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Putin-Erdogan Agreement Falls Apart as Russians Realize That Arming the Turks is Insane

The author is the longest serving foreign correspondent covering Russia. He published his fascinating memoirs in December of 2018. They are full of insights into what has really been going on in Moscow over the past 30 years. RI wrote about it here. He is the author of 12 books, 3 of them about Russia.


Just three and a half years ago, on January 20, 2016, the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan had good reason to congratulate himself. He had successfully arranged a scheme of payoffs for two men who were intimate advisors to the presidents of the United States and Russia — at the very same time. They were Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn, the National Security Advisor to Donald Trump; and Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Vladimir Putin.

<figcaption>Putin and Erdogan</figcaption>
Putin and Erdogan
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No one had pulled off the simultaneity before; but it was short-lived. Flynn was forced to resign after just 24 days in office and charged with lying to the FBI. He subsequently pleaded guilty and is now facing a prison sentence. Investigation of his lucratively paid lobbying for Turkey is still under way.

Peskov remains in his Kremlin office, as he has for the past seven years. However, the Defence Ministry led by Sergei Shoigu and the General Staff headed by General Valery Gerasimov, have rebelled against Peskov’s line with Putin, ending for all practical purposes the terms of agreement Putin and Erdogan signed last September for a Turkish protectorate of Idlib governorate in northwestern  Syria. 

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History is repeating itself. A newly published book, The Thirty-Year Genocide, Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924, is the most detailed record to date of the policies of the Ottoman sultanate and its successor, the nationalist government led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to destroy the entire populations living on Turkish territory of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians. The 650-page work explains region by region, year by year, what the Turkish methods of ethnic cleansing were, and why. “The Armenians were the main victims of Turkish atrocity,” the authors, Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, write, “in terms of the numbers slaughtered in 1894-96 and 1915-1916. Certainly, the Turks appear to have hated them the most.”

Left to right: front cover of The Thirty-Year Genocide, released on April 24 by Harvard University Press; Lieut-Gen. Michael Flynn during the US presidential election campaign of 2016; President Erdogan with Dmitry Peskov.

The book also documents the continuous efforts of successive Turkish regimes to erase all trace of their genocidal policy. The military archives remain closed; the non-military state documents have been edited so that they “contain almost no direct evidence of Turkish culpability… Knowing that they were ordering or engaged in criminal activity, the political leaders in Constantinople and in the provinces, often in real time, ordered all copies of telegrams destroyed after reading. Sometimes they transmitted instructions orally, to avoid leaving paper trails, or used euphemisms to camouflage their intentions and deeds.”

The evidence on which this history is based has been compiled by cross-checking Turkish records against German, Austrian, American, British, French and other foreign sources. “We realize that a great deal is missing. This was, after all, the intention of those covering their tracks.”

Why read this history in Moscow today? One reason is that the intention of Turkish state policy to destroy Christian populations and to expand Turkish state power into the territories cleansed thereby is an ongoing one, just as it remains Turkish state policy to dissemble and deceive outsiders that this is so. Syria, Cyprus, Iraq, Kosovo and Albania are contemporary cases in point.

Another reason is that over the 30-year genocide period documented, both Tsarist Russia and Communist Russia were the strongest defenders of the region’s Christians, and the most steadfast enemies of the Turkish state. Only very briefly, in 1920-21, did the Kremlin support Kemal’s (Ataturk) Turkish nationalist movement when, for strategic reasons, he was judged capable of obstructing the British and French attempts to attack southern Russia.

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A 1920 cartoon, when Lenin’s policy was to covertly arm the Ataturk-led nationalists against the Sultan’. The caption reflects the Russian policy and traditional Russian public opinion.: “Behold  the cowardice of the Turk, and the prowess of our lad.”

Arming the enemy of my enemy was a short-lived Russian ploy then. If arming Turkey today with the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system is the Kremlin’s ploy today, with the same strategic purpose, relearning this history will illustrate just how deceptively, and also how briefly, the Turks can be expected to serve Russian interests.

The outcome of World War I, as the Turks interpreted it, was that their army had not been defeated in the field, nor had they surrendered. Instead, they thought they had survived the onslaught of the western powers, whose plots to carve up Turkish territory had been liquidated.  The mass murders and forced  deportations, which started in 1894 and continued until 1924, were the requirements of territorial and wartime defence — so Turkish officials kept telling the western powers and also their own people. The toll was colossal.

The number of Armenians killed “exceeded one million, perhaps substantially.” Another quarter of a million fled, most of them to Russia. The killing of Greeks didn’t start in 1894; it accelerated during the war, reaching its climacteric between 1919 and 1924. The estimates are about one million dead by murder and privation; another 1.2 million forced to flee to the Greek mainland. The estimate of Assyrian lives destroyed is at least 250,000 out of a total of 619,000. Altogether, Morris and Ze’evi calculate, “the Turks and their helpers murdered, straightforwardly or indirectly through privation and disease, between 1.5 and 2.5 million Christians between 1894 and 1924.” The Christian population of the Ottoman Empire had been 20 percent of the total at the end of the nineteenth century; by 1924 this had been brought down to just 2 percent. Conversely, the Moslem population rose from 80 to 98 percent.

The main local helpers in the killing were the Kurds; the Turkish Army also hired Bedouin Arabs, Caucasian tribesmen (Chechens, Circassians), and Balkan Moslems to do the dirty work.  The French ended the period making a deal with Ataturk to withdraw their forces from Turkey and from protecting the Armenians and Greeks in return for railroad and mining concessions. The US did a deal to save Greek tobacco industry workers in Smyrna on whom the American cigarette companies depended. US missionaries reported in horror what was happening; as did Major-General James Harbord, head of an American military mission to Turkey in September 1919. “Never…has the Turk done other than destroy wherever he has conquered”, Harbord wrote to Washington. US diplomats and journalists from the New York papers invited to make inspection tours of western Turkey, judged the Armenians were getting their payback for attempts to create their own state in eastern Turkey.

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Winston Churchill, at the British Admiralty when his Gallipoli invasion force was defeated by Ataturk in 2015, was Secretary of State for War in 1919 and 1920 (pictured right). His policy was to acquiesce in Ataturk’s genocidal policies in order to encourage him to fight against the Bolsheviks in the Caucasus and Azerbaijan. When Ataturk died in 1938, Churchill commented: “The tears which men and women of all classes shed upon his bier were a fitting tribute to the life work of a man at once the hero, the champion, and the father of modern Turkey. During his long dictatorship a policy of admirable restraint and good­will created, for the first time in history, most friendly relations with Greece.” 

“What’s the magic number at which ethnic cleansing becomes hardcore genocide?” a Russian analyst has asked rhetorically in order to make the point that the answer is one of political partisanship, because both victimizers and victims have perpetrated  genocide in one period of their history or another. That, he added, “has very little to do with any detailed and dispassionate statistical and comparative analysis of the historical facts. Instead, it’s all about my genocide being so much bigger than yours…” 

Morris and Ze’evi stick to the historical facts. “Since the bouts of atrocity were committed under three very different ideological umbrellas, we must resist the temptation to attribute what happened to an aberrant ideology or to an evil faction or person.” They also conclude that the state killing and cleansing policy has prevailed, not because the Turkish propaganda is believed outside the country, but because the western powers and Russia have their own reasons of state for looking the other way.

Looking the other way is now Kremlin policy towards Turkish military operations. In Cyprus, where until recently Russia has supported the Cypriot Government’s defence against Turkish  occupation of the north of the island, the new line is to tolerate Turkish expansion into the waters of the Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), to the east and west of the island coast.  Ambassador Stanislav Osadchiy told Haravghi, the Cyprus Communist Party newspaper,  last week, “the increase of tension is not a solution. This is why we believe that each side must avoid such steps that aggravate the situation in the Mediterranean.” He also said he is opposed to any step “that undermines the situation required for a resumption of the talks for a Cyprus settlement.” He meant the Cypriots shouldn’t defend themselves.

The Turkish seabed drilling vessel Fatih. Turkish notices to mariners last month have declared the intention to drill in waters off Paphos on the southwest coast of Cyprus between May 3 and September 3.  Earlier Turkish announcements have identified the C

Looking the other way in the border areas between Turkey and Syria has been the Kremlin line since last September. On September 17, in Sochi, Putin signed with Erdogan what was described as the “Memorandum of Understanding on Stabilization of the Situation in Idlib’s De-escalation Zone”.   This allowed Turkey to ignore Syria’s western and northern borders and reinforce Turkish occupation of the Syrian province of Idlib. “Russia and Turkey have reaffirmed their commitment to fight terrorism in Syria in all its forms and guises,” Putin and Erdogan agreed on paper. On the ground this meant the Kremlin was accepting the continuing Turkish campaign to take over deployment, armament and operations of opposition Arab groups in Idlib. A deadline of October 10 was set in the Memorandum for the Turks to disarm the Arabs inside the de-escalation line and halt their attacks on Russian and Syrian Army positions outside the line. Nothing of the sort occurred; the Turks have had no intention to abide by the deadline; Putin has looked the other way.

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That is until last month when re-armed Arab units escalated their attacks from Idlib into the adjoining areas, west, south and east, of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo.  

The Russian Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) reported that Idlib is now “a huge military camp”.  The Russian military command has responded by launching intensive air attacks and by covering new advances on the ground by the Syrian Army. Unsaid by the General Staff, unacknowledged by the Kremlin, the Putin-Erdogan Memorandum is a dead-letter. History is repeating itself. 

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