The Hagia Sophia has been a frequent point of conflict between Islam and Christianity. Originally built by Justinian I, leader of the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century, it was once the largest building in the world. The monument also holds an important place in Islamic history. It is believed the Prophet Muhammad prophesied the building would fall to the armies of Islam, which led to numerous Arab generals attempting to capture it, only to be stopped at the ancient gates of Constantinople. Eventually, in 1453, the Hagia Sophia fell to the Ottoman Muslim Turks under the command of Mehmet the Conqueror. It remained a mosque for almost five centuries, before it was eventually converted into a museum in the early 20th century. Throughout the intervening centuries, there have been repeated attempts, particularly by Orthodox Russia, to reclaim one of the most fabled buildings in Eastern Christianity. Catherine the Great, Russia’s famous Empress, even devised a special ‘Greek Plan.’ The aim was to recapture the Hagia Sophia from the Ottoman’s and place her grandson (appropriately named Constantine after the first Christian Emperor of Rome), as the new ruler of a restored Constantinople.
President Erdogan recently announced Turkey would be reconverting the Hagia Sophia back to a mosque. Over the last few weeks and months, numerous Orthodox and Christian leaders have expressed their dismay, with the Greek Prime Minister calling it a ‘backwards’ action and accusing Turkey of ‘severing its links with the Western World.’ Pope Francis was a little more measured with his wording, stating he was ‘pained’ and his ‘thoughts go to Istanbul.’ However, whilst members of the Russian Orthodox church were critical of the decision, with their spokesman, Vladamir Legoida claiming ‘the concerns of millions of Christians have not been heard,’ the reaction from the Kremlin has been somewhat muted, particularly when compared to other Orthodox countries, including Greece and Cyprus.
Russia’s ambassador to Cyprus, Stanislav Osadchiy, merely stated Turkey had a ‘direct responsibility’ to ‘world culture’ and that the site should remain open for all Christians. President Putin is reported to have had a telephone conversation with his Turkish counterpart, where he was assured the Hagia Sophia would remain open to visitors of all faiths and the official spokesman for the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov, simply stated the decision was ‘the Turkish republic’s internal affair.’ Some members of the Russian Upper House of Parliament, including Konstantin Kosachev have been more critical, calling Erdogan ‘a
violator of religious balance,’ but on the whole, Russia’s response is surprisingly muted, which begs the question, why have Putin and the Kremlin refrained from criticising Erdogan’s recent decision?
Only be analysing the geo-political situation, particularly in the Middle East, will we find the answers to this question. Turkey and Russia are on the opposite sides of the fence in both Libya and Syria and have frequently clashed in the region. In 2015, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft, sparking fears of a fresh conflict between the two. However, the two countries have worked constructively to put aside their differences over Syria. They have both argued Syria should remain ‘a united indivisible state’ and both were active in the Astana round of talks, which aimed to bridge the gap between various factions in Syria. Both Moscow and Ankara have also taken an active role in attempts to resolve the Libyan conflict. Whilst Putin and Erdogan support different factions in the conflict, in June both countries foreign ministers urged belligerents in Libya to cease hostilities, another show of friendship and understanding between Moscow and Ankara. Should Turkey and Russia play their cards right in the Middle-East, both could carve out a significant sphere of influence for their respective countries, which would explain Russia’s refusal to openly criticise President Erdogan’s decision.
Of course, strategic thinking in the Middle East isn’t the only reason for Moscow’s muted response. Turkey and Russia are also involved in major economic projects, including the TurkStream pipeline, a major gas pipeline stretching from Russia to Turkey across the Black Sea. Not only is Turkey an important consumer of Russian gas, but the pipeline extends to South-Eastern Europe, further extending Russia’s ‘natural resource diplomacy’ to the very fringe of Europe. The pipeline opened in January 2020 and was attended by President Putin, as well as the President of Turkey, Serbia and the Prime Minister of Bulgaria. Putin is acutely aware the pipeline can serve as an important vehicle to bring Turkey, Russia and the Balkan states closer together, creating a mutually dependant power-block on the edge of Europe.
Despite this, the Kremlin’s muted response is not risk-free. The Orthodox Church is an important institution in Russia and holds considerable influence. Moreover, many ordinary Russian’s will be deeply dismayed at Erdogan’s decision and Putin’s subsequent response. The repercussions may also be felt further afield and Putin now risks a rupture with the wider Orthodox world. A Greek minister described Russia’s response and particularly Dmitry Peskov’s official statement as ‘almost a hostile one,’ and Moscow’s relationship with Athens may suffer significantly. Furthermore, Cyprus is unlikely to be satisfied with Russia’s response and any attempts to move closer to Turkey will naturally create further barriers between Moscow and Nicosia.
Russia’s choice is a simple one. It must choose between defending its Orthodox co-religionists or putting geo-strategic and economic interests first. It seems for the time being at least, it is the latter that’s winning.