchant vessels in times of peace and imposes size, type and tonnage restrictions on non-Black Sea war vessels. Under the convention, war vessels from non-Black Sea states Turkey permits to enter the straits cannot stay in the Black Sea for longer than 21 days. In times of war, Turkey is expected to ban belligerents from the straits altogether to keep the Black Sea conflict free.

But the Soviets were never completely satisfied with Turkey's neutrality, knowing that Ankara was likely to tilt West when things got rough. The Soviets told the Turks in 1946 that if they were sincere about being allies, then they should give the Soviets basing rights in the Dardanelles. The Soviets bandied a number of threats to convey its seriousness to Turkey, such as Soviet territorial claims to portions of eastern Turkey, stirring up Kurdish separatists and backing Syrian claims to Hatay province.

A frazzled Turkey looked across the Atlantic for U.S. help. U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Edwin Wilson explained to U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes that, "the real [Soviet] objective towards Turkey is not a revision of the regime of the Straits, but actual domination of Turkey. In the vast security belt of the Soviet Union, which extends from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Turkey constitutes a sole gap ... the Soviet objective, therefore, is to break down this present independent Turkish government and to establish in its place a vassal or "friendly" regime in Turkey, which will complete the security belt of subservient countries on Russia's western and southern frontiers and put an end completely to Western influence in Turkey."

The time had thus come for the United States to bring Turkey under its security umbrella.

On April 6, 1946, the USS Missouri arrived in Istanbul on the pretext of delivering the ashes of a Turkish ambassador to the United States who had died on U.S. soil. A jubilant Turkey celebrated the arrival of the U.S. battleship with special postage stamps and gifts for U.S. naval officers. As Ambassador Wilson put it, "the USS Missouri visit is thus apt to take on the character of one of those imponderable events, the influence of which extends far beyond the immediate theater in which it occurs." The ostentatious display of a U.S. security guarantee was the prelude to U.S. President Harry S. Truman's February 1947 request to Congress to provide foreign aid to Turkey and Greece "to assist free people to deal with their destinies in their own way." This was the Truman Doctrine that locked in the Cold War, with Turkey sitting squarely on the U.S. side.

An Old Rivalry Revived

The Turkish-Russian confrontation is now back, not because either side willed it, but because geopolitics compelled it. Putin and Erdogan are the inheritors of two historical empires that fought several wars from the 17th century to the 19th century. With both countries resurgent, they were bound to butt heads again. The first sign came in August 2008, when Russia's invasion of Georgia woke Turkey up to a Moscow ready and willing to apply military force to re-create buffers in the former Soviet sphere to counter Western encroachment. At that time, Russia was not happy at the sight of Turkey allowing U.S. warships into the Black Sea to deliver aid to Georgian ports; Moscow conveyed its displeasure by holding up thousands of Turkish trucks at the Russian border. But both sides went out of their way to avoid a bigger breach.

The 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea was the next big Russian punch to the Turkish gut. Roughly 300,000 Turkic-speaking Tatars remain on the Crimean Peninsula as a remnant of Ottoman history. Turkey's quick defense of the Tatars in the wake of the Russian invasion stemmed from more than a concern for its ethnic kin: Turkey understood that the balance of power in the Black Sea was shifting. Russia's seizure of Crimea meant Moscow no longer has to deal with pesky lease arrangements with a mercurial government in Kiev. Russia now enjoys the freedom to beef up its Sevastopol-based Black Sea Fleet, a fleet largely designed to counter Turkey's naval strength.