Erdogan and Putin: Strongmen in Love

Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at the Kremlin, Moscow, September 23, 2015. Ivan Sekretarev/Reuters

Did Vladimir Putin's spies save Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's life in the recent attempted coup? The theory first surfaced when Iran's official Fars News Agency claimed that Russian security services tipped off their Turkish counterparts after picking up "highly sensitive army exchanges and encoded radio messages showing that the Turkish army was readying to stage a coup." The electronic intelligence was gathered, according to the report, by a Russian listening station at Hmemim Airport near Latakia, Syria, operated by the Sixth Directorate of GRu military intelligence. The Russians reportedly overheard the Turkish military "discussing plans to dispatch several army helicopters to the hotel [in the resort of Marmaris] where Erdogan was staying to arrest or kill him."

That tracks at least in part with a recent briefing by a senior Turkish security official who said the country's National Intelligence Organization, also known as MIT, received reports of "unusual activity" at the Air-Land School Command in Guvercinlik near Ankara at about 3 p.m. on July 15. The origin of these reports isn't clear. But they were serious enough to prompt MIT head Hakan Fidan to warn Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar—panicking the coup plotters into moving their plans forward 12 hours. Erdogan, by his own account, left Marmaris just 15 minutes ahead of a team of commandos sent to capture him.

People shout slogans and wave Turkish national flags as they have gathered in solidarity night after night since the July 15 coup attempt in central Ankara, Turkey, July 27. The banner on the right reads "Chief (Erdogan) I came to die." Umit Bektas/Reuters

Both the Turks and Russians have officially denied that Russian spies tipped off MIT. But it is at least technically possible that the fateful first word came from a listening station in Latakia, experts say.

Since the beginning of Russia's official intervention in Syria last year, Moscow's military engineers have installed state-of-the-art electronic interception and jamming equipment at Hmemim, as well as air traffic control systems. Russia has made a point of showcasing all of its most sophisticated new military technology in Syria, from cruise missiles to Ka-52 Alligator helicopter gunships to T-90M tanks, says Justin Bronk of the Royal united Services Institute. And signals intelligence has been no exception. As early as February 2014, Russia's Osnaz or "Special Tasks" GRu radio electronic intelligence agency, has been assisting Bashar al-Assad's military in setting up listening stations all over Syria (one, near al-Hara, was captured by the Free Syrian Army in October 2014). According to the Israeli security-related blog Debkafile, the extensive radar and electronic surveillance systems set up by Russia on Syrian territory cover Israel and Jordan and a large part of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, providing "Syria and Iran with situational awareness of the Middle East." In other words, Moscow has been sharing its electronic intelligence with Damascus and Tehran for years.

That makes the story about Russia's role in warning Erdogan credible, but the main problem with the tip-off narrative is timing. While it's technically conceivable that Russians eavesdropped on traitorous chatter at Guvercinlik, "there is no direct channel of communication between Russian military intelligence and Turkish military intelligence" for such a warning to be transmitted, says Pavel Felgenhauer, a veteran defense affairs correspondent for the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Furthermore, "if the Russians warned the Turks, they would be disclosing their technical capabilities of monitoring [Turkish military] movements and communications. That is usually a no-no as far as intelligence services are concerned. It would take a political decision on the level of Putin to make such a disclosure."

Turkey is a member of NATO and relations between Ankara and Moscow are only just recovering after Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian bomber last November. In short, concludes Felgenhauer, it's "pretty unlikely" that such momentous decision—to warn Erdogan—could have been made in a matter of minutes on the afternoon of the attempted coup.

The real significance of the story is its hints that Russia and Turkey are patching up their strategic alliance.

One major consequence of the failed coup is likely to be that Erdogan will turn to his erstwhile ally Putin for strategic support. Two weeks before the coup, Erdogan offered a major reset in Russian-Turkish relations, apologizing for the downing of the bomber and calling it "a mistake." Russia, in return, lifted a ban on charter flights to Turkey. Talks have resumed, too, on the South Stream gas pipeline project that would bring Russian gas to southern Europe via Turkey, bypassing ukraine. In the aftermath of the coup, the two strongmen of Europe's fringe agreed to a summit meeting in Moscow on August 6.

Putin and Erdogan have a lot in common. Both have pioneered a kind of populist authoritarianism. And both share a deep suspicion of the united States. In one of his first addresses after the coup's failure, Erdogan hurled thinly veiled accusations that the Obama administration was protecting the man he sees as the coup's instigator, reclusive Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen who has been living in exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. "Whoever protects the enemies of Turkey cannot be a friend," Erdogan said.

That fits a narrative Putin's media trots out often: that the united States preaches partnership with nations while looking for the first available opportunity to overturn any government that dares to defy Washington's hegemony. In 2011, when mass demonstrations against Putin's return to the presidency seriously challenged his authority, Putin accused then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of giving a "signal" to opponents to rise against him.

The ruling style of the two leaders is also growing similar. Since the coup attempt, Erdogan has become more like Putin as he cracks down on opponents at home—not only on rebel soldiers and generals but on journalists, academics, teachers and judges too. Around 60,000 Turks have been suspended from or lost their jobs in the post-coup purge, and over 6,000 jailed. Human Rights Watch says many of those have been tortured.

Then there's Syria, where Moscow and Ankara have been on opposite sides since Erdogan's government gave up on Assad in 2013 and began backing the opposition. Now the ground has shifted against Turkey: Russia's military intervention in Syria has strengthened Assad's position, while u.S. backing has boosted Syria's Kurds—allies in the fight against ISIS but enemies of the Turkish government. Finally, in the aftermath of Turkey's downing of the Russian plane, Moscow also reached out to Syria's Kurds, supplying them with equipment, and even allowed them to open their first "embassy" in the Russian capital. Suddenly, Turkey's backing of Syria's hapless rebels is looking like a bad bet, and Erdogan needs Putin's help to prevent the birth of a Kurdish state in Northern Syria, which would encourage Turkey's separatist Kurds to escalate their insurgency.

All that means Erdogan and Putin have strong incentives to resume their interrupted love-in. Russian TV reported, triumphantly, that the pilot of the Turkish F-16 that had shot down their Su-24 had been arrested as an anti-Erdogan coup suspect, drawing a symbolic line under the incident.

Closer ties between the two would certainly please many in both Russia and Turkey. Veteran nationalist Alexander Dugin was in Turkey on the day of the putsch, and met with Ankara's mayor Melih Gokcek, a close Erdogan ally. According to a video blog on Dugin's website, Gokcek explained that Turkey was split between "patriots" and "Gulenist-American agents" and that the shooting down of the Russian plane was a CIA-Gulenist conspiracy to split Turkey and Russia's natural alliance. "We underestimated the power of the parallel state, which Gulen's followers and Americans created inside Turkey," Gokcek told Dugin. "It was our mistake. But we are going to make it right now. The first step will be a new rapprochement with Moscow." Dugin has repeatedly called for Turkey to leave NATO and for joint Russian-Turkish action to push NATO from the Black Sea. Dugin's opinions aren't official Kremlin policy, but he is close to Putin.

Even if Erdogan does not owe his life—literally or politically—to a Russian intelligence tip-off, the attempted coup has deepened Erdogan's suspicions of the West, strengthened his authoritarian instincts—and pushed him closer to the man who is increasingly looking like his political alter ego, Putin.