Russia’s media was initially slow to cover the 15 July coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While Western television quickly shifted to broadcasting nighttime images of violence, street demonstrations and confusing images of who might be in control, it was business as usual for Russian TV, at least initially. During the first hours of the failed coup, the lead story continued to be the terrorist attack in Nice the day before, which killed 84 people including at least one Russian national.
To some extent, the loss of a fellow citizen made continued heavy Russian TV coverage of the attack understandable. But the delayed reporting also suggests the Kremlin was surprised by the events in Ankara and Istanbul, and needed time to decide how to spin them. In view of the current turmoil plaguing Russia’s security services and President Vladimir Putin’s goal of neutralizing any opposition, moreover, the Kremlin was probably wary of publicizing any story suggesting that—whatever the outcome of the move against Erdoğan, Putin’s rule also could be challenged. Moscow also used the Nice truck rampage for its own purposes. The Russian Embassy in Canada sent its condolences to the French people, tweeting that NATO should focus on Islamic terrorism instead of Russian aggression.
After initially hesitating, the Kremlin quickly adjusted and used the botched coup to accelerate the reconciliation process. Although relations between Moscow and Ankara had been difficult in recent months—largely due to the Turkish shootdown of a Russian jet fighter last November and differences over Syria—there already were signs of a thaw by late spring. But analyst Nikolas Gvosdev has speculated that in recent days, Putin may have used the coup to play on Erdoğan’s suspicions that the Obama administration is open to his removal. “It is easy to envision how Putin, in his phone call to Erdoğan … might take up this line of interpretation—and find a ready and receptive audience on the other end of the phone.” On 25 July, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu thanked the Russian president for his support during the failed uprising.
Two CEPA briefs this week show how the Kremlin has used disinformation to repair its relations with Turkey. They also demonstrate its ripple effect into Eastern Europe. For example, an article published on 21 July in the Polish-language portal for popular Radio RMF FM argued that Russia had warned Erdoğan in advance about the impending coup against him. The Polish author, quoting Russian media, wrote that “Russian electronic intelligence allegedly intercepted suspicious correspondence between the Turkish military men and transmitted that information through special channels to the Turkish National Intelligence Organization.”
Several Russian media outlets—including the state-owned news agency TASS, the newspaper Izvestia and the television channel REN-TV—spread this story, attributing it to the Iranian news agency FARS, which itself cited Arabic-language publications and their diplomatic sources in Ankara. In reality, no Russian official has personally confirmed stories about Moscow having warned Erdoğan. The Turkish president, in fact, told the TV network Al Jazeera in an interview on 21 July that one of his relatives had tipped him off about what was happening.
In Lithuania, as the second brief discusses, an article in a pro-Kremlin website claims that NATO ordered Erdoğan’s overthrow. That story quoted the Russian propaganda site www.tsargard.tv, which first reported the alleged conspiracy about direct US involvement in the attempted coup. As a result, it said, Erdoğan now plans to leave NATO. Turkey was vulnerable to US meddling, it continued, since its NATO membership allowed the creation of a network of US agents in the Turkish military that was in contact with Hillary Clinton. The article also claimed that US agents shot down the Russian fighter jet in November to ruin relations between Erdoğan and Putin.
It is too early to know whether these outlandish messages will help push Erdoğan closer to a compromise with Putin over Syria or facilitate an energy deal between the two countries. We will have a better sense of the answers to those questions in coming weeks, when the two leaders meet. But, as these briefs show, there is little doubt Russia is using its arsenal of disinformation to advance its foreign policy goals.