From Russia, With Love
Earlier tonight I had the esteemed honor of meeting a former Turkish intelligence official who was quite explicit in his belief that the recent Turkish coup was not only an inside job perpetrated by Turkish President Recep Erdogan, but that it was a Russian-backed plot. As I reported during and shortly after the coup, there was mounting (albeit murky) evidence that the Gülen Movement, a Sufi Islam political movement in Turkey, was responsible for the abortive coup attempt in July of 2016. As I stated then, if it was the Gülen Movement, whatever inequities may have been present within that movement, having them in charge of Turkey, a key NATO ally, was far more preferable than the Neo-Ottomanist Islamic autocracy of Erdogan. Since the coup, there has been countless rumors emanating from Turkey and elsewhere that the coup was in fact a false flag operation of sorts perpetrated by Erdogan as a means of ridding his regime of some of its most implacable political foes (i.e. the Gülenists). After tonight’s discussion, I can safely say that I believe this is closer to the truth than most are willing to accept. But, it goes deeper than that. On top of being a way for Erdogan to clean house, apparently he is moving Turkey closer to Russia. Indeed, on the eve of the abortive coup, Alexander Dugin (click here for my article on Dugin), the father of Neo-Eurasianism, was in Turkey. The resulting fallout of the coup ended in virtually every pro-American Turkish general being ousted from power. And, now, Turkey has become politically friendlier with the Russian Federation and is distancing itself from the U.S. and NATO. This, as Russia seems increasingly intent on dividing NATO into its component parts and antagonizing the U.S.
A Coalition of Corruption
A key takeaway from the night’s events is that President Erdogan, his family, and immediate political circle are really corrupt. Beginning in 2010, the Turkish judiciary branch began an intensive anticorruption investigation into Erdogan and his closest associates. The investigation brought down several high-ranking officials and threatened to take down Erdogan’s own son. After that, Erdogan was alerted to the investigation. He began to reorient his entire political agenda at not only protecting his inner circle from the investigators, but also to fundamentally transform the Turkish parliamentarian system into a presidential system. This system would be more similar to the United States executive system than Britain’s parliamentarian model. This would effectively place a great deal of power in Erdogan’s hands. Next, Erdogan saddled up with Islamist elements within Turkey, whose numbers are only increasing with each passing year. As Erdogan intensified his grip on power and became increasingly Islamist in his approach to governance, he also began to engage in corrupt dealings for his own enrichment. For instance, he privately championed a grotesque deal to trade Turkish gold for Iranian oil. Since then, he has been seeking an intensification of Turkey’s ties with Iran. Also, Erdogan sought to increase his energy dealings with neighboring Russia. Indeed, shortly after the failed coup attempt, Turkey and Russia signed an historic new pipeline deal between them.
Clearly, President Erdogan is one corrupt hombre. After having spent years slowly gutting his government of any opposition forces, he saved his best for last. Realizing that he would be unable to escape the wheels of justice without ridding the government of the Gülen Movement, he likely allowed for a poorly planned coup to occur. Once the coup got underway, his forces easily put them down. In the aftermath of the purported coup that was broadcast in the U.S. with great sensationalism, Turkish forces promptly rounded up any and all pro-American leaders in their military as well as any known members of the Gülen Movement. In one fell swoop, Erdogan saved himself from corruption charges that, in an ordinary democracy would have spelled doom, and then pivoted his attention to creating closer economic, diplomatic, and military ties with Russia.
Of course, such an event should come as no surprise to any keen observer. Erdogan is a conservative imperialist and a strongman ruler, just like Putin. Russia is constantly seeking new energy deals while at the same time looking to destabilize NATO and the EU in an attempt to weaken America’s reach into what Putin considers to be Russia’s traditional sphere of interest. Turkey has always been a continual thorn in Russia’s side. Plus, as a NATO member on Russia’s southern flank–the gateway into the Mideast–Turkey provided a great buffer zone between the liberal West and the autocratic East, as represented by Putin. But, as with so many pro-Russian leaders in the world, not only does Erdogan’s penchant for energy deals and strongman rule link him to Moscow, but so too does his overwhelming corruption. Vladimir Putin has truly built an international coalition of corruption, with Turkey becoming the newest member of this unofficial group.
The Implications of a Russo-Turkish Entente
The implications of such an occurrence are great on a geopolitical scale. During the coup attempt, Turkish forces surrounded and cut off the vital NATO airbase in Incirlik, Turkey. For forty-eight hours coalition forces were unable to support Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian rebel forces fighting on the ground against the Islamic State. During this pause in bombing operations, the Islamic State had a series of incredible battlefield victories that resulted in the deaths of many allied soldiers in Iraq and Syria over that period. As I noted here, the Islamic State is not just a ragtag band of basement dwellers who’ve bought into an apocalyptic cult. Quite the contrary. The Islamic State is comprised of former Baathist military commanders with years of experience earned fighting for Saddam Hussein as well as experienced Jihadists who entered Iraq and Syria after having fought the Americans in places like Afghanistan. Without the U.S.-led air campaign, the indigenous forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are at an extreme disadvantage.
The next implication is that a critical gap in NATO’s defensive barrier against Russian aggression is formed. During the Cold War, Turkey was an invaluable member of NATO. It housed a sizable American nuclear arsenal that threatened Russia’s southern periphery. Indeed, if it was not for America’s arsenal of Jupiter missiles in Turkey, it is likely that President Kennedy would not have had anything to trade Soviet Premier Khruschev for his pulling Soviet missiles out of Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Geographically, Turkey sat at the mouth of Bosphorus Strait, the vital waterway linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and Russia’s only major seaway for that part of the country. This meant that the West always had a strategic lever to pull on in the event of increased hostilities with the Soviets. What’s more, Turkey’s place in the crossroads between Asia, Europe, and the Mideast meant that whoever had control over that region had a disproportionate level of control over who and what transited between these regions. Essentially, Turkey has acted as a strategic block to Russia’s expansionary policies toward its south. But, if Putin could turn Turkey into an ally, then that strategic block could become a strategic aid allowing for Putin to intensify his position in the Mideast.
Remember, a key desire for Russia since the time of Catherine the Great has been to acquire what’s known as a warm water port for their navy. The only ocean access that the Russians have is either through the Bosphorus Strait (which is a liability, given that Turkey controls it), or through various northern ports that are frozen over most of the year. This has traditionally meant that Russia was extremely limited in its ability to project power on the ocean. Yet, since the Soviet Union, the Russians have maintained a small naval base in Tartus, Syria. Ever since the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, the Russians have used their naval base in Syria as a strategic point from which to reach into the Mideast. Indeed, in recent months, they have begun a massive expansion and modernization effort of the base. Turning Turkey into an ally, cutting Turkey off from the West, could allow Putin to fulfill Russia’s dream of having an permanent presence in warm waters. What’s more, the Russians could actually have a serious role in the Middle East–a prospect that the Russians have not dealt with since the heady days of the Cold War, when the Arab states looked to Russia for protection from U.S.-backed Israel.
“You don’t understand: after this Russian-backed coup, you can never trust my country [Turkey] again.” – A former Turkish intelligence official
Additionally, increased Russo-Turkish alliance on energy could mean an increase in Russian diplomatic power. Understand that Russia is a major energy supplier to much of Europe. They have notoriously used these energy linkages as strategic levers to force the Europeans into complying with Russian revanchism. The Russians also use this power to bully their less powerful neighbors. In the run-up to the South Ossetia War in 2008, the Russians used Georgia’s dependence on their natural gas supplies to weaken the pro-American Georgian government. Likewise, in the run-up to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russia cut off Ukraine’s access to its vital natural gas supplies during the winter of 2014. In a similar fashion, the Russians have used their natural gas linkages with Western European countries like Germany to their advantage. In both the Georgian and Ukrainian instances, many believe that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s desire to seek an accommodation with the raging Russian bear was likely due to the fact that she and her countrymen feared what the Russian reprisals would be. Merkel and the Western Europeans understood that the Russian retaliation would involve their precious natural gas supply. Similarly, Russia’s influence over regions increases as more pipelines are built linking to and from Russian energy supplies. The Russo-Turkish pipeline will have influence over regions in the traditional Turkish sphere of influence, meaning that Russia will have increased influence over these regions too.
Lastly, the loss of pro-U.S. Turkish military leaders and the rise of pro-Russian elements within Turkey means only one thing: NATO’s resolve is further questioned. Under Article V of the NATO Charter, an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all. Yet, when it concerns the Russians, the reliability of this doctrine faces increased skepticism. The Russians seem intent on probing to see how unified NATO is behind this concept. Meanwhile, the NATO countries–particularly those Western Europeans who are no longer as threatened by Russia as their Eastern European partners are–seem unwilling to respond to any provocation. Vladimir Putin has been engaged in a salami slice strategy for devouring Eastern Europe. This is evidenced in Ukraine. Taking a majority ethnic-Russian territory like the Crimean Peninsula, the Russians are now situated to begin cleaving more of Ukraine away from the West. They won’t do it overnight and they won’t do it until they feel that NATO will in no way seriously respond. They’ll probably take Eastern Ukraine, another part of Ukraine with a large ethnic Russian population. Technically, such an act would be an act of war. But, if the Western European states are so reliant on Russian energy sources, and the Turks are now in the Russian camp, what is NATO other than a giant, plodding bureaucracy in Brussels? In essence, the loss of Turkey could very well be the final nail in NATO’s coffin that Putin has carefully been building for at least a decade.
Pulling Down The Hammer
It is clear to me, now, that the Turkish coup was not at all what it seemed. It was at once an attempt by a desperately corrupt leader to maintain his grip on power, and at the same time a daring Russian plot to further destabilize NATO. The real question is: why? Why does Vladimir Putin feel the need to destabilize NATO and continue antagonizing the West? It’s very simple: Putin has a strategic view of the West that does not comport with the peaceful coexistence that so many Western policymakers hope to have in the U.S.-Russian relationship. Since at least 2005, Putin and his cadre have been intent on creating a sort of safe space for their brand of authoritarianism to survive free of the liberal West’s meddling. From Georgia to Ukraine to Syria, Putin has slowly worked to shore up the Russian periphery. As I noted in my previous article on Neo-Eurasianism, Putin has also moved to stabilize relations with China, North Korea, and, more importantly, Japan in the Russian Far East. He is clearly trying to secure Russia’s flank, flip Russia’s south (Turkey and the Mideast), and expand into Russia’s West by reasserting his dominance in the old Soviet space. The only way that Putin can recreate the Russian Empire of old is if he busts apart the twin sources of what he views as American influence in Europe: NATO and the European Union. With Brexit, he has helped to accomplish the latter task. With Ukraine and now Turkey, Putin seems to effecting the latter. The Russian origins of the Turkish coup should be most disheartening to those of us in the West who know the truth about Putin’s intentions. And, make no mistake, a Russian victory in this area is a loss for the United States.