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Russia is rapidly winning hearts and minds in Turkey

Irked by increasing diplomatic clashes with the West, Ankara is warming to a new alliance with Moscow

(Al-Monitor) – The United States and Europe are on the verge of losing the Turkish public to Russia. Since November 2016, when reports appeared of Turkey’s decision to purchase S-400 Triumph air defense systems from Russia, Moscow has been trying hard to win the hearts and minds of the Turkish people.

Russia has never deviated from this objective despite major crises in the military/security arenas with Turkey, such as the assassination of Russia’s ambassador in Ankara, Andrei Karlov, by a Turkish police officer in December 2016; embargoes on Turkish agricultural product exports to Russia; and the mistaken killing of three Turkish soldiers by a Russian plane Feb. 9 during Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria.

A study of news, comments and analyses in Turkish social and conventional media since October, when the debate on the S-400 became a hot public topic, clearly shows Russia has taken steps to improve its strategy to alter the perceptions and thinking of the Turkish public.

It’s unlikely that Turkey would deploy the S-400 before 2020, and there are still serious outstanding issues, such as financing and technology transfer, so it is too early to declare a done deal. Moscow, however, persists in disseminating reports designed to manipulate and extend coverage of the deal.

Since November 2016, I have been emphasizing that for Moscow, the actual deployment of S-400s in Turkey is not of paramount importance, but the process is. So Russia is happy to spread out news of the $2.5 billion deal over time.

Russia is trying to make sure the S-400 story continues to erode Turkey’s traditional NATO-centric orientation and fortify the Turkish public’s opinion that Russia is its most dependable ally; ensure Moscow a chance to create a structural crisis between Turkey and the Western security bloc; and advertise its weapons systems to facilitate its military presence in the Middle East. Moscow is negotiating with Saudi Arabia and Egypt and also has initiated negotiations with Morocco for the S-400.

Turkey, which had sensed a military threat from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, joined NATO and formed a barrier to the Soviet threat to the alliance’s southeast. Ankara is now, paradoxically, opening the way for Russian military presence in the region by keeping the S-400 debate alive.

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The Turkish media almost daily carry reports that Turkey and Russia have entered intensive cooperation in the defense industry/security field. Just recently, there were many reports of Turkish Aerospace Industries signing a strategic cooperation and partnership memorandum of understanding with the Russian company Irkut at the Dubai Air Show, which took place Nov. 12-16.

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a consultant with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, believes Russia is indeed laying the groundwork to recast the Turkish public’s perception of the United States, the European Union and NATO. “No wonder we are overwhelmed with Russian-origin news, some factual and some manufactured according to the need of the day,” he told Al-Monitor.

“Putin’s team is competent — not a bunch of pompous imbeciles — and under the management of a former intelligence man and [with] a wisely designed strategy,” he added. Ozcan, an academic and retired major with the Turkish armed forces, underlines that the West’s contradictory policies and populist narratives against Turkey are also driving the Turkish public toward Russia.

My personal opinions match those of Ozcan and are backed by the results of a poll, “Turkey’s Foreign Policy: Research on Public Perceptions,” released by Kadir Has University in July. The poll showed “combating terror” was seen by 44.2% of respondents as the biggest problem for Turkish foreign policy. The Syrian war was second, with 24.6%.

Moscow, which is aware of these two sensitivities, skillfully paints the United States as the leading threat in terror and on Syria issues, while managing to keep a low profile in the media regarding its own relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party and its supposed Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party — both of which Turkey considers terrorist groups. In this annual poll, one striking finding was that the percentage of the Turkish public that perceives Russia as a threat dropped from 34.9% in 2016 to 18.5% in 2017.

Last year, poll respondents said Middle Eastern countries posed the biggest threat to Turkey, but this year, 66.5% said the United States is the worst threat to Turkey, up from 44.1% a year before. Last year, only 14.8% thought that strategic cooperation with Russia could be an alternative to EU membership. This year, that figure reached 27.6%.

All told, the poll presents us with this hard fact: While Russia’s image in Turkish public opinion in 2017 was rapidly improving, the images of the United States and European countries were deteriorating.

I’ve frequently been hearing in Ankara an increasing dose of “Isn’t it time for Turkey to withdraw from the military wing of NATO?” If these whispers gain traction and Turkey’s ties to the Western security bloc weaken, it is likely that calls for Turkey to leave the military wing, if not NATO itself, will intensify.

We’ll have to wait and see if Moscow can degrade Ankara’s trans-Atlantic ties by focusing on the process and not the outcome of the $2.5 billion S-400 deal. I think the stances of others, not Ankara, will provide the answer.

Then my question to the others will be: How ready are you for the geostrategic and geoeconomic costs of losing Turkey?

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