Traditionally, retired soldiers in Turkey have always been in line with and supporters of the official policy of the Turkish state, just like the Turkish Armed Forces’ organizational stance itself.
However, even though the Turkish government has repeatedly called the Russian invasion of Ukraine “unacceptable” and voted for a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia, depicting its official stance in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a group of powerful former generals and flag officers have recently taken a pro-Russian and pro-Putin stance in the Russian-Ukrainian war.
I will attempt to touch upon the reasons why these former soldiers took an anti-West and pro-Russian stance. To this end, I will try to reveal who these soldiers are and explain the main motivations that drive these soldiers.
Eurasianists’ Visit to Russia
It must first be emphasized that the pro-Russian retired military officers and generals share a political vision called Eurasianism. The main proponent of Eurasianism in Turkey is a civilian and military community gathered around Mr. Dogu Perincek’s small but vocal Homeland Party (Vatan Partisi), which serves as a covert Russian lobby in the country. The Party hosts several former military officers and generals/admirals in its body.
In the first week of March, Mr. Perinçek paid a visit to Russia with a delegation including Ethem Sancak, the owner of BMC, Turkey’s largest commercial and military vehicle manufacturer, and an ardent supporter of President Erdoğan. While it was not disclosed with whom the Perinçek delegation met, Perincek himself stated after his visit that “Russia does not approve of Turkey’s stance”. He added that “Russia does not find Erdoğan’s current stance loyal.” Ethem Sancak, who gave a 15-minute interview to Russian RBK television during the visit, accused NATO of being responsible for the war in Ukraine and of staging a failed coup in Turkey in 2016. Sancak argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was NATO’s fault and that Ankara’s membership in the alliance is a historical disgrace for his country. “NATO is the main culprit in the issue between Russia and Ukraine. NATO is a cancerous tumor from the very beginning. NATO supported the terrorists and attempted a military putsch in 2016. We won’t be joining the sanctions [against Russia] because if Russia falls, Turkey falls.” he said.
Short History of Eurasianism within the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF)
During the early 2000s, we have witnessed a convergence between the Eurasianist and Kemalist ideologies in Turkey. Several Kemalist and socialist intellectual and political actors together with factions within the TAF articulated Eurasianism as an alternative to Turkey’s pro-Western orientation.
In this perspective, Eurasianism stands for a political, economic, and cultural alliance with ‘Eurasian countries’, such as Russia, Iran, and Turkic countries in Central Asia, as well as Pakistan, India, and China.
Indeed, there have always existed Eurasian foci within the state apparatus, Eurasianist officers, and generals in the army and in the forces under their command. However, especially after the botched coup of July 15, 2016, the Eurasianist vision has gained prominence in the military bureaucracy, the security sector, think tanks, and academia. Following the purge of almost 25,000 officers and nearly half of the flag officers most of whom held a pro-NATO stance after the failed coup attempt, the Eurasianist factions became a powerful group within the TAF. Purges and shuffles have given an upper hand to non-military forces. Given an urgent need to fill thousands of vacant positions in the TAF and insufficient recruits from the AKP base, President Erdogan had to turn to secularist and nationalist cadres. Among them were soldiers convicted in the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, as well as the Eurasianist Dogu Perincek Group.
Basic Assumptions of Eurasianist Soldiers
According to this sect, Turkey today requires an alliance with Russia. They argue that Turkey should work closely with Russia, the natural leader of the Eurasian block, on foreign policy, defense, and security issues. To do so, they claim, Turkey must reject the NATO tutelage imposed by the Western pact, and free itself from American ties in defense and security issues. The fundamental assumptions they share can be delineated as follows:
- The world’s geo-economic and geostrategic center is shifting to the East.
- The current West-dominated world order is no longer viable to resolve global security issues.
- Ongoing political and security integration with the Western world is undermining Turkey’s independence, therefore Turkey’s Westernization process requires a severe critical revision.
- Western international organizations such as the EU and NATO have pitched into structural crises.
- The US and NATO have come to erode the legitimacy of Turkey’s Syrian and Iraqi borders and are not supporting the country’s fight against terrorism.
- Since the West no longer cares about Ankara’s security concerns, Turkey needs to draw up its own strategic vision, relying on its own power.
Eurasianist Military Factions
The Eurasian cadres in the TAF today advocate cooperation between Turkey and the Russia-China-Iran trio. The so-called mastermind of the Eurasianist factions, retired Admiral Cem Gürdeniz and retired Chief of General Staff Ilker Basbug define Western countries as “unfriendly forces”.
Retired Rear Admiral Cem Gürdeniz, an important name among the Eurasian officers in the TAF has recently named the Russia-Iran-China trio as an ‘ally’. Known to be critical towards the West and NATO, Gürdeniz seems to have hardened his rhetoric after Biden’s election as President. Gürdeniz, who was one of the key figures of the Turkish Navy until a few years ago and served as J5 in the Turkish General Staff, is said to be still effective in determining Turkey’s maritime policy. Some sources who declined to be named claim that several active-duty officers in the Turkish Navy continue to receive instructions from Gürdeniz, despite his retirement. The same sources claim that the Turkish officers currently working in NATO posts are pretending not to give the impression that they are acting in line with NATO, fearing that their careers may be adversely affected. The sources state that due to the belief that the officers who cause problems within NATO will be promoted in the ranks, the Turkish officers assigned in NATO posts began to generate excuses to raise tension and create friction within the Alliance’s headquarters.
Gürdeniz lately wrote an article where he claimed that Russia has not only been isolated by the West but also demonized. “It is almost as if there is a war declared against Russia, and in the last week we have witnessed that a great grudge and hatred that has accumulated for perhaps 150 years has been spilled onto the Russian state, the people of Russia and Russian culture.” wrote Gürdeniz. “The creation of this hatred can be seen as preparation for a much larger conflict between the Euro-Atlantic and the Asia-Pacific, from the Arctic to the South China Sea, from Ukraine to Taiwan” he continued.
Gürdeniz claims in the same article that the US encourages Turkey to act against Russia. “The Atlanticists among us are enabling them.” “Atlanticists among us” in his words refer to the officers with a NATO perspective, whose numbers have considerably decreased in the TAF.
Gürdeniz accuses NATO of launching eastward expansion, reaching the borders of Russia. “Russia, whose access to the oceans through the Baltic was restricted and surrounded by the EU and NATO membership of the Baltic Republics in 2004, was too surrounded in the Black Sea with Bulgaria and Romania becoming NATO members in the same year.”
“What faces Russia today is an example for all countries whose geopolitical theses do not coincide with the Western perspective. The West will respond to those states with the same strategy as applied in Russia. The price of independence is to be ready for war at any time and not to sleep. If you sleep, you die!” he concludes.
Implications for the US and NATO
The severe anti-West and pro-Russian criticism and rhetoric echoed by the Eurasianist former military officers can be seen as a consequence of the purges on pro-NATO officers following the failed coup attempt on July 15. Needless to say, the decrease was not only in terms of numbers in the ranks but also in terms of the Weltanschauung that governs and shapes the TAF’s ideological outlook and attitude.
While the TAF, led by Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, still seems to be ideologically, theoretically, and organizationally connected to NATO and to the modern Western world, it is another fact that there is a powerful dominant group within TAF that embraces the Eurasianist perspective.
What should absolutely alert the policymakers is the fact that we are lacking a true statistic about this group, and that their actual number and relative weight within the TAF ranks are dubious and require further investigation.