A Turkey v. Russia showdown


Earlier this past week, a little article on an English-language Armenia news site blared a headline with potentially world-changing implications: “Wikileaks: Turkey was ready to launch military operations against Russia in 2008.” [1]

According to the piece, Turkish leadership during the 2008 war informed their counterparts in Russia that further incursions into Georgia — and specifically in the historically Turkey-aligned, Muslim Georgian region of Adjara – would be responded to with military force from the Republic of Turkey, Georgia’s neighbor and a leg in a great power triad that also includes Russia to the north and Iran to the southeast. Georgia, needless to say, occupies geography at the space where the influence from these three ancient super-civilizations collide. [2]

“According to [an alleged Wikileaks] document,” reads the December 7 article on News.Am, a “Turkish delegation told Medvedev that if Russia conducted military operations near the 100-kilometer zone surrounding the Turkish border, the Turkish side, as a NATO member, would have the right and even be obligated to place their units into military operations and protect the territory of neighboring member states of the alliance.”

If true, this is major news as, if anything, relations between Ankara and Moscow have been most visibly on the up and up over the past few years under the moderate Islamist AKP government despite an entrenched historical rivalry. Just as telling is the extent to which Turkey’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ resurgence has taken hold in the country’s corridors of power and how Turkey’s policymakers see Georgia as a key spoke an emerging Turkish hub.

Turkey, a NATO member state and a budding contender for a leadership role in central Eurasia, maintains a large and extremely well-equipped military that is built along NATO standards. Though not a nuclear power, its conventional forces are quite well-trained and might be more than a match for Russia’s famously insubordinate, creaky Caucasus formations that disproportionately rely on militias and conscript-heavy forces. Turkey can also amass more troops more quickly than their Russian counterparts, who patrol vastly longer borders with a concomitant increase in the number of potential security flashpoints that require dedicated garrisons.

It goes without saying that the conventional narrative of the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia — and indeed the general geopolitical climate in the region — is sufficiently volatile enough without the added variable of a Turkish military confrontation with invading Russian formations. For many reasons, armed conflict between Turkey and Russia would be a major blow to regional and Eurasian security and could set off a much larger, transcontinental war involving NATO and other major powers.

However, with the sheer enormity of the Wikileaks cablegate database and the drip-drip of the papers’ release, it’s can be a challenge to distinguish between cables that are real and those that are less than demonstrably so. A recent example was the cable that about the US support for the Georgian position during the August war, which showed up in the Georgian media before Wikileaks or any of its Western partner media organizations had released it. [3]

For this reason, and because the cable in question does not seem to appear on any cablegate databases that are currently accessible [4], it was important to follow up on this alleged cable’s source. According to the News.Am article in English, it reports its source as Vlasti.Net, a Russian-language content aggregator. From there, a link goes to another Russian-language source, VVNews.Info, which in turn has yet another link to Georgia Online/Apsny, where the trail ends with no further hypertext sourcing. [5] And between these pages, there is very little in the way of changes in the textual content.
“Turkey was ready, at the time of the Russo-Georgian war, to enter Adjara with their armed forces if Georgian authorities could not ensure security in the region,” Merabishvili is reported to have said.

This wild goosechase , as well as similar such searches, appear to reveal that there is no actual source online to provide a basis for this extraordinary allegation. At the same time, this allegation does not seem to have been refuted anywhere publicly, although it is certainly possible that it has been so in Turkish, Armenian, or even in a more distant corner of the Russian-language internet. Instead, this same article — or at least extremely close approximations of it — have flooded the Russian-language internet, many of which referring to each other as sources for the information despite the obvious inconsistency of the claim.

One iteration of the article, posted on Newsland.Ru but aggregated from Regnum.Ru, did refer to a non-Russian site as a source, pointing to an apparently Ukraine-based Russian-language website called Zavtra.com.ru. [6] Unfortunately, this too turned out to likely be a useless lead. Even if it was the origin of the rich claim, it provides no link to the cable in question or much of anything else to prove to veracity of the giant claim about the almost Russia-Turkey war.

However, one thing that was on Zavtra, along with many other sites (but not all), was an alleged quote by Georgian interior minister Vano Merabishvili from a supposed March 2009 interview with the “news agency PirWeli [‘first’ in Georgian, possibly referring to the Georgian public broadcaster or many other similarly-named publications, websites, and aggregators].”

“Turkey was ready, at the time of the Russo-Georgian war, to enter Adjara their armed forces if Georgian authorities could not ensure security in the region,” Merabishvili is reported to have said in the interview. Searches in the Russian and Georgian-language media have, so far, failed to verify the accuracy or even the existence of this quote.

The deepest problem is that despite all this resounding lack of firm evidence, there is still very much of a chance that this cable to which so many have referred may turn out to be genuine. If it is genuine, then the geopolitical balance in the region, which has already shown signs of shifting, is much further along than most observers would have dared to forecast with a client-patron relationship between Tbilisi and Ankara a very firm reality.

But if it isn’t true, what else does it mean? The unbelievable persistence of this rumor — and that is all it is until it can receive some kind of actual confirmation — could by itself be demonstrating something. Particularly, the Russian-language news media is systematically (though perhaps unwittingly, though perhaps not) propagating a notion that conflict between Russia and Turkey, its longstanding southern rival (and currently the only regional power with the growth horizon to seriously challenge Russia for central Eurasian and Central Asian hegemony) is a distinct possibility and even some kind of inevitability. The Russian media, of which much of its core machinery continues to operate in close coordination with the organs of state power, is no stranger to fanning flames of resentment against other countries (or cooling them) in pursuit of state policies. This is a standard practice in many autocratic and authoritarian governments, including to some (but much more limited) extent in Georgia, though it is unquestionably more transparent and pluralistic overall.

If this is the case, the article on the impending war between Turkey and Russia is an extremely important signal whether or not the cable is real. If it is indeed genuine, then Turkey has included Georgia — and specifically autonomous Adjara, over which it still technically has some distant oversight authority per the 1921 Treaty of Kars [7] — as being an essential component of its developing Turkey-oriented system. However, even if it is not based on a genuine cable, the extent to which the article has been disseminated throughout major pillars of the Russian-language internet media (and everything in between) could suggest that certain elements of the Russian government see Turkey as a future, inevitable foe against which Russia should begin to prepare itself.

Either way, the release of this little article with poor sourcing may turn out to be incredibly important and may signal the shifting winds in an already-erratic region. This will certainly be an issue that should be watched carefully as a barometer of how the geopolitical situation in the region will shape up over the next few years.

[1] http://news.am/eng/news/40718.html
[2] http://www.evolutsia.net/a-maelstrom-of-geography/
[3] See: http://www.evolutsia.net/unintentional-cable-confirmed-criticized-using-hazy-sourcing/
[4] The cable should show up as dated for August 14, 2008, but there is no current record of any presently released cable for this date. See:
[5] Following the trail from News.Am to Vlasti.Net [http://vlasti.net/news/111692] to VVNews.Info [http://vvnews.info/analytics/world/64190-turciya-gotova-byla-nachat-voynu-s-rossiey-wikileaks.html] to Georgia Online/Apsny [http://www.apsny.ge/2010/conf/1291269027.php].
[6] See: http://www.zavtra.com.ua/news/guns/204066/
[7] See: http://groong.usc.edu/treaties/kars.html [English translation]

Michael Cecire

Michael Hikari Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *