[Russian and] Soviet Relations with Greece and Turkey: A Systems Perspective

Robert M. Cutler

This book chapter begins with a theoretically informed survey of the Balkan/Asia Minor region under various international systems from 1713 to 1936. That survey generates a set of propositions associating specific changes in the international environment with specific changes in the behavior of states in the region. Examination of the period from 1936 to 1974 motivates revision of those propositions. A study of the period since 1974 introduces further nuances and corollaries. These in turn permit an evaluation of Greek and Turkish relations with the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Originally published in Dimitri Constas (ed.), The Greek-Turkish Conflict in the 1990s (London: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 183?206, the chapter concludes with predictions of the course of these relations into the future. Events have validated the predictions, notwithstanding the USSR's disintegration and the reappearance of Russia. There are includes 47 explanatory and bibliographical notes incorporating sources and studies in English, French, German, and Russian.
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[Russian and] Soviet Relations with Greece and Turkey:
A Systems Perspective


[Forty-seven explanatory and bibliographical notes incorporate sources and studies in English, French, German, and Russian.]


page 187 ]

Soviet relations with Greece had been bad since before the war, as Stalin's instigation of the Greek Communists to civil unrest facilitated General Metaxas's coup in 1936. Tito, having designs on Macedonia, instigated a Greek Communist insurgency immediately after the page 187 | page 188 ] conclusion of the Second World War. Moscow did nothing to discourage Yugoslav or Bulgarian military pressure on Greek Macedonia, which remained the key problem between Greece and the Soviet bloc.

Throughout the late 1940s, the Soviet bloc maintained that external (i.e., British) interference in the Greek domestic affairs endangered international security in the region. In early 1946 the Soviet Union presented to the United Nations a complaint against the British military presence in Greece. Debates at the UN and the organization's actions "exerted serious pressure on the Soviet Union and the satellite countries." They effectively "delegitimiz[ed] the actions and statements of the Soviet Union, its satellites, and the guerrillas in Greece" and "expos[ed] their actions vis-à-vis Greece and the guerrillas."14 In view of Stalin's concession of Western influence in Greece under the famous "percentages agreement" with Churchill, the question remains why Stalin turned to the UN in this instance. In fact, he had no other diplomatic instrumentalities at his disposal. The various national Balkan communist parties (including the Greeks) did not heed his word, and he had no direct means for applying military pressure. Stalin "could not afford to miss any opportunity for advantageous propaganda" even though he preferred a policy of "open diplomatic action in the Balkans rather than subversion and revolution" at the time.15

The Western powers' failure to make good on guarantees to Turkey in the early and mid-1930s led to the convocation of a new conference on the Straits.16 At this conference, from which emerged the regime of the Montreux Convention (1936), the Soviets were able to assure passage for warships of Black Sea powers and to limit the movement of ships of other powers.17 The Montreux Convention was the first step by Great Britain and France "to encourage Turkey either to involve its war fleet in war against Germany or to maintain strict neutrality in the event of conflict between the Western Allies and Germany."18 These steps were ultimately successful.

In mid-1939 Stalin proposed to Great Britain and France a military assistance pact guaranteeing the integrity of all states from the Baltic to the Black Sea. When Britain and France declined, Stalin proposed to Turkey that it share sovereignty of page 188 | page 189 ] the Straits jointly with the USSR. When Turkey responded by signing a military alliance with Great Britain and France (October 1939), Stalin proposed joint Soviet-German sovereignty of the Straits to Hitler. In 1940 his foreign minister Molotov publicly implicated Turkey in Allied designs on the Baku oilfields.

Germany's pressure on Turkey to join in a military alliance was not successful, but Turkey did sign a Treaty of Friendship which insured to Germany Turkish neutrality. This stance of neutrality, to which the Turks clung almost throughout the war, was not equivalent to passivity. As a senior Soviet historian has correctly pointed out, it was not always even equivalent to neutrality.19 Turkey remained formally neutral but sought to enhance its regional influence by bargaining with various belligerents. If in the end it gained nothing, this was because "every one of its demands came into conflict with the interests or the diplomatic tactics of the warring powers."20

In late 1945 Stalin proposed to Turkey the joint Soviet-Turkish administration of the Straits, plus a general prohibition on passage by ships of states not bordering on the Black Sea. Turkey replied that these provisions would infringe its own independence and security. (Rubinstein has aptly characterized this move as "Stalin's grab for the Straits."21) Great Britain and the United States strongly supported Turkey's position.22 Stalin's additional claims to the Turkish districts of Ardahan and Kars, which the Russian Empire had ruled from 1878 to 1917, did little to mollify the Western powers. The Truman Doctrine, proclaimed in 1947, only reinforced Turkey's resolve in standing up to the Soviets. Turkish-Soviet relations did not improve until after Stalin's death in 1953, when the Soviet government began trying to win over the Turkish government instead of undermining it.23

By the time Stalin died in 1953, he had succeeded in alienating both Greece and Turkey. Greece and Turkey each joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952. In 1954 they signed with Yugoslavia the Balkan Pact, which Khrushchev's visit to Belgrad subsequently obviated although it remains in force. Other events in the region deserve little note here until the late 1950s, when the Soviets deployed eight submarines to Valona, Albania.

The apparent purpose of the Soviet deployment to Albania was to facilitate sealing the Turkish Straits, through attack upon seaborne NATO reinforcements, in time of war. This deployment ended in 1961 when Albania became implicated in the Sino-Soviet dispute.

page 190 ] Increasing Soviet naval strength in the eastern Mediterranean remained the most striking feature of relations in the region during the 1960s and early 1970s. In the early 1960s the USSR sought to enlarge its maritime defense perimeter, and a Mediterranean deployment fit into this pattern. When President Kennedy withdrew the Jupiter missiles from Turkey (in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis) and President Johnson criticized Turkey's 1964 actions concerning Cyprus, the Soviets took advantage of the strain to deploy a cruiser and two destroyers through the Straits. (The Montreux Convention, still in force, permits transit by capital ships of Black Sea powers escorted by no more than two destroyers.) By 1966 the Soviets had built up their Mediterranean force an average daily strength of fifteen ships which were making port calls from Egypt to Gibraltar.24

Events in the Middle East impelled further build-ups of Soviet naval strength in the eastern Mediterranean. During the Six-Day War (June 1967) the Soviets, seeking to counter the U.S. Sixth Fleet, increased their force to seventy ships in a show of support for the Arab states. Soviet naval aircraft began operating in the region on a regular basis. The USSR continued to increase its forces thereafter, augmenting them substantially at the height of the Jordanian crisis (September-October 1970). During the Yom Kippur War (October 1973) this force rose from 52 to 95 ships, including over a dozen destroyers and nearly two dozen submarines,25all protecting the sealift of Soviet arms to Egypt and Syria. However, the political benefits obtained by a similar show of force in 1967 did not repeat themselves. In 1976 President Sadat, having expelled Soviet advisors and air units from Egypt, closed Egyptian ports to the Soviet navy. Soviet naval forces in the Mediterranean have never regained the strength they enjoyed in the early 1970s.26

Stalin had alienated Greece through his policy in the Balkans. It was not until the military junta of 1967-1974 that any Greek regime even considered a diplomatic rapprochementwith any communist government at all. The Greek colonels worked first through Albania, Romania, and China, before establishing contact with the Soviet Union. The substance of these relations, however, did not amount to much at the time.

Turkey began acting more independent of American policy from page 191 ] the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, and reasserted its traditional regional interests. Improvement in relations with Moscow was part of this approach. At the same time Ankara maintained its fidelity to NATO and continued its military and economic cooperation with the United States. In 1965 USSR President Podgornyi and Foreign Minister Gromyko both visited Ankara, followed in 1966 by Prime Minister Kosygin. In 1967 Turkish Prime Minister Demirel accepted a Soviet invitation to visit Moscow. There he signed an economic cooperation agreement under which Turkey developed huge public-sector projects with Soviet industrial and financial assistance. Trade soared and even the Turkish military coup in 1971 did not disrupt relations.27

page 197 ]Corollary 1. The intensity of conflicts between the Russian and Turkish states is mitigated not by multipolar systems per se but by a secular trend toward international cooperation that multipolar systems permit more clearly to manifest.  . . . 

Corollary 2. The salience of Greece to Russian/Soviet policy increases when the Russian state is a maritime and commercial player in the eastern Mediterranean.  . . .

Corollary 3(a).The peripheralization of the Balkan/Asia Minor page 197 | page 198 ] region in world politics, resulting from the rise of the Third World, has permitted the rebirth of Turkey as a regional power.  . . .

Corollary 3(b).Multipolar systems have historically enhanced the salience of Turkey's regional role.  . . .

Corollary 4.Overt conflict between the [Russian state] and Turkey is most likely when both are strong vis-?-vis the Balkan/Asia Minor regional system and one another.  . . .

page 201 ]One need not subscribe to Mackinder's famous theory about the Eurasian 'Heartland' and its 'Rimlands' (including Asia Minor) to see from a map, that the territory occupied by the Turkish nation should be more important to any Russian state than that occupied by the Greek nation. But this insight needs to be modified in the light of the corollaries generated from the 'lessons of pre-Montreux history' by the post-1974 era. In particular, Corollaries 3(a) and 3(b) together produce the inference that Turkey's role in the region will continue to rise in the future. However, Corollaries 1, 2, and 4 taken together yield the inferences (i) that Turkish-[Russian] differences will remain prominent, (ii) that these will be managed but not fundamentally resolved, and (iii) that [Russian] policy in the region will increase its attention to Greece.


  1. Van Coufoudakis, "The United States, the United Nations, and the Greek Question, 1946-1952," in John O. Iatrides (ed.), Greece in the 1940s: A Nation in Crisis (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1981), pp. 278-86; quotation at p. 290. [ Return to text. ]

  2. C.M. Woodhouse, The Struggle for Greece, 1941-1949 (Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.: Beekman/Esanu, 1976), pp. 179-83; quotation at p. 160. [ Return to text. ]

  3. Anthony R. Deluca, Great Power Rivalry at the Turkish Straits: The Montreux Conference and Convention of 1936 (Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, 1981), provides a detailed and useful diplomatic history. [ Return to text. ]

  4. This provision was similar to that of the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi (1833), reversed by the subsequent Straits Protocol (1841). "When forced to choose, [Russia] has in the past placed the exclusion of noncontiguous powers over her own right of naval transit." Michael MccGwire, "The Mediterranean and Soviet Naval Interests," in Michael MccGwire (ed.), Soviet Naval Developments: Capability and Context (New York: Praeger, 1973), pp. 348-49. [  Return to text. ]

  5. Christos L. Rozakis and Petros N. Stagos, The Turkish Straits (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987), pp. 41-42; see pp. 101-26 for an excellent explication of the Convention's provisions. [ Return to text. ]

  6. P.P. Moiseev, "CCCP i Turtsiia v gody vtoroi mirovoi voiny (1939-1945)" [The USSR and Turkey during the Second World War (1939-1945)], in SSSR i Turtsiia, 1917-1979 [The USSR and Turkey, 1917-1979], edited by E.M. Zhukov et al. (Moscow: Nauka, Glavnaia redaktsiia vostochnoi literatury, 1981), pp. 184-86. Along the same lines, see Zehra Önder, Die türkische Aussenpolitik im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1977); and Selim Deringil, Turkish Foreign Policy during the Second World War: An "Active" Neutrality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). [ Return to text. ]

  7. Rozakis and Stagos, The Turkish Straits, p. 46. On the Turkish application of the Montreux Convention during World War II, see the somewhat legalistic but still informative monograph of Ernst Tennstedt, page 203 |  page 204 ]Die türkischen Meerengen unter der Konvention von Montreux im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Frankfurt: Alfred Metzner, 1981), esp. pp. 11-22, 33-40, 49-73. [ Return to text. ]

  8. Alvin Z. Rubinstein, Soviet Policy toward Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan: The Dynamics of Influence (New York: Praeger, 1972), pp. 9-17. [ Return to text. ]

  9. The full diplomatic correspondence, including the frequently omitted British and American notes, is in Ferenc A. Váli, The Turkish Straits and NATO (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1972), pp. 246-97. [ Return to text. ]

  10. S. Belinkov and I. Vasil'ev, O turetskom "neitralitete" vo vremia Vtoroi mirovoi voiny [On Turkish "Neutrality" during the Second World War] (Moscow: Gospolitizdat, 1952) is a typical anti-Turkish polemic of the late Stalin years. Petr P. Moiseev and Iuri N. Rozal'ev, K istorii sovetsko-turetskikh otnoshenii [Toward the History of Soviet-Turkish Relations] (Moscow: Gospolitizdat, 1958) reflects the more amicable tendency that reappeared under Khrushchev. [ Return to text. ]

  11. Keith Allen, "The Black Sea Fleet and Mediterranean Naval Operations," in Bruce W. Watson and Susan M. Watson (eds.), The Soviet Navy: Strengths and Liabilities (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1986), p. 217; MccGwire, "The Mediterranean and Soviet Naval Interests," pp. 352-53; Bruce W. Watson, Red Navy at Sea: Soviet Naval Operations on the High Seas, 1956-1980 (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1982), pp. 80-81, 87. [ Return to text. ]

  12. The USSR apparently continues to observe a stipulation of the Montreux Convention that submarines of Black Sea powers must transit the Straits in daytime on the surface. Under the Convention, submarines of non-Black Sea powers may not transit the Straits. [ Return to text. ]

  13. Allen, "The Black Sea Fleet and Mediterranean Naval Operations," pp. 219-21; MccGwire, "The Mediterranean and Soviet Naval Interests," pp. 346-47. For a discussion of longstanding logistic problems and Soviet attempts to meet them, see Gordon McCormick, "Soviet Strategic Aims and Capabilities in the Mediterranean: Part II," Adelphi Papers 229 (Spring 1988), pp. 32-48. [ Return to text. ]

  14. Rubinstein, Soviet Policy toward Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan , pp. 26-27, 35-36. [ Return to text. ]

Dr. Robert M. Cutlerwebsiteemail ] was educated at MIT and The University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in Political Science, and has specialized and consulted in the international affairs of Europe, Russia, and Eurasia since the late 1970s. He has held research and teaching positions at major universities in the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, and Russia, and contributed to leading policy reviews and academic journals as well as the print and electronic mass media in three languages.

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