Russia and Turkey: Historical rivals with converging interests

Russia and Turkey have long been players in the Balkans and still have interests there – some conflicting and some convergent. Until the beginning of the 20th century, both considered the region their sphere of influence, and they are now returning there.

Aleksandar Vucic and Vladimir Putin in a church
Pictured: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) attend an Orthodox Christian service in October 2019. Russian influence has grown among Serbian populations partly because of a common Orthodox Christian identity. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Moscow and Ankara both have interests in the Balkans
  • Bosnia could become divided along lines of influence
  • The West could play a stabilizing role in the region

In the 19th century, Russia inspired the Slavic identity movements in the Balkans that later led to rebellion against the Ottoman Empire and the creation of nation-states. Then, during the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars, Russia supported Serbia and Montenegro’s expansion into Albanian territory. In 1912, Albania declared independence from the Ottoman Empire, while still fighting against Russian-backed Serbian occupation. Only the Austro-Hungarian Empire supported Albanian independence. 

The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I led to the creation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, followed by Communist Yugoslavia after World War II. During the Cold War, the Yugoslav state maintained contact with both the West and the Soviet Union, and cultivated amicable relations with Turkey. 

In 1953, communist leader Josip Broz Tito renewed the 1938 pre-war bilateral agreement with Turkey authorizing the expulsion of 400,000 Albanians from Yugoslavia between 1953 and 1959. Today, Serbia still pursues the anti-Albanian policy it inherited from the old Kingdom and the communist regime. It also maintains close relations with Moscow and Ankara – through military and energy cooperation for the former, and investment for the latter.

Return to history

Over the past two decades, the two regional powers have returned to the Balkans. Both Russia and Turkey are using religious sentiment (Orthodox Christianity and Islam, respectively) as a path to influence. Moscow has expanded its presence through hard power like military and energy infrastructure and soft power through media like Sputnik and Russia Today. Turkey has mostly developed its presence through investments and exports.

During the Boris Yeltsin presidency, Russia was too weak to engage in power games in the Balkans. But under President Vladimir Putin, Moscow began playing a more active role in its near abroad, including interventions in Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan (Abkhazia, Ossetia, Crimea, and Nagorno-Karabakh).

Both Russia and Turkey are using religious sentiment as a path to influence.

Turkey has historically fought against Russia in Crimea, but Ankara did not get involved in the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow and Ankara were on opposing sides, but maintained diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. As a result, a Kremlin-engineered cease-fire came into effect. This effectively boosted Russia and Turkey’s regional status, especially in the absence of Euro-Atlantic players.

Common ground

Russia and Turkey both have interests in the Black Sea and the Balkans. They have historical ties to the two regions: Turkey through Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Azerbaijan; Russia through Armenia and Serbia. 

Moscow has made political and military headway in the Balkans. Its plan was for all territories inhabited by Serbs – mainly Serbia itself, Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro – to form a federation, based on a new doctrine: “Serbian World.” NATO membership of Montenegro threw a wrench in the Russian strategy. Pro-Serbian/Russian parties won in the last parliamentary elections, but by the end of 2020, Montenegro-Serbia relations had soured, and their respective ambassadors were declared personae non grata.

Russia has a “humanitarian” base in southern Serbia, and it plans to open a Russian Defense Ministry outpost in Belgrade. Weapon deliveries to the Serbian Army are ongoing. In October 2020, Serbian Minister of Defense Nebojsa Stefanovic confirmed the arrival of 30 T-72 tanks donated by Russia, shortly after Russian aircraft were also acquired. 

Through Serbia, Moscow is sending a clear message to Washington and Brussels that it plans to remain present in the Balkans for a long time.


Facts & figures

Map of Russian and Turkish spheres of influence in the Balkans
In the days of the Russian and Ottoman empires, the Balkans was considered an influential geopolitical location. Now, Russia and Turkey are turning toward the region once again. © macpixxel for GIS

Since 2017, Russia has improved its bilateral relations with Turkey. Russian “Turkish Stream” gas pipeline is operational, and the Turkish Army has contracted the Russian S-400 rocket system. Washington has warned Ankara that this was a breach of NATO rules, and has subsequently imposed sanctions on Turkey.

Russia and Turkey also share common ground in their sometimes tense dealings with the West. The European Union’s implicit rejection of Turkish membership has pushed Ankara out of the Euro-Atlantic community. In the summer of 2020, Turkey and Greece – both NATO members – came close to war. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the country would file a complaint with the Hague Court if no agreement was found. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked NATO and the EU not to “discriminate against Turkey.” He also expressed a willingness to collaborate with Washington and Brussels, saying that “we envisage building our future together with Europe,” and “actively use its long and close alliance relations with the U.S. for a solution to regional and global problems.”

In opposite corners

Yet despite these commonalities, there are stark differences as well. Russia typically takes a belligerent tone toward NATO, while Turkey has been a member of the alliance since 1951. Turkey hosts the Incirlik Air Base, crucial for NATO’s operations in the Middle East. It also applied for EU membership in 1987 and started accession talks in 2005. Although the negotiations have stagnated, President Erdogan recently stated that “Turkey’s place is in the EU, and the union should keep its promises.”

In the Balkans, Russia-Turkey relations will depend on the scope of their regional appetites. Bosnia and Herzegovina is likely to become a hot spot. The eastern part of the Federation, Republika Srpska, is Russia’s strongest ally in the region, along with Serbia. Majority-Muslim central Bosnia has traditionally been close to Turkey. The country could become even more divided along Russian-Turkish lines of influence.

It is unlikely that the U.S. and NATO will allow a division of the Western Balkans.

Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia do not have such visible fault lines. Albania and North Macedonia both belong to NATO and Kosovo is the most pro-American country in the region, with a NATO base on its territory. Montenegro is more divided. While pro-Serbian and Russian forces won the elections, the country belongs to NATO and is currently negotiating its EU accession.

Turkey was among the first states that recognized Kosovo, with which it has close ties. It also has friendly relations with Albania and North Macedonia. Turkey was also one of the key defenders of Albanian sovereignty during the 1997 political turbulence, and Kosovar and Albanian military staff are still trained by the Turkish Military Academy.

Recently, Ankara has also improved its relations with Serbia, expanding its export and infrastructure investments and negotiating the sale of Turkish military drones and aircraft to the Serbian Army.



Russia and Turkey, considering their different interests in the Balkans, will probably tiptoe around each other, respecting each other’s spheres of influence. Medium-term, Serbia and Republika Srpska will likely remain in Russia’s orbit, and central Bosnia under Turkish influence. Podgorica’s path is less clear, but NATO membership will prevent the country from falling entirely under Russian sway. North Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo will likely remain under the Western umbrella.

It is unlikely that the U.S. and NATO will allow a geostrategic division of the Western Balkans, in particular under the new Biden administration. The new president has announced the return of a strategic transatlantic axis, with a U.S.-EU alliance against Russia. Turkey could become an important Western ally once again. The Euro-Atlantic community may not be able to prevent Russia from penetrating non-NATO areas like Serbia and Republika Srpska, or halt Turkish influence in Central Bosnia and Herzegovina. But it will not allow Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo to be dragged into the Russian-Turkish power play.

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