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[ANALYSIS] Why Erdoğan’s re-election is a matter of life and death for Russian interests

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Fatih Yurtsever*

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the joint presidential candidate of the Turkish opposition, accused Russia of spreading “deepfakes” ahead of the general election that will be held in Turkey on Sunday. In a tweet posted on May 11, he pointed out that the conspiracies, deep fakes and videotapes recently unveiled in the country were the work of Russian actors. Although he didn’t provide any specifics, he urged Russia to stop meddling in Turkish affairs if they hoped to maintain friendly relations after May 14.

It’s worth noting that hours before Kılıçdaroğlu’s statement, third-party candidate Muharrem İnce dropped out of the race, allegedly due to targeted online smear campaigns. Since the majority of voters who might support İnce are also likely to support Kılıçdaroğlu, İnce’s withdrawal might seemingly increase Kılıçdaroğlu’s chances of being elected. For this reason, media outlets and social media accounts close to the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have alleged that terrorist organizations which want Kılıçdaroğlu elected were behind the smear campaign against İnce. However, Kılıçdaroğlu’s serious allegations against Russia have significantly escalated the debate. The question remains: Does Russia have the capacity and resources to engage in intelligence and cyber operations, such as creating and distributing deepfake videos of presidential candidates on Twitter, to interfere in Turkey’s elections?

Historically, Turkish-Russian relations have been characterized by a complex rivalry, with intersecting areas of influence and several wars. It’s natural for both nations to monitor each other and seek influence over each other’s domestic and foreign policies. However, an imbalance caused by the dominance of one country’s intelligence activities could lead to regional and global security issues. Until 2015, an equilibrium was assumed to exist between Turkey and Russia regarding intelligence activities. However, events that transpired in 2015 challenged this perception.

The crisis in Turkish-Russian relations deepened on November 24, 2015, when a Turkish Air Force F-16 shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border. The Erdoğan government and the Turkish public eagerly anticipated how Russian President Vladimir Putin would respond to Turkey’s downing of Russia’s fighter jet. Russia had announced several sanctions against Turkey, including a suspension of visa liberalization and a ban on tomato exports. However, everybody expected that Putin might secretly plan actions beyond these sanctions. The Turkish public inadvertently learned the answer in 2017 due to a document disclosed during the trial of Enver Altaylı, a leading Russian expert and former intelligence officer with the National Intelligence Organization (MİT).

During Altaylı’s trial a document allegedly prepared by Russian intelligence (FSB) surfaced, shedding light on Russia’s intelligence activities in Turkey.

Altaylı asserted that the document, which was found on his phone, was an FSB report prepared for FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov. The report was designed to destabilize Turkey following the fighter jet incident. Feridun Bilgin, the prime minister’s chief adviser, confirmed receiving and forwarding this report to the prime minister.

The report suggests the existence of Russian agents within MİT and proposes feeding false intelligence to the state. The report also labels President Erdoğan’s son, Bilal Erdoğan, as the “ISIS Energy Minister” and calls for monitoring the activities of Bilal Erdoğan and Energy Minister Berat Albayrak. The allegations in the report imply that the FSB has connections within Turkey’s press, MIT and General Staff and that Russia can influence policy changes in Turkey.

While the exact size and influence of Russia’s intelligence service in Turkey remain uncertain, President Erdoğan’s apology for the downing of the Russian jet and the subsequent improvement in Turkish-Russian relations hint at Russia’s successful penetration of Turkish state institutions and also suggest that Russia may possess incriminating documents related to the alleged ISIS oil trade, which could compromise Erdoğan and his close associates.

Turkey decided to purchase the S-400 air defense system from Russia in 2017, despite its incompatibility with NATO systems. Turkey was removed from the F-35 fifth-generation joint strike fighter jet program by the United States in 2019 due to its purchase of the S-400 system. This signaled a shift in Turkish foreign policy. The TurkStream gas pipeline project’s implementation and the awarding of a contract for construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant to Russian companies indicate Russia’s growing influence in Turkey.

Considering these developments, the re-election of Erdoğan in Sunday’s elections holds significant implications for Russia and President Putin. Kılıçdaroğlu’s accusations against Russia need to be seriously evaluated in this context. His remarks have amplified the global attention on the Turkish elections. Now, any potential interference from Russia or the Erdoğan administration in the elections will likely face intense scrutiny. NATO countries, and particularly the cyber intelligence units in the United States, should vigilantly observe the elections in Turkey this weekend. Any pertinent information about potential election interference should be promptly shared with Turkish institutions to thwart any unlawful interventions. This cooperation can contribute to ensuring a democratic election process free from foreign interference.

In conclusion, the Turkish elections represent a pivotal moment for Turkey and hold significant implications for Russia. The outcome could redefine the balance of power in the region and beyond, making it a matter of international importance. Given the allegations of potential interference and the geopolitical significance of these elections, the international community must remain vigilant and proactive in upholding the integrity of the democratic process.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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