Well-known retired admiral Cem Gürdeniz has recently been referring to the US and NATO as “unfriendly powers” and to the Russia-Iran-China triangle as Turkey’s “allies.” Long known for his distant attitude towards the country’s traditional Western partnerships, Gürdeniz particularly harshened his tone following the election of Joe Biden as the new US president.
Until a few years ago Gürdeniz was a key figure in Turkey’s navy, and today he remains visibly influential on the country’s maritime policies, so much so that allegations have surfaced that some officers in the navy were still receiving instructions from him even after his retirement.
Gürdeniz believes that China has been instrumental in undermining US influence on world politics and that this presents great opportunities for Ankara. According to him, the idea of being at odds with Beijing over the treatment of Turkic Uighurs or having tensions with Russia due to the annexation of Crimea is a trap. The Uighur-majority Xinjiang region of China and the predominantly Muslim Crimea are both delicate issues for Turkish public opinion. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, has been following the pro-Eurasians’ advice to stay away from the topics, in spite of his Islamist ideology.
Some 20,000 soldiers have been purged from the military since a failed military coup in July 2016, which created a vacuum that was filled mainly by pro-Eurasian officers. Gürdeniz is considered one of the brains behind the group, which advocates for Turkey’s distancing itself from NATO and further increasing cooperation with Russia, China and Iran. They as well as former Chief of General Staff İlker Başbuğ have been referring to Western countries as unfriendly powers.
In a recent interview with the Cumhuriyet newspaper, Gürdeniz said the US was seeking to provoke Turkey, using neighboring Greece, with which Ankara has a long-standing maritime dispute. According to Gürdeniz, there is a plan to contain and surround Turkey and that having Russia and Iran nearby is an opportunity.
“Turkey is under siege from the South and the West,” Gürdeniz said. “Today, the West and their Arab collaborators are trying to contain Turkey. Russia is faced with a containment strategy based on a coalition of Baltic and Eastern European countries and is threatened on a daily basis through Poland, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Ukraine and Georgia. The US is openly declaring that it will use these countries in the coming days.”
“They are also trying to coerce Turkey over the Black Sea and encouraging us to act against Russia, despite the fact that we are the guardians of the Montreux regime,” he said, referring to a 1936 international treaty that regulates maritime access to the Turkish Straits. “The pro-Atlantic groups among us are enabling this.”
Gürdeniz was referring to officers with a pro-NATO orientation within the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), who have significantly decreased in number.
Gürdeniz is also of the opinion that the Biden administration is a threat to Turkey as well as to Russia. In his latest column, he described Biden’s cabinet as a “war cabinet” and NATO as the “loyal servant of the US.”
Former top commander Başbuğ in an interview with the Sözcü newspaper last month said the US was uneasy about Turkey’s recently bolstered weapons production capabilities, including the domestic manufacture of some of new military technologies. Başbuğ claimed this shift was the main factor in the changes to the bilateral ties between the two countries.
Political tasks for NATO missions
The anti-NATO rhetoric in Turkey is also echoed by Turkish officers posted to NATO-related missions. Those working at NATO headquarters are instructed to defend Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system at every opportunity.
A circular dispatched to all NATO units by the General Staff contains an order to defend Qatar’s interests at NATO. The Gulf country is described as Turkey’s partner.
A military officer who wanted to remain anonymous said some officers working at NATO are going out of their ways not to appear to be cooperating with the Atlantic alliance in an attempt to protect their reputation. They are looking for reasons to create tensions, with the belief that officers who foment trouble with NATO are more likely to get promoted.
Akar trying to balance things
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, on the other hand, emphasizes in every speech the need to develop cooperation with NATO. While in a civilian post as a cabinet member, Akar’s time as chief of general staff between 2015 and 2018 gives him leverage over the TSK. He is seeking to maintain a balance between the strong pro-Eurasian group and the Atlantic ties. Akar has served in NATO missions in the past.