Russian propagandists feast on NATO wrath in Turkey

Russia’s quest for global disorder sees every diplomatic dispute as an opportunity. The argument between the Nordic NATO aspirants and Turkey is a case study.

Turkey’s rift with the rest of NATO over Sweden’s and Finland’s membership in the alliance is the kind of conflict that Russian propagandists dream of: a burning issue that is sure to create tensions and deepen the rifts between Russia’s enemies.

The analysis conducted for this article has shown that Russia is among the most prolific and committed Turkish-language media publishers on the subject. Her campaign is neither exotic, nor risque, nor innovative, but succeeds at the basic level of effective propaganda: telling the public she wants to hear.

The dispute underlying the current line is old, and the features are largely familiar. Turkey has a large and restive Kurdish minority, which maintains close ties with other Kurdish communities in Iraq and Syria. Sweden has about 100,000 citizens of Kurdish origin, while Finland has about 14,000, and the former (in particular) has made statements that Turkey considers sympathetic to the Kurdish terrorist group PKK. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demanded action from both countries to respond to what he sees as their support for anti-state organizations, threaten to use his country’s veto over the expansion of the alliance.

It’s not a sudden development. The suppression of Kurdish nationalism and related breakaway groups has been central to Turkish nation-building and national security for most of the republic’s century of existence. The central government banned the use of Kurdish and referred to the people as “Mountain Turksfor most of the 20th century. The PKK’s call for a general uprising in 1984 led to a grueling counterinsurgency campaign that left 40,000 dead.

Russia‘s long-standing policy and support for the PKK may not appeal to the average Turk, but long-standing ethnic and cultural ties give it an outsized Turkish voice. Turkic peoples represent Russia’s largest ethnic minority at 8%, while six of the 12 current and former members of the International Organization of Turkish Culture are Russian federal subjects. These links form the basis of a prolific Turkish-language propaganda apparatus: only Russian, English, Spanish and Arabic surpass Turkish in generating Russian state content.

According to data provided by the artificial intelligence (AI) company Omelas, whose author is chairman, the Russian government, through its outlet Sputnik Türkiye, is the fourth most prolific content producer in Turkey, after the Turkish state itself and Kalyon, aligned with the government. Group, owner of Sabah newspaper, and Demirören Group, owner of Hurriyet and CNN Turk.

As the subject of Sweden and Finland joining NATO came to dominate Turkish airwaves and newspapers, Russia used its position to throw salt in the wound. Sputnik Türkiye amplified claims that Sweden is a “nest of terror“, a ally the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish armed group), and ships arms to both groups. The coins largely omit any reference to Russia and its suspected arms supplies to the PKK, while presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov claims Russia does not get involved in the internal affairs of NATO.

Nevertheless, the tactic has been a huge success: 16% of all likes, shares and comments in Turkish on Sweden or Finland are for content provided by the Russian state. The success of the campaign is to a large extent a function of setting rational goals: the PKK is seen as a mortal, near-eternal enemy of the Turkish state and much of the Turkish people. Russia doesn’t need to implant new beliefs in its audience, or even look for fringe voices to amplify: the assertion that Sweden is a “nest of terror” came from Erdoğan himself, that Sweden is an ally of the Foreign Minister’s YPG Mevlut Çavuşoğluand that the country is shipping weapons to both groups from the state-run news wire, Anadolu.

Just as the most successful ad campaigns target existing customers, Russia’s efforts succeed by delivering anti-Swedish messages to an audience that already craves it. It deviated very little from traditional Turkish messages on the matter. Russia’s objective is clear: it seeks to derail the Swedish and Finnish membership bids, although it is not yet clear whether this is also the objective of the Turkish government. (In fact, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confidence expressed this membership will be agreed upon.)

But there is no doubt that Russia’s campaign is having a significant effect, and may even contribute to hardening Turkish popular anger. The best propaganda does not aim to create new beliefs wholesale or upset existing worldviews. Rather, it works with the pre-existing beliefs of its audience.

In Turkey’s objections to Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership, Russia has found fertile ground. As often with the Kremlin’s influence campaigns, the Kremlin does not overtly seek to sell its own arguments. He simply hopes to blacken the reputation of others for his own interests.

If the Turks focused on Russia, they would probably take a hostile view. The KGB would have been instrumental to the creation of the PKK in the 1970s, and its leader Abdullah Ocalan sought and was granted asylum in Russia. Even PKK sympathy in Sweden comes with a Russian calling card: the Swedish left, the most staunchly pro-PKK party in the country, is accused of strengthen russian ties.

But in Turkey, the focus is currently on the north, not on Russia. As for the Kremlin’s hopes of stopping NATO’s expansion, it risks being disappointed. The Turks, on the other hand, will most likely get what they seek, a widespread denunciation of Kurdish armed groups and a commitment to keep them at bay. This will allow Erdoğan to undertake his grand plan – a Turkish military push 30 km (18 miles) into northern Syria to create a buffer zone filled with displaced Syrian Arab refugees in lands so far including Kurdish areas.

Ben Dubow is a non-resident researcher at CEPA and founder of Omelas, specializing in data and analysis of how states manipulate the web.

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