What Turkey Can Learn from Russia About Coup-Proofing the Military


When news of the attempted coup in Turkey broke, Russian social media had fun with posts such as a shot of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu grinning, captioned “defense minster learns army can change government.” Of course, the coup failed, Shoigu is no dictator-in-waiting, and arguably the attempt was a godsend to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is now using it as an excuse for a far-reaching purge. Nonetheless, the comparison between the Turkish and Russian situations offers some timely insights into when armies become aspirant and plausible kingmakers and kingbreakers — and how they can be tamed and caged.

Keep Them Apolitical

A happy military is a supportive military. However, one cannot draw a neat connection between material goodies and quiescence. The Russian armed forces are adequately well-paid now, but back in the 1990s and early 2000s, when they were paid a pittance and frequently in arrears, there were still no serious stirrings. In 1993, Russian military units either sat out a brutal brief clash between President Boris Yeltsin and his parliament or else actively backed the Kremlin’s unconstitutional coup against an anachronistic and unpleasant legislature. Conversely, professionals within the Turkish military are pretty well paid (although most are still conscripts), even if conditions are tough. Yet the critical issue for the coup-makers was not material well-being, but political dissatisfaction.

Certainly since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1922, the military elite internalized a political role increasingly at odds with Erdogan’s Islamist and authoritarian populism. Erdogan has been trying to change that, not least when in 2013 the Turkish parliament passed an amendment to Article 35 of the Internal Service Code of the Turkish Armed Forces. This article had previously been used by military leaders to justify political intervention, but was reworded to focus the military on external threats to Turkey. Nonetheless, this move and a slow seeding of Erdogan’s allies within the high command had only limited impact on the culture of the military. The plotters were not just disgruntled — they were heirs to a tradition that saw the military as an autonomous political actor with not just the right but the duty to act.

By contrast, Russia has a strong tradition of military subordination to civilian authority. Recent defense ministers may acquire military ranks and preside over parades in medal-bedecked uniforms, but they have all been civilians. Shoigu is a political figure, a trusted presidential appointment. The chief of the general staff, responsible for operational command, is typically a forceful and well-respected career officer, but there is no confusion as to who works for whom. Defense ministers usually pick their chiefs and likewise sack them if they become problematic. When Shoigu’s predecessor Anatoly Serdyukov was dismissed following allegations of embezzlement in 2012, there was no suggestion that his chief, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, was involved. But Makarov went nonetheless, so that Shoigu could pick his own man, Gen. Valery Gerasimov.

Watch Them Closely

In Russia, an extensive network of security structures watch the military for any signs of political ambition. Although the Soviet network of political commissars and Communist Party cells may have been abolished, the KGB’s Third Chief Directorate, responsible for maintaining networks of agents within the military, survived. It became the Military Counterintelligence Directorate (UVK) of the Federal Security Service (FSB). Furthermore, the Federal Protection Service (FSO), Putin’s praetorian guard, also has a smaller parallel operation monitoring the armed forces.

By contrast, Turkey’s primary domestic security agency, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), has not emerged from this case especially well. It was aware of disaffection within the ranks, although a fixation with Erdogan’s ally-turned-nemesis Fetullah Gülen (who is blamed for the coup with strikingly little evidence) appears to have distorted its analysis. There seems to have been no serious preparation for the coup. Erdogan has said in interviews that he had no warning from the MIT; he found out that the coup attempt was unfolding not through any of his security officials, but from his brother-in-law. However, it does seem that the MIT forced the plotters to move on this operation earlier than they intended by drawing up a list of 600 officers it considered suspect.

In part, this reflects the challenges of an agency that has moved away from its military roots, egged on by Erdogan. According to my conversations with Western intelligence officers, a hurried drive to recruit from different constituencies (and a series of political appointments) has led to a marked de-professionalization of the service. Erdogan publicly scolded MIT and its chief, Haidan Fikan, saying “it is very clear that there were significant gaps and deficiencies in our intelligence.”

So whereas Russia maintains multiple independent agencies watching the military for any sign of disaffection, the Turks only came late to this, and relied on a service which once heavily recruited from the military.

Additionally, the Turkish military, in a pattern visible in many Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Iran, has been allowed to become a virtually autonomous state within Turkey, with its own extensive business and often even criminal interests. Through its pension fund, for example, the Turkish military is involved in everything from selling cars to making chocolate. The security forces have also been implicated in institutional involvement in criminal activities such as heroin trafficking and money laundering.

The Russian military, by contrast, is involved in a wide range of other activities (like any major military), but these are kept associated with its core needs and duties. If anything, the trend has been to divest the armed forces of ancillary roles, with such activities as catering and certain aspects of proper management now being outsourced. One under-reported side effect of a recent crackdown on corruption in the ranks of the Russian military by the Main Military Prosecutor’s Office has also been to limit the kind of informal side businesses many local commanders established in the bad old days, from hiring out soldiers as laborers to allowing companies to set up shop inside military bases to avoid property taxes and other red tape.

As a result, the often-incestuous connections which used to link the military to business and political elites in a web of corruption and complicity are becoming less dense. While this would appear to make the military more autonomous, according to conversations with Russian soldiers who served through the pre-Putin years, it has also contributed to a resurgence of a military esprit de corps and a professional identity that explicitly wants to stay aloof from the sordid and self-interested world of politics. As one put it to me, “defending Russia is hard but honorable; governing it is impossible and corrupting.”

Have Other Protectors

If all else fails, though, the question is also one of deterrence. No one launches a coup unless they think it has a good chance of success. The Soviets’ fear of “Bonapartism,” as they termed military intervention into politics, meant that they assiduously maintained an armed balance of terror in Moscow and the country at large that today’s Russia has retained.

While the military is undoubtedly the possessor of most firepower in aggregate terms, with coups, the key issue is how many men can you get quickly into the right positions. Momentum is perhaps the most important and least well-understood attribute of a successful seizure of power.

The army has two divisions based in the outskirts of Moscow, the elite 2nd Guards Tamanskaya Motor Rifle and 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank. These are fighting as well as display units: They parade very prettily across Red Square, but have also served in Chechnya and the Donbas. Together, they muster some 20,000 troops. Impressive, but they are hardly the only militarized forces in Moscow. The Kremlin is guarded by the FSO’s Presidential Regiment, a light infantry unit of 5,500 trusted men, and beyond that the FSO also disposes of some 5,000 other armed personnel, not least in the Presidential Guard Service (SBP).

Meanwhile, the newly formed National Guard — commanded by Putin loyalist Viktor Zolotov — has around 20,000 troops in Moscow. These include the 1st Separate Special Designation Division still known as the Dzerzhinskii Division), some 35,000 former Interior Troops (many of whom are essentially armed security guards, but the 21st Separate Special Designation Brigade and the 604th Special Designation Center are genuinely operational forces) and the 3,000 men of the Moscow City and Moscow Region OMON riot police. These last are more than just public order forces: They also served as counter-insurgency shock troops in Chechnya.

As if this were not enough, the FSB, as well as its own headquarters security personnel, commands a detachment of elite Alfa counter-terrorist commandos. Nor should we forget the 50,000 regular police of the Moscow Main Internal Affairs Directorate. As the messy urban brawls in Turkey demonstrated, regular police cannot be discounted, particularly when they have access to both body armor and automatic weapons, as in Russia..

In Turkey, to be sure, there is also a formidable parallel security force in the Jandarma, but it is part of the army, and several of its generals have been implicated in the coup. Although the police of the General Directorate of Security (EGM) fought against soldiers, its men are relatively lightly armed and dispersed. They are also not trained for serious street fighting, and had the coup been more widely supported or, frankly, more determined, their role would likely have been limited. In terms of a purely military calculus, it is possible to see why the coup leaders felt they could seize and hold the seat of power.

Real control over the military is thus a question of the interlocking trinity of political control, legitimacy, and instruments of control. Moscow’s historical commitment to maintaining a tight grip over its soldiers has been in contrast to the approach of Ankara.

Erdogan is comprehensively purging the officer corps and packing it with his cohorts. He is also bringing the military directly under his own control and, in a decree issued on July 27, also transferring the Jandarma to the Interior Ministry. The military academies — which were crucial incubators of the armed forces’ distinctive culture — are being closed and replaced with a single National Defense University, whose rector will be chosen by the president.

Assuming MIT also sharpens up its intelligence operations within the military (a pretty safe bet), Erdogan in many ways is mirroring the Russian model of control on an institutional level, at least. However, culturally, the Russian military remains relatively apolitical. Erdogan, by contrast, looks eager to replace one politicized military committed to the Kemalist vision with another, an Erdoganist military.


Dr. Mark Galeotti is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of International Affairs Prague, and Principal Director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence. He has been Professor of Global Affairs at New York University, a special advisor to the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office and head of History at Keele University in the United Kingdom, as well as a visiting professor at Rutgers—Newark, Charles University (Prague), and MGIMO (Moscow).

Image: Turkish state media