There are just two remaining parts of Putin’s master-plan before retirement: to destroy the European Union; and to destroy NATO.
The Kremlin is a happy place to be in today. Certainly happier than it was nearly 30 years ago, when from my office in the British embassy I looked across the river and pondered on the turmoil going on behind those magnificently fortified walls. At the time, Boris Yeltsin was struggling with the fall-out of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a task which defeated him. His successor, Vladimir Putin, has stabilised the ship of state since taking the helm, mostly by returning to the kind of autocracy embedded in the DNA of Russia, while vastly enriching himself and his friends. There are just two remaining parts of the master-plan before retirement: to destroy the European Union (EU); and to destroy NATO.
As he sits behind his sophisticated anti-Covid protection at his presidential residence outside Moscow, where masked visitors have to pass through tunnels which emit ultra-violet light and be showered with a disinfectant, Czar Vladimir will feel satisfied with progress to date. The destruction of the EU has started with the exit of the UK, in which Russian cyber experts padded out the extensive disinformation promulgated by Boris Johnson and his side-kick Dominic Cummings. After all, Britain is weaker outside the EU, and the EU is weaker without Britain, so that’s a win for Putin. He will also be pleased with the Russian-inspired turn to autocracy in Poland and Hungary, both EU members under threat from Brussels for breaches of judicial independence, which could also lead to their departure and the possible break-up of the EU.
NATO is a harder nut to crack, but Putin will probably be satisfied with the work in progress. There has been a slight set-back with the defeat of his protégée, the political arsonist Donald Trump, but then Russia’s cyber hacking groups, “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear”, linked to all three of Putin’s intelligence agencies, are well embedded in America’s infrastructure and will provide the Kremlin with all the intelligence it needs during the Biden years. The Kremlin’s greatest hope for the gradual crumbling of NATO now rests with Putin’s friend Recep Erdogan, the autocratic ruler of Turkey. If Turkey can be persuaded to be more dependent on Russia, the process of NATO’s demise will be underway.
When Turkey joined NATO in the early 1950s, everyone considered the move to be a powerful strengthening of the Alliance. After all, Turkey bordered the southern Soviet states of Georgia and Armenia and denied the Soviet Union access to the Mediterranean at the Bosphorus Strait. Its new membership also allowed the US to station ballistic missiles on its soil, although this ended up being the catalyst of the Cuban missile crisis. Even when the missiles were dismantled, Turkey remained home to significant US Air Force presence at the Incirlik Air Base and continued as a thorn in the USSR’s, now Russia’s, southern flank. In the eyes of the Kremlin, how good it would be to remove this thorn.
Turkey’s relationships within NATO have always been rather bumpy, even during the days of the Cold War. The Cyprus crisis of 1974 saw Turkey and Greece, both NATO members, go to war against each other, which led to the establishment of a largely-forgotten UN demilitarised zone that separates the northern and southern portions of the island. But it was the arrival of President Recep Erdogan in 2014 which fuelled broader problems for the Alliance. Although Turkey’s actions in the 1970s were of concern to other NATO members, at least it didn’t collide with hostile powers, nor seek to undermine the West in the way it has done in the more recent years under Erdogan. The thought that a NATO member would forsake the West for the Kremlin would have been unthinkable in the Cold War. No longer. President Putin’s specially cultivated friendship with President Erdogan has meant that Turkey is close enough to Moscow to purchase Russian-made anti-aircraft systems and even launch joint operations with Russian troops in Syria.
President Erdogan first decided to purchase the Russian S-400 in 2017, after claiming that Washington refused to sell its own Patriot missiles on conditions that were acceptable to Ankara. Negotiations had stalled due to disagreements on timing of delivery, cost and Turkish demands for technology transfer and co-production, none of which were made on Russia for the S-400. The decision drew immediate protests from the US and NATO, which charged that its deployment would compromise the security of the F-35, the newest US joint strike fighter being deployed by the NATO allies. Turkey was suspended from co-production agreements for the aircraft, and its own purchase of 100 planes was cancelled. Last month, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Turkey’s main military weapons procurement agency as punishment for its purchase of the S-400.
But it’s not just the S-400 which is ruffling feathers with NATO. Throughout 2020, Erdogan has expanded and acted upon Turkey’s claims over drilling rights for oil and gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean sea bed. Turkey is particularly hostile to its NATO partner, Greece, accusing Athens of trying to transform the Aegean Sea into a “Greek Lake”, owing to the multiplicity of Greek islands each having their own 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Erdogan has pushed back hard against Greece’s claims by deploying deep-sea exploration vessels to disputed waters escorted by elements of the Turkish navy. Other NATO partners, such as France, have responded by sending their own naval vessels to aid Greece, raising tensions and even sparking fears of a military altercation at sea. Putin, who supports the Turkish side in the dispute, would be delighted to witness one NATO country fighting another.
Then there’s the potentially explosive issue with America over Halkbank. In October 2019, US federal prosecutors indicted this major Turkish state-owned bank for its alleged involvement in a huge multibillion dollar scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran. President Trump initially yielded to pressure from Recep Erdogan to hold off on pursuing the case, but changed his mind when Erdogan ordered troops into Syria. If Halkbank is convicted, it could face dire financial consequences, with fines of billions of dollars, which would have a major impact on the already worsening Turkish economy and the lives of ordinary citizens.
Curiously, the flip side of US sanctions due the S-400, EU sanctions due to the Aegean flare-up and financial penalties due to Halkbank’s actions, could be to strengthen Erdogan’s position in his country. Erdogan has emulated Putin in persistently blaming the US and the West in general for Turkey’s problems, problems which in reality are due to his own poor judgement and mismanagement. A familiar ruse of all dictators. Partly due to Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric, 48% of Turks now identify the US as the biggest threat to their country, according to a recent poll.
In many ways, Putin and Erdogan are blood brothers in their attitude to running their countries. Both are intolerant to criticism. Both have a firm control of the media, jailing any journalists, cartoonists, movie directors and academics who dare to dissent from their rule. Erdogan wants to drive out the educated and business classes that fervently oppose him, the same way Putin pushed out educated and wealthy citizens in Russia. Over the past 20 years, Putin has stripped the Russian opposition of its leaders, forcing many of Russia’s thinkers and civil society organisers into self-imposed exile overseas. Erdogan believes driving out the leaders of Turkey’s civil society will pave the way for Putin-style landslide electoral victories against a hollowed and rudderless mass. In both countries, the clear signal for the educated and wealthy is “stay quiet, jail time, or leave”.
Will the arrival of President Joe Biden improve prospects for Erdogan? Probably not. Joe Biden has pledged to rebuild America’s reputation among its allies and partners as a champion of robust democratic institutions and the rule of law. This means that in both the Halkbank case and the S-400 dispute, the onus will be on Erdogan to improve relations with the US. This is extremely unlikely, as is any agreement with Greece over exploration rights. While Erdogan knows that the standoff in these cases is damaging to his relations with both the US and EU, he prefers to keep Turkish public opinion focused against the West.
This, of course, is precisely what President Putin wants. Not only will he be thrilled by Thursday’s pictures from Washington, illustrating beyond doubt that American democracy is on its last legs, but he will also be rubbing his hands with glee at the prospects of Turkey inching itself eastwards into a close relationship with Russia away from NATO. It’s been a Happy New Year for Vladimir—or as he would say “С Новым Годом”.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.