Strengthening Russo-Turkish Alliance Stokes US-Russian Cold War
John Helmer, Russian-based Anglo-American journalist says that Russia feels threatened by US, NATO, Turkey, and the turbulence at its borders
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
A possible new alliance between Russia and Turkey must be unsettling for the U.S. and for NATO. The presidents of Russia and Turkey have agreed to meet in St. Petersburg on August 9 to repair relations at a time when tensions between Turkey and NATO are increasing. The other day, U.S. General Curtis Scaparotti, who is the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said, and I quote: “We will watch closely how the relationship develops, and I would be concerned if they were departing from the values that are the bedrock of the Washington treaty,” meaning NATO, “the rule of law.”
The budding Russia-Turkey alliance represents an important development, because until now, Turkey has always been a steadfast member of NATO. However, following the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey, President Erdogan’s and his allied politicians have suggested that the U.S. might have been involved in the coup attempt, while that is hard to verify at this time.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry has criticized Erdogan’s post-coup crackdown, which has led to over 1,000 arrests of officers, tens of thousands of dismissals of government employees, and the shutdown of over 130 media outlets. Now that Russia and Turkey might become allies, it could signal an important geopolitical shift in the region, if Russia succeeds in peeling away Turkey from NATO. It would change the regional dynamics of the war in Syria, and of course, geopolitics altogether.
With us to discuss this development is John Helmer. John is the longest continuous serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only Western journalist to conduct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. An American who has served in Jimmy Carter’s White House, and then as an adviser to Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, he publishes his own widely-syndicated website, Dances With Bears. He joins us today from Moscow. Thank you so much for joining us today, John.
JOHN HELMER: Thank you.
PERIES: So, John, the relationship obviously is changing dynamically between Turkey and Russia. Give us a sense of what is taking place that you think is historically significant. And here I’m making reference to your article that you have recently published.
HELMER: Well, perhaps if I begin by saying it’s essential, if you’re outside of Russia, to understand that Russia, like everywhere else, is concerned to secure its own borders and its own strategic priorities. And securing Russia from terrorism and attempts at the border to threaten the country’s survival, those are the first things that Russia’s been thinking of and that normal states think of at all times.
Turkey has threatened Russia in a number of ways, as has NATO threatened Russia increasingly over the last two years, to the point where Russia finds itself at war on several fronts. Let’s call it the Ukraine front, let’s call it the southern or Syrian front. Active military conflicts in which Russia is threatened and in which the U.S., the NATO alliance, including Turkey, have deployed forces which threaten Russia indirectly and directly.
So while I understand many people see things the other way around, they think Russia is threatening the rest of the world, Russia sees the rest of the world, particularly NATO and Turkey, threatening Russia. So if we begin with the way Russians think then you can begin to understand how Russian policy approaches a country like Turkey.
PERIES: Now, in your article that you have published on your website, you suggest that Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has been plotting not only against Russia and Syria, but also against Turkey, that her actions have resulted in Turkey looking for new allies. Explain that for us.
HELMER: Ms. Nuland has been plotted–she’s not the only official to be plotting like this–plotted the overthrow of President Yanukovych in the Ukraine, plotted the overthrow of President Yanukovych in the Ukraine in February of 2014, with the result that Ukraine is in a state of constant civil war, with the result that the border between Ukraine and Russia is a conflict zone with immeasurable human damage; refugees flowing into Russia and towards the West; with the result that Crimea decided to accede to and join the Russian federation.
The effects of the Ukraine war, for which Ms. Nuland and her colleagues were directly responsible, has also cost the lives of the people on board H17 Malaysia Airlines. Your listeners, the audience can understand very well how much damage that particular war has caused. And Ms. Nuland is one of the individuals personally responsible. Her bureau covers Turkey and most of Europe as well as Russia, so Russia feels and has experienced her scheming and plotting for regime change in a number of other countries, as well as, of course, Russia, because regime change in Russia is the stated policy of U.S. sanctions against so-called cronies of the president of Russia.
Ms. Nuland has also been applying enormous pressure on the Cyprus government to accept a settlement of the Turkish invasion of 1974, which still leaves Turkish troops occupying about 1/3 of Cyprus, the northern part of the island.
What to do? What to say? This story goes on and on. Her involvement with Turkey has largely been one of attempting to get the Turks to sign up to various regime-changing schemes to the north of Turkey, to the west of Turkey, and to some extent to the east of Turkey. But that’s beyond Ms. Nuland’s bureau’s area of operations.
PERIES: Now, in terms of what interest Russia has in all of this, obviously it’s pursuing economic interests at this point with the downed oil prices. It is feeling strangled in terms of the economic crisis in Russia, and of course Turkey is having similar constraints on its economy. So obviously opening up relations and having trade reestablished and getting rid of some of the embargoes that were placed after Turkey’s downing of the Russian aircraft, and so on is of course, that’s obvious in terms of what’s at play.
But what’s really the interest of Russia pursuing this relationship further?
HELMER: The interests of Russia first and foremost is to reduce the amount of border threat, missile threat, wall threat, from the Turkish side towards Russia. In addition, Russia’s concerned that Turkey has been involved in overthrowing the Syrian government. That’s been Turkish policy for some time. To that end, Turkey has encouraged the flow of jihadis, fighters, Daesh, ISIS, ISIL–the names are numerous, the meaning is clear–to fly, to fight in Syria. But Turkey’s also the base for the Chechen terrorist movement seeking to overthrow and cause disruption all across Russia. Turkey’s a major Chechen base.
So neutralizing and ending the Turkish relationship with the Chechen secession, the Chechen terrorist movement, that’s a very important goal of Russian policy, and it’s more important to Russia than reducing Turkish involvement in Syria [inaud.] though. They’re too intimately connected.
PERIES: Now, one very interesting thing that you cite in your article is that you emphasize the new relationship between Russia and Turkey is of historical significance, and even you compare it to the Ottoman alliance with the Russian empire against Napoleon. Give us a sense, a brief history, here, in terms of what all that means.
HELMER: This is a television program. I’m not sure I can–.
PERIES: Give us a rundown of the significance of this alliance now.
HELMER: Well, perhaps if I say it this way. Russia’s been at war with Turkey for several generations. And to the extent that Turkey has been an active member of the NATO alliance, but the only member of the NATO alliance allowed by NATO to invade and occupy another country, that’s to say, Cyprus, to the extent that Greece is constantly threatened by Turkish military action in the air and on the sea. Turkey is one of the most unusual members of, and most aggressive, members of NATO in its own neighborhood.
These things are not new, historically. This region, from–during the Byzantine empire, during the ancient Roman and Greek periods, these regions, this region is one of constant change and tactical alliance for the advantages of the states and ethnic groups and militaries in each. When I’ve tried to describe the potential significance of the change in Turkish policy, I should also explain and emphasize that we’re talking about potential, here. It’s very unusual for Turkey to appear to be changing its commitments with respect to NATO, and therefore changing its hostile action towards Russia. Shooting down the SU24 last November was a calculated act of war. The excuses, justifications, geography, territorial stuff, all unconvincing. And beside the obvious fact that it was an act of war, it was an act of war in a context of other acts of warfare. I’ve mentioned the Chechen secession attempt, Chechen terrorism, that moves from Turkey northwards into Russia and into the Russian Caucasus, and moves from Turkey southwards into Syria.
All of these things are threatening, and if it turns out that the newly revised policy of the Turkish state is not to threaten southwards, northwards, or westwards, then this has revolutionary implications. The history of disappointment, the history of Turkish expansion, the history of warfare between Russia and Turkey, this only tells you that–the best lesson I suppose I could try to sum up from a couple of thousand years of this history–is that Turkey is an expansionist state that has threatened its neighbors. I know that people in the United States and NATO like to think of Russia as an expansionist state. They like to think of NATO as a defensive system against Russian expansion. Russia thinks that NATO is expanding against Russia. So any move that Turkey makes that’s different from the way it’s behaved for the last 50 years is potentially revolutionary in character.
But I have to stress it’s potential. There’s been no shortage of trade investment relationships, tourism between Russia and Turkey, since the end of the Soviet Union. Everybody understands that. All of that ended with the shootdown of the aircraft last November. It can all be restored. It can be increased. Or it can be put on a slow track of development. Trade, investment, the movement of gas and energy, all of these things can be advanced, accelerated, or slowed down.
But at bottom, what we’re talking about is: does Turkey seriously intend to threaten less? Threaten its neighbors to the south, to the north, and to the west. That’s the key question. And that’s the question that Presidents Erdogan and Putin will have to demonstrate to each other and to the rest of the world that they’re focusing on next Tuesday.
PERIES: Now, John, I imagine not too much gets by the Russian intelligence and secret service. What do we know about what they knew about the coup attempt in Turkey?
HELMER: Typically we can only guess what intelligence agencies knew. And in situations as confused to the Turkish forces on both sides as they were on July 15 and 16, in situations as confusing as that you’ve got to expect that intelligence agencies are also in confusion as to what’s happening.
You’ll have seen that the NATO website called Bellingcat has produced, what they claim to have been intercepted, [inaud.] conversations between Turkish majors, lieutenants, lieutenant-colonels and colonels, engaged in the activity of the night of Friday, July 15 in Istanbul. Maybe it’s as unreliable as everything else Bellingcat produces. Maybe it’s an accurate account. But one thing it establishes: what happened was confusing to those participating in it. In addition, there weren’t as many forces engaged as there needed to be to make their coup successful. They failed. Third, you can expect that Russian intelligence was listening and monitoring the military signals that, electronic communications like the telephone, as were British intelligence, U.S. intelligence, and everybody else with the capability to listen in electronically.
So everybody was listening in. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they were helping either side. Either the U.S. side, the Brits, the Israelis, or anyone else, can be accused of helping one side or the other for doing their job, which was watching and listening and trying to understand. I don’t believe, and nor do any of my sources believe, Russian military surveillance, like the other countries in surveillance, helped move the coup in any direction whatsoever. They simply listened in. And if Bellingcat, a NATO agency, can produce today–yesterday or the day before–vivid transcripts of people talking about what’s to be done and where to go, and how to coordinate when they weren’t able to coordinate themselves in one service, let alone between the army and the air–if that shows confusion, I think it’s safe to say the intelligence agencies watching were also watching confusion and confused themselves.
And you can see from the political statements that were made–Mr. Kerry was in Moscow that evening. It took hours and hours before President Obama made a statement. Everybody was watching to see what would happen and who would emerge the winner.
PERIES: That’s very interesting. I didn’t know that John Kerry was in Moscow at that time.
HELMER: He and Ms. Nuland were having negotiations with Foreign Minister Lavrov on Thursday-Friday. Ms. Nuland had been in Cyprus and the Balkans during the days preceding.
To go back to the question of revolution, meaning change of power, change of policy, this is obviously a huge issue, a question for the Cypriots, as well as for the Greeks, are most affected targets of Turkish expansion after the Syrians, at the moment.
PERIES: John, thank you for joining us today. Many revelations here which we would like to follow up on in the near future. Thank you so much.
HELMER: I hope so. Thank you. Bye.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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