Russian propagandists feast on Turkey’s NATO fury

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

The rift between Turkey and the rest of NATO over Sweden and Finland joining the alliance is the kind of conflict Russian propagandists dream of: a seditious affair guaranteed to stir up tensions and deepen rifts among Russia’s enemies.

The analysis conducted for this article has shown that Russia is among the most prolific and dedicated Turkish-language media publishers on the subject. His campaign is neither exotic, nor risky, nor innovative, but succeeds at the basic level of effective propaganda: telling the audience what they want to hear.

The dispute underlying the current dispute is old, and the characteristics are widely known. Turkey has a large and recalcitrant Kurdish minority with close ties to 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 has called for steps by both countries to address what he sees as their support for anti-state organizations. threaten to use his country’s veto against the expansion of the alliance.

This is not a sudden development. The suppression of Kurdish nationalism and related secessionist groups has been at the core of Turkish nation-building and national security for most of the republic’s centuries-long existence. The central government forbidden the use of Kurdish and referred to the people as “mountain Turks‘ for most of the 20th century. The PKK’s call for a general insurgency in 1984 led to a grueling counterinsurgency campaign 40,000 dead.

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

According to artificial intelligence (AI) firm Omelas, of which the author is president, the Russian government, through its subsidiary Sputnik Türkiye, is the fourth most productive content producer in Turkey after the Turkish state itself and the pro-government Kalyon Group, owner of Sabah newspaper , and Demirören Group, owners of Hurriyet and CNN Turk.

While the issue of Sweden and Finland joining NATO has dominated the Turkish airwaves and newspapers, Russia has used its position to rub salt in the wound. Sputnik Türkiye has reinforced claims that Sweden is a “nest of terror“, a allies the PKK and YPG (the Syrian Kurdish armed group) and Ships Weapons for both groups. The pieces largely omit any reference to Russia and its countries alleged arms deliveries to the PKK, while presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov is squeamish claims Russia does not interfere in the internal affairs of NATO.

Nevertheless, the tactic was very successful: 16% of all Turkish language likes, shares and comments on Sweden or Finland refer to content provided by the Russian state. The campaign’s success is largely a function of rational purpose: the PKK is seen as a deadly, almost perpetual enemy of the Turkish state and a large section of the Turkish people. Russia does not need to infuse its listeners with new beliefs, or even look for fringe voices to reinforce them: the claim that Sweden is a “nest of terror” came from Erdoğan himself that Sweden is a YPG ally from the foreign minister Mevlut Çavuşoğluand that the country is sending weapons to both groups from the state-run Anadolu News Agency.

Just as the highest-yielding ad campaigns target existing customers, Russia’s efforts are succeeding, sending anti-Swedish messages to an audience that is already craving it. It differed very little from mainstream Turkish news on the subject. Russia’s aim is clear – it is trying to thwart Swedish and Finnish bids for membership, although it is not yet clear whether this is also the aim of the Turkish government. (Actually US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed confidence this accession is agreed.)

But there is no doubt that Russia’s campaign is having a significant impact and may even be helping to intensify the ire of the Turkish people. The best propaganda is not aimed at creating sweeping new beliefs or turning existing worldviews upside down. Rather, it works with the pre-existing beliefs of its audience.

Russia has found fertile ground in Turkey’s objections to Sweden and Finland joining NATO. As is so often the case with the Kremlin’s campaigns for influence, he does not try to overtly sell his own arguments. It simply hopes to blacken the reputation of others for its own interests.

If the Turks focused on Russia, they would probably take a hostile stance. It is said to have been the KGB instrumental in the founding of the PKK in the 1970s and its leader Abdullah Öcalan searched and got asylum in Russia. Even PKK sympathy within Sweden is linked to a Russian calling card: Sweden’s Die Linke, the country’s most vocal pro-PKK party, is being indicted close Russian ties.

But the focus within Turkey is currently on the north, not on Russia. The Kremlin’s hopes of halting NATO expansion are likely to be dashed. The Turks, on the other hand, are very likely to get what they are looking for, widespread denunciation of Kurdish armed groups and a promise to keep them at bay. This will allow Erdoğan to implement his grand plan – a Advance of the Turkish military 30 km (18 miles) in northern Syria to create a buffer zone filled with resettled Syrian Arab refugees on land, including hitherto Kurdish areas.

Ben Dubow is a nonresident fellow at CEPA and founder of Omelas, which specializes in data and analysis on how governments manipulate the internet.

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