Putin’s Sinister Role in the Failed Turkish Coup

Analysis: Pulling Erdogan from Western Orbit is a Russian Objective

Turkish soldiers secure the area as supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan protest in Istanbul's Taksim square
Turkish soldiers secure the area as supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan protest in Istanbul's Taksim square / AP
July 25, 2016

One group that stands to gain significantly from Erdogan’s "purges" are the local proponents of Eurasianist thinking. In the days leading up to the attempted coup, Alexandr Dugin—the Russian ideologue who is the father of the modern "Eurasian Movement" and a favorite Kremlin harbinger of conflict and annexation—was sitting in Ankara, alternatively visiting with leading Turkish Eurasianists and close allies of President Erdogan.

Dugin, as Georgia and Ukraine have learned, is rarely near a conflict by chance, often providing both the ideological foundations for modern Russian expansionism and a kind of advance team for local mobilization.

As early as 2004, U.S. officials warned that Putin aimed to detach Turkey from the West. Could the rapid realignment underway after the coup indicate that Russia’s hybrid war to capture Turkey into its geopolitical orbit is yielding results?

A TV coup?

In the aftermath of the failed coup in Turkey, more than 6,000 members of the military have been arrested; more than 50,000 education personnel, police, judges, and civil servants have been fired; and millions of academics have been banned from leaving the country until potential connections to the coup plot are evaluated. The speed with which the "enemies lists" were produced, and with which the arrests were conducted, has led to questions from European officials about the government’s preparations in advance of the coup.

But the "conspiracy theories" spinning out of recent events both mask and expose a deep geopolitical shift underway in Turkey that could have profound consequences for NATO and American allies in the region.

Stories are now circulating that Russian officials warned their Turkish counterparts of the pending coup, and that Iranian officials were in contact with their Turkish counterparts throughout the night. Both stories add to the sense that some elements inside Turkey aimed to capitalize upon the coup to widen the distance between Turkey and its Western allies and commitments.

The rapid purge of opponents has amplified questions about the baffling coup attempt. Turkey’s military has staged four successful coups—and this iteration deviated from that playbook in ways that defy easy explanation.

Istanbul’s bridges over the Bosporus were blockaded. Black ops forces appeared at the hotel in Marmaris where President Erdogan was supposedly staying, dropping down the side of the building on rope-lines. Fighter jets broke the sound barrier over Istanbul and Ankara, and tanks drove through the streets, projecting the appearance of broad military involvement. Cadets from military academies were enlisted as manpower. An international TV station was seized but continued to broadcast the dramatic conflict. Communications were broadly uninterrupted throughout the country. Several broadcast text messages were even sent from Erdogan and his allies to Turkish cellphone users, calling them to the streets to defend their nation.

These actions required pre-planning but made little tactical sense—a series of powerful visuals projecting that a coup was underway, and providing rally points for media and demonstrators, but which held little value in securing strategic assets, institutions, and national political leaders.

Under scrutiny, it’s not hard to see why some observers believe the coup was staged. In a poll conducted after the coup, one third of Turks said they believed Erdogan was behind the coup.

The rise, fall, and return of Turkey’s Eurasianists

President Putin has been using Dugin as an emissary to the Turkish elite since Dugin accompanied Putin on an official visit in 2004. His mission was to build Russia’s network of influence to pull Turkey away from the West. This was based on his core idea that a "new Eurasian empire will be constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, strategic control [over] the USA, and the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us."

Dugin’s concept of a Turkic-Slavic alliance found supporters in Turkish nationalist circles, especially those identifying as Kemalists, who saw Eurasianism as an alternative to both the European Union and Islamism.

This was especially true for some senior Turkish military officers. Many of this group—which advocated for closer ties with Russia and called for Turkey to leave NATO—were imprisoned and convicted after being accused of participating in the "Ergenekon terrorist organization," another supposed group of coup plotters opposed to Erdogan. In April, Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the convictions, saying the organization had never existed.

Adding to the layers of complexity, Gulenists in the judiciary had supposedly been instrumental in convicting the Ergenekon group, acting out another scene in Turkey’s long securlarists/military vs. Islamists drama. The Ergenekon trials became part of the break-up between Erdogan and Gulen. Gulen went into exile, and the Ergenekon group—and its Eurasianist beliefs—have been enjoying a period of rehabilitation with Erdogan and the AKP ruling party.

Their revival may reflect a deeper shift in geopolitics that has largely been overlooked, running parallel to Erdogan’s own shift away from European structures following the Taksim protests in 2013. 

Russian pressure

Dugin’s presence in Ankara throughout the coup and his longterm activities are a reminder of the multi-year, up-and-down Russian effort to bring Turkey into the Eurasian orbit—more down than up in recent years.

The war in Syria and the rise of ISIS have changed the dynamics of the region. As Putin backed and armed Assad, Erdogan stood by Obama in calling for Assad to leave power. Turkey and Russia ended generally warm relations and began to trade barbs; at one point Putin even called for regime change in Turkey. These tensions came to a head after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that violated its airspace in November 2015.

In the months that followed, Russia ramped up various forms of pressure on Turkey and its president. Russia stalled a $15 billion pipeline deal, banned Russian tourists from traveling to Turkey, and levied other economic measures. In arming Kurdish militants in Syria and building ties with Iraqi Kurdistan, Russia played up Turkish fears of Kurdish separatism. The Russian and Turkish militaries severed ties.

Russian warships sail almost daily through the Bosporus, sometimes brandishing arms, carrying men and materiel from Sevastopol to Tartus. FSB agents are suspected of conducting a series of assassinations of "enemies of the Russian state" in Turkey. Both measures serve to remind of the increasing Russian reach beyond the Black Sea. Russia has also deployed so-called "anti-access/area denial" capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean that could effectively shut down Turkish airspace.

Russian state media has frequently cited the rehabilitated Turkish Eurasianists to build the story of a deep rift between Erdogan and the military elite on Syria policy and ties to Russia. Russia, especially through agents like Dugin, actively supports groups calling for a strategic realignment of Turkish interests, building political pressure against Erdogan internally.

In May, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu resigned, signaling, in retrospect, an end to the period of deal making with the EU on refugees and Turkish accession. By the time Erdogan offered an apology to Russia at the end of June for the downing of the jet, Russian pressure had clearly yielded results. The bombing of the Istanbul airport by Russian-speaking members of ISIS the next day reinforced the belief that Turkey needed a new approach to its Syria policy.

Dugin had long referred to Davutoglu as part of a "pro-American conspiracy" (backed, of course, by Gulen) to keep Turkey from moving toward Russia. His friends, the former military leaders of the Ergenekon group, are now part of Dogu Perincek’s Homeland Party, which last week claimed they had been sent by "businessmen close to Erdogan" to improve relations with Russia and re-establish ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The events of the last week have likely limited Erdogan’s options with his Western partners. While Putin has said little following the coup attempt, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to warn that Turkey’s membership in NATO might be at stake if they weaken their democracy.

Russian shadow over the coup

Kerry spent the night of the coup locked away with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, hammering out the details of a secret new agreement to cooperate on Syria. During these discussions, Kerry called Obama; the White House then released a statement saying they supported the democratically elected government of Turkey. Few others did until after the coup had failed.

Dugin, meanwhile, met less than two hours before the coup with close Erdogan ally and Mayor of Ankara Melih Gokcek, who explained to Dugin that Turkey was divided between two groups: patriots and Gulenists/American agents. He said the CIA had used the Gulen movement to put Turkey "at loggerheads" with Russia. The pilots who had shot down the Russian plane, Gokcek said, were also Gulenist agents following American orders.

As parting words, Gokcek offered: "We underestimated the power of the parallel state, which Gulen’s followers and Americans created inside Turkey. It was our mistake. But we are going to make it right now. The first step will be a new rapprochement with Moscow." After the coup, Gokcek announced that the pilots had been detained.

Dugin now says the "U.S.-backed coup" was a Hail Mary pass to keep Turkey from realigning with Russia.

But Russian state media has also released a story saying Erdogan was prepared for the coup because Russia intercepted—via listening stations in northern Syria that apparently monitor Turkish military transmissions—intelligence on the coup and notified Turkey in advance. The Turkish military had earlier said they received intel on the potential coup, which may have forced the plotters to initiate their plan earlier than intended.

A Realignment to Russia

The nationalistic outpouring in support of Erdogan (which became profoundly anti-American in nature when accusations of Gulenist involvement were made) and Erdogan’s subsequent decision to enact deep purges throughout national structures (which will have consequences with Western partners) both serve to create distance between Turkey and the West.

The presence of certain Russian actors around the margins of the Turkish coup does little to answer any questions about what really happened on July 15. But it is clear that the active measures taken against Turkey by Russia in the military, political, and economic realms are yielding results. As another Kremlin ideologue, Sergey Karaganov, said in an interview just days before the coup attempt: "In the face of our problems with Turkey, we have pursued a clear, hard political line—with success."

Coercing Turkey away from the West has been a goal pursued by Dugin since 1997. And, as Lenin once said: "In politics it is not so important who directly advocates particular views. What is important is who stands to gain from these views, proposals, measures."

In this sense, Russia had a good week with Turkey. Erdogan’s military purge—which has cleared more than a quarter of generals from the ranks—may mean Eurasianists fill empty slots. Putin and Erdogan have announced they will meet in early August.

Dugin’s media onslaught has continued. He is calling for a Russian-Turkish alliance to expel the United States and NATO from the Black Sea, and to ensure a Turkish departure from NATO. He says Kerry suggested kicking Turkey out of NATO to pre-empt Turkey’s announcement that it will withdraw. While there is no clear way to remove a member from the alliance for bad behavior, quitting only takes a letter.

If Russia had wanted to design a campaign of reflexive control—using disinformation to coerce an adversary into voluntarily selecting actions that will be advantageous to Russia—against Turkey, it couldn’t have done it any better. This may sound like the stuff of conspiracies, but the idea that Russia knows how to use fiction for political gain is hardly far-fetched. Estonia’s Foreign Minister recently described how Russia is simulating a war over the Baltic sea in order to show a war on state TV. If a made-for-TV war—why not a made-for-TV coup?

There are profound consequences to ignoring Russia’s many-fronted hybrid war against the West, and from failing to acknowledge that Turkey is, and has been, as much a target of this war as Ukraine or the Baltic states. As long as these explanations, which are amply documented with circumstantial and frequently direct evidence, are dismissed as conspiracy theories, leaders can duck responsibility for addressing the crisis.