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Putin Looks for Regime Change in Turkey

Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Center of Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
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Many have been burned trying to predict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next foreign policy moves, but it’s a safe bet he will copy whichever U.S. policy he has been criticizing. That’s why Turkey, in particular, should pay close attention to what Russia has to say on regime change.

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This pattern of condemn-then-copy foreign policy has been going on for some time. In 2007, Putin made a powerful denunciation of America’s addiction to military force, complaining -- presumably as a man of peace -- that “There is no one to talk to since Mahatma Gandhi died.” A year later, Russia openly used force beyond its borders for the first time since the end of the Cold War, invading Georgia.  

In February 2008, the U.S. smoothly recognized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, a move Putin repeatedly attacked as violation of the territorial integrity of another sovereign nation. Before the year was out, he had recognized similar declarations by the Georgian separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Fast forward to 2014 and Putin was infuriated by the “coup” conducted by hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, who turned out for the Maidan revolution in Kiev to protest against the corruption of former President Viktor Yanukovych and his regime. Within weeks of Yanukovych’s flight, Putin was backing miniature versions of the Maidan protest in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to achieve not only regime change but, in Crimea’s case, annexation.

More recently, Putin has turned from the most ardent critic of U.S. air strikes in Syria to launching his own bombing campaign, in support of President Bashar al-Assad. Russia has even mimicked the U.S. habit of showing cockpit footage of airstrikes on TV, to impress the home crowd.

These examples reveal a clear pattern. And given that regime change has for some time been the dirtiest phrase in the Kremlin vocabulary, Putin’s recent falling out with Turkey is worth careful monitoring.

Russia and Turkey were always on opposite sides of the Syrian crisis, but until a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian jet in November, they had been able to manage this disagreement. Indeed, in recent years, Putin had been Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strategic partner and friend. Turkey was the only North Atlantic Treaty Organization country that refused to impose sanctions on Russia after Moscow annexed Crimea. Putin even put Turkey at the heart of his gas diplomacy, after being snubbed by the European Union over Ukraine. 

Even Erdogan might now agree that the Nov. 24 shooting down of a Russian bomber that crossed into Turkish airspace only for a matter of seconds was not a brilliant idea. What’s most puzzling almost two months later, though, isn’t so much Turkey’s misjudgment as Russia’s unwillingness to de-escalate the crisis.

Putin has ignored pressure from allies such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, signaling that he is unwilling to normalize relations with Turkey so long as Erdogan is in power. Indeed, Russia’s response to the Turkish shoot-down bears a close resemblance to the U.S. response to Russia’s interventions in Ukraine. First, it imposed economic sanctions. Then it attacked Erdogan’s inner circle, including in the media his son Bilal, accusing them of trading oil with Islamic State. And in the ultimate gesture of hostility, Russia invited Selahattin Demirtas, leader of Turkey’s Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, to Moscow.

Demirtas rose to prominence after the so-called Gezi Park protests of 2013 -- exactly the kind of “colored revolution” movement that Putin so despises. The HDP’s success in doubling its share of the vote in elections last June cost the ruling Justice and Development Party its parliamentary majority, prompting Erdogan to call a repeat election. Last month he accused Demirtas of treason, implicating him in the nasty conflict now under way in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish-populated eastern provinces. So Putin just very publicly took sides in Turkey’s civil war, much as he feels Western countries did during Russia’s Chechen wars.

This response is in part demonstrative revenge: Putin has to be seen at home to make Turkey pay for killing a Russian pilot. But there is more to it. An ambitious and influential Turkey that promotes a form of Islamism acceptable to the West is a major obstacle to Moscow’s objectives in the Middle East. Russia’s interest in the region is not just to support Assad, but also to force the West to choose between the secular dictators Russia is willing to work with and Islamists who speak the language of the popular will. What Moscow fears is that Erdogan could persuade the West to partner with “moderate” Islamists, including in Syria. In Russia’s analysis, it was belief in the so-called Turkish model that explained Western support for the Arab Spring.

As with the U.S. sanctions policy towards Russia, Putin probably hasn’t set a goal of toppling Erdogan from power any time soon. For the foreseeable future, the Turkish strongman is as safely entrenched in office as is Putin. Like the U.S., though, Putin seems to have dug in for a long-term policy of sapping Turkey’s economy and undermining Erdogan politically. What isn’t clear is whether the goal is to teach the U.S. and its allies to mend their ways, or to split them over whether to defend NATO ally Turkey, or to join Russia in distancing themselves from its increasingly authoritarian Islamist government.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Ivan Krastev at ivan@cls-sofia.org

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net