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Gul (left) and Medvedev (AP/Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Turkey and Russia on the rise

International | The two Eurasian powers have sufficient strategic incentives to work together

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev reportedly will travel to Turkey in the near future to follow up a recent four-day visit by his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, to Moscow. The Turks and the Russians certainly have much to discuss.

Russia is moving aggressively to extend its influence throughout the former Soviet empire, while Turkey is rousing itself from 90 years of post-Ottoman isolation. Both are clearly ascendant powers, and it would seem logical that the more the two bump up against one other, the more likely they will gird for yet another round in their centuries-old conflict. But while that may be true down the line, the two Eurasian powers have sufficient strategic incentives to work together for now.

Russia's world

Russia is among the world's most strategically vulnerable states. Its core, the Moscow region, boasts no geographic barriers to invasion. Russia must thus expand its borders to create the largest possible buffer for its core, which requires forcibly incorporating legions of minorities who do not see themselves as Russian. The Russian government estimates that about 80 percent of Russia's approximately 140 million people are actually ethnically Russian, but this number is somewhat suspect, as many minorities define themselves based on their use of the Russian language, just as many Hispanics in the United States define themselves by their use of English as their primary language. Thus, ironically, attaining security by creating a strategic buffer creates a new chronic security problem in the form of new populations hostile to Moscow's rule. The need to deal with the latter problem explains the development of Russia's elite intelligence services, which are primarily designed for and tasked with monitoring the country's multiethnic population.

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Russia's primary challenge, however, is time. In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, the bottom fell out of the Russian birthrate, with fewer than half the number of babies born in the 1990s than were born in the 1980s. These post-Cold War children are now coming of age; in a few years, their small numbers are going to have a catastrophic impact on the size of the Russian population. By contrast, most non-Russian minorities-in particular those such as Chechens and Dagestanis, who are of Muslim faith-did not suffer from the 1990s birthrate plunge, so their numbers are rapidly increasing even as the number of ethnic Russians is rapidly decreasing. Add in deep-rooted, demographic-impacting problems such as HIV, tuberculosis, and heroin abuse-concentrated not just among ethnic Russians but also among those of childbearing age-and Russia faces a hard-wired demographic time bomb. Put simply, Russia is an ascending power in the short run, but it is a declining power in the long run.

The Russian leadership is well aware of this coming crisis, and knows it is going to need every scrap of strength it can muster just to continue the struggle to keep Russia in one piece. To this end, Moscow must do everything it can now to secure buffers against external intrusion in the not-so-distant future. For the most part, this means rolling back Western influence wherever and whenever possible, and impressing upon states that would prefer integration into the West that their fates lie with Russia instead. Moscow's natural gas crisis with Ukraine, August 2008 war with Georgia, efforts to eject American forces from Central Asia and constant pressure on the Baltic states all represent efforts to buy Russia more space-and with that space, more time for survival.

Expanding its buffer against such a diverse and potentially hostile collection of states is no small order, but Russia does have one major advantage: The security guarantor for nearly all of these countries is the United States, and the United States is currently very busy elsewhere. So long as U.S. ground forces are occupied with the Iraqi and Afghan wars, the Americans will not be riding to the rescue of the states on Russia's periphery. Given this window of opportunity, the Russians have a fair chance to regain the relative security they seek. In light of the impending demographic catastrophe and the present window of opportunity, the Russians are in quite a hurry to act.

Turkey's world

Turkey is in many ways the polar opposite of Russia. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, Turkey was pared down to its core, Asia Minor. Within this refuge, Turkey is nearly unassailable. It is surrounded by water on three sides, commands the only maritime connection between the Black and Mediterranean seas and sits astride a plateau surrounded by mountains. This is a very difficult chunk of territory to conquer. Indeed, beginning in the Seljuk Age in the 11th century, the ancestors of the modern Turks took the better part of three centuries to seize this territory from its previous occupant, the Byzantine Empire.

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