Will Putin and Russia invade Ukraine?

Vladimir Putin addresses journalists at a recent press conference

This is the central question politicians and journalists are agonising over. It is a basic problem of intelligence: ‘capabilities’ versus ‘intentions’.

The invasion of Kuwait back in 1991 demonstrated perhaps the clearest example of an intelligence failure of this type: the clear distinction between capabilities and intentions in assessing intelligence. If ever a nation had an obvious, ready-to-use military capability in 1990, it was Iraq before the invasion. In 1991, Iraq possessed an army comprising 5000 tanks, 7000 armoured infantry vehicles and 3500 artillery pieces. There were up to 1,000,000 Iraqi men under arms; ten times the size of the British Army. Iraq had more battlefield helicopters than the RAF and the British Army Air Corps had aircraft combined. It was an awesome military capability.

Saddam Hussein

The intelligence problem about Iraq in 1990 was therefore really quite straightforward. With his legions amassed on the Kuwaiti border, what would Saddam Hussein – the Iraqi dictator with the fourth biggest army in the world – do next?

The intelligence requirement was that most difficult, dangerous and ephemeral of all intelligence requirements: what were the dictator’s intentions? 

The task for intelligence analysts and experts on Iraq was to put themselves into Saddam’s mind. The only ways in which this could be done were either by reading Saddam’s secret orders directly or by recruiting an unimpeachable source as close to the Iraqi President as they dare risk. It was a tall order, but it was essential. What would Saddam do? It was that trickiest of intelligence problems to answer: do capabilities reveal intentions? Only Saddam at the time, as with Putin today, knew the correct answer.

Since Vietnam, the US intelligence community has led the world in collecting intelligence. The ability of the US national agencies, and their allies, to collect information is literally awesome. From satellites overhead to the ‘Mark 1 Eyeball’ on the ground, the US intelligence community collects everything it can on potential enemies. Common sense tells us that today’s targets of attention are Russia, China and Iran. 

A selection of issues of Soviet Military Power

During the Cold War, the most influential (and most eagerly awaited) publication for the Western intelligence community was a document called Soviet Military Power, a glossy red handbook published every year by the US Department of Defense’s DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). For the intelligence expert, this document – which fell in classification over the years until eventually it became an unclassified book given free to journalists as part of Washington’s public relations effort – was an absolute feast of good things: pictures from space of new surface-to-surface missiles being rolled out of a secret hangar deep in the Siberian taiga; close-up snapshots of the latest Soviet tank leaving the factory; grainy photographs of some unknown attack helicopter turning in mid-air over a distant airfield; even a pin-sharp long-lens shot of a sophisticated new, purpose-unknown radar antenna sticking out from the fin of a Red Banner Northern Fleet nuclear submarine that had never been seen before.

It was all there, comprising charts, comparative tables and estimated performance figures. Soviet Military Power was an Order of Battle and Equipment (OOB&E) intelligence analyst’s dream. There was genuine excitement at the arrival of the DIA travelling circus to brief the latest intelligence to NATO senior officers and their intelligence staffs.

Whatever the military value of Soviet Military Power, its publication was not always met with unalloyed joy. Cynics, frequently from the signals intelligence community, would sometimes ask the US briefer, ‘Do you have any new information on Soviet intentions?’ The DIA staffer would then look hurt and mumble something about ‘that not being his Agency’s responsibility, and anyway, who could tell?’ The excited audience would then stare, irritated, at the questioner, and the session would proceed albeit with damage done and bubble pricked. In truth ‘intentions’ was always the real intelligence challenge. The invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the near invasion of Poland in 1981, the collapse of communism in 1989-92, the rape of Kuwait in 1990 and the collapse in 2020 of the Afghan regime all took the intelligence community completely by surprise, despite vast sums of taxpayers’ money being spent on expensive intelligence equipment and resources, plus the highly trained staff needed to operate them.

The problem of divining intentions is both a cultural and a practical one. The cultural problem is embedded deep in the modern psyche as a particular lens for looking at the world. In order to deal with a problem, it has to have three distinct phases. First, there needs to be identification that there is a problem; second, once the problem has been identified, just how big is the issue that has to be measured? Lastly, once the size of the problem is known, what solutions are needed to put an end to it?

The key to this materialist logic is the measurement of size of the problem: quantification. It pervades all our lives and has even extended into the humanities, where computers can now analyse the rhythms of Shakespeare. In Tom Wolfe’s despairing cry, ‘Goddammit! They’ve even started to put literature into a white coat!”

There is an important link here with the intelligence world. The modern world runs on scientific method: it can measure problems that can then be managed in order to solve them. The ‘tangible’ is given greater value than the ‘intangible’. A fact can be measured, proved, prodded or demonstrated. Intangibles are harder: they cannot be exhibited or put on PowerPoint slide at a management meeting. How can you sell an ‘unknown quantity’ to a sceptical Defence Minister?

Human nature being what it is, people in organisations and individuals in general tend to choose to do whatever is easiest to measure and can be most clearly demonstrated. For example, a sales director who tells a CEO he thinks ‘blue cars will sell better than red cars next year’ must prove this is the case if he wants to keep his job as Head of Sales. Hunches count for little, but if he can back up his prediction by saying, ‘I’ve guessed right 18 times in the last 20 years, boss; that’s a 90% track record,’ then the hunch has been validated with quantifiable evidence. If the statement is true, the ‘90%’ is a measurable fact and the CEO would say, ‘these are good numbers.’

This scenario also plays out in the world of intelligence. It is relatively easy to count tanks, ships and aircraft nowadays. The technical problems in gathering such information may be immense and the expense horrendous, but the task can be achieved successfully given enough time, resources and technology to do so. However, it is much harder to assess intentions because they cannot be measured. A politician or diplomat may share something indiscreet at a cocktail party but then change his mind next morning.

Intentions rest on the shifting sands of the human psyche, with all it inconsistencies and frailties. For example, the whole course of world history would have been altered had Adolf Hitler answered ‘Nein‘ in response to the question from his Chief of the General Staff, ‘Do we proceed, mein Fuhrer?’ on 31 August 1939. Intentions are to the intelligence world what ‘fuzzy logic’ is to mathematics.

Not only are intentions difficult to assess – requiring, as they do, access, risk and expense (and even then there is no guarantee that they will be ‘cost-effective’ as they are unquantifiable) – but intentions also defy measurement. In Berlin at the height of the Cold War, some agencies tried to measure their intelligence officers’ success by the number of low-level agents they had recruited. So, an agent-handler running twenty agents, each making five reports a month from the East, (whatever their quality) was valued more highly than an agent-handler with only one source, who never reported at all, but who had access to the East German Communist Party’s intentions should a war ever seem likely. It is difficult to put a high enough value on such a potentially crucial human intelligence source.

In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that hard-nosed intelligence agency managers and their budget holders find intelligence capabilities much easier to deal with than intentions. Human intelligence (HUMINT) is not only difficult to measure, there are no guarantees of success either.

Oleg Gordievski

The second problem about HUMINT is a practical one: it is very hard to do successfully. Consider one example, from the ‘James Bond’ end of the intelligence spectrum: the Gordievski case. Oleg Gordievski was a career KGB officer who was recruited by the British SIS (MI6) and run as an agent in place for six years. The risks both to Gordievski and to his handlers were considerable. At any time he could have been discovered and executed. The value of the information he shared was incalculable and may even have helped to end the Cold War more quickly than might otherwise have been the case. 

However, at no time could the British be absolutely sure that Gordievski was a genuine source and not simply a ‘plant’. Only the passage of time has confirmed that he was 100% genuine and his intelligence equally good. As a HUMINT operation, the Gordievski case stands as a masterpiece of intelligence. But at what cost? How many similar operations were unsuccessful? Yet even if the Gordievski case represents 1 valuable source out of 100 duds, the 1% success rate is worth it in the end if the quality if the intelligence is sufficiently high. So, the takeaway lesson is that HUMINT and intentions both hard to measure and difficult to do. Confronted by a Minister demanding, ‘How accurate is your estimate?’, the Intelligence Officer can only shrug and reply truthfully, ‘It’s the best we can offer, given our sources, Minister.’

All intelligence bureaucracies – certainly the accountable ones – will therefore veer instinctively towards the quantifiable and the easy, certainly when results are hard to prove. People could lose their jobs and pensions for getting it wrong. Much easier just to point to the numbers of all those tanks, planes and ships.

Options for Putin’s next move

All of which brings us back to the current tension surrounding Ukraine. Putin certainly has a military capability to threaten Eastern Ukraine and the Black Sea (see right, map), but what does he intend to do with his resources? His options are clear. First, Putin can bite off the Donbas region, whose population is heavily pro-Russian anyway. Second, he can move into the south and seize the bit of Ukraine that borders the Crimea to its north-west and north-east. Third, he can invade in force and attack all of Ukraine east of the River Dnieper with fierce fighting and serious bloodshed. Last, he can go all out and seize Kiev with an attack from the north. Such a move would be highly symbolic to all Russians: not for nothing was Ukraine (along with other Soviet satellite countries) referred to as the ‘near abroad’ by the USSR. Kiev is revered by the Russian Orthodox Church, but became the centre of a Ukrainian breakaway traction in 2018. Also, despite its Slavic roots and importance, Kiev is considered the most pro-Western and pro-democracy region of Ukraine. This final option would mean an all-out war.

Which option will Putin choose? Much depends on Western reaction, but it is worth bearing in mind that ‘heavy economic sanctions’ like removal of the SWIFT system of monetary transfers would hit German, French and Belgian banks hard but have little effect on Wall Street (a fact with which President Biden is well aware). Last, behind the scenes, Germany intends to keep buying Russian gas at any price and to hell with NATO. The big German industrialists and their political hirelings know which side their bread is buttered.

What are Putin’s intentions?  You had better have a mole in the Kremlin to find out – or else just make a lucky guess.

Welcome to the Next Middle East War

Well, it’s already started. The many wars in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran are beginning to come together into one single, bigger conflict. We are on the road to another war.

The shadow war, which has been going on between Iran and its sworn enemies, Israel and America, ever since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution now looks like escalating. In the last few weeks there have been ominous military, naval, diplomatic and psychological-warfare developments on all fronts. The omens are not good; we seem to be heading for a major bust-up not very far from here.

Intelligence officers use a system called an ‘Indicators and Warnings board’ to monitor events and assess where they are heading. Essentially it is a list of key questions, listing the critical information requirements. Examples might be:

• Are the potential enemy’s warplanes bombed-up and armed?
• Are the pilots on weekend leave?
• Is radio traffic normal?
• Have reservists been called up?

The answers are traffic-light coded – green for normal, amber for abnormal activity and red spelling danger.

Today, the I&W board for the Middle East is not looking encouraging. From Tehran to Tobruk the war drums are beating. Iran, as ever, is at the heart of the problem.

Should another red star be added to the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf?

The narrow Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil chokepoint because of the large volumes of oil that pass through the strait. In 2018, its daily oil flow comprises 21 per cent of global petroleum liquids consumption. China’s gluttonous need for fuel makes the Gulf indispensable to Beijing.

This puts Iran in a strong position geographically; and for decades Tehran has been threatening to block the Straits. In July 2018, Tehran hinted that Iran could disrupt oil flows through the Strait in response to US sanctions and Trump’s calls to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero. A Revolutionary Guards commander warned that Iran would block all oil through the Strait if Iranian exports were stopped.

The USA has been willing to use its firepower in the past. It escorted ships here during the 1980s ‘Tanker War’. America fought its last naval battle in these waters against Iran in 1988. In July that year, the warship USS Vincennes even shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 aboard, in what Washington said was an accident. Tehran said it was a deliberate attack.

This summer has seen Iranian attacks on tankers with the result that now the US Navy is putting together a coalition of nations to counter a renewed maritime threat from Iran.

This US move to build a maritime multinational force to patrol the key sea route across the Strait of Hormuz prompted outrage in Tehran. Iran’s Foreign Minister blamed the US, insisting that ‘any extra-regional presence is by definition a source of insecurity’ and that Iran ‘won’t hesitate to safeguard its own security.’ The result is that tankers are now being convoyed down the Straits. All it needs now to spark fighting is some out of control Revolutionary Guard commander chancing his luck – and the Iranian RGC is a law unto itself.

This is demonstrated daily in Syria, where the long arm of Tehran now reaches as far as the Israeli border. For months now an undeclared low intensity war has been waged by the Israelis, systematically targeting Iranian weapon dumps, training camps and missile sites across Syria. Unfortunately Netanyahu’s professed strategic goal – ‘the removal of all Iranian forces from Syria’ – is fantasy. The result is a dangerous instability, because Israel is confronting a nasty dilemma. An enemy sworn ‘to drive Israel into the sea’ is camped on his borders; and every day that Tel Aviv does nothing to pre-empt Iran’s expansion makes the potential enemy stronger.

Netanyahu has been steadily raising the stakes, ostensibly with the aim of forcing Iran back to its own turf. But what does Israel seek to achieve? Removing Iran’s forces from the entire Middle East? Changing the Iranian regime?

What kind of American backing can Israel expect? Israel is now upping the ante. It was undoubtedly responsible for recent explosions at Iran-linked sites in Iraq. Sabotage or air strikes were involved and Israel stands at the top of the list of potential culprits. Israel is on the verge of expanding its anti-Iran campaign from Syria deep into Iraq to check the threat from the Islamic republic. But any Israeli action in Iraq comes with high risk that it could ignite a major regional war.

So the danger of crossing the line between limited and full-scale warfare between Israel and Iran grows daily more likely, especially now that Hezbollah – Tehran’s Shi’a proxy, currently running Lebanon – appears to be gearing up for a missile strike on Israel’s cities.

To make this devil’s brew more dangerous still, Iran – smarting from increased US sanctions – is now openly accelerating its drive to get a nuclear weapon. The Mad Mullahs, hell bent on war, can just about be contained; but the Ayatollahs with a bomb? For Israelis that is a chilling step too far. It threatens the country’s existence. Israel has made it very clear: it will not allow an Iranian bomb – by force if necessary.

Others in the region are equally nervous of any Atomic Ayatollahs. Sunni Saudi Arabia has the money and technology to build a bomb quickly to deter the Shi’a of Iran; and only last week President Erdogan openly hinted that of Turkey has an interest in obtaining a bomb, adding to worries about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

If this were not bad enough, everywhere you look in the Middle East there are many other dangerous flashpoints, many of them already the scene of fierce fighting. In Yemen, Sunni fights Shi’a (Saudi versus Iran), as the Houthis become part of Iran’s regional proxy warriors. On the Syrian border, Turkey is already busy fighting the Kurds. Gaza and the West Bank still simmer with anti-Israeli anger. Israel has already mobilised some reservists as a cornered Netanyahu looks for a grand gesture – probably a demonstration of Israel’s military might – to help him form a government after the recent elections.

Even sleepy little Cyprus, sitting secure in the eye of the hurricane, is now feeling the heat. Drawn by the lure of black liquid gold, powerful allies are now jockeying for position. Ankara suddenly finds itself having to confront a Greek-Cypriot defensive alliance of Israelis, Egyptians, Greeks and Italians – plus France and the USA – all hungry to get their hands on the spoils of the huge natural gas reserves off the coast. Gunboats now protect the Turkish prospecting ships as a symbol, a warning and a deterrent.

The truth is we are sitting in the middle of a region set to explode at any moment, thanks to an aggressive Iran-sponsored build-up. The plan appears to be to force Israel to concentrate on dealing with threats to its civilian population – from rocket barrages and commando raids – from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. Consequently, Israel would not be able to focus on blocking the principal surge when it comes.

Now even China is involved. Beijing considers Iran to be its strategic partner in the greater Middle East and vital to China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ across Asia. The PRC knows that the Iranian network of roads, railroads and pipelines all the way to the Mediterranean is a major contribution to the ‘New Silk Road.’ But now, Beijing is becoming increasingly concerned by the sudden possible slide to war caused by Iran’s regional ambitions.

It may not come next week, it may not come next year, but be in no doubt, the Middle East is gearing up for a major war. And it’s important to remember that for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, according to their scriptures, a final battle between good and evil will usher in God’s brave new world, free from sin.

The place for this battle? The ancient city of Megiddo, better known by its Greek name – Armageddon – a real, geological location in Israel….

The Day Europe Died

On 1 September, 80 years ago last month, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi legions invaded Poland to start World War II; a war that was to prove the deadliest and the most destructive war in human history. It marked the day when Europe finally committed suicide. Eighty years on, world leaders convened in Warsaw to mark and remember that terrible moment in history.

World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945 and involved 30 countries from every part of the globe. The war killed an estimated 70-80 million people, or 4 per cent of the world’s population. If war is about breaking things and hurting people, then World War II’s impact was horrific. Soldiers and civilians alike were slaughtered; huge tracts of Europe and western Russia were devastated, with whole cities razed; South East Asia was wracked by war; millions starved; Jews and undesirables were murdered on an industrial scale by the Nazis; and the use of atomic bombs on Japan signalled a new and deadly way of wiping out humanity.

The facts are terrifying. The Soviet Union suffered most, with over 20 million killed. Almost 3.5 million Soviet prisoners of war died in German slave labour camps. German soldiers were ordered to exterminate all Jews, communist leaders, as well as any Soviet civilians resisting the Aryan ‘Master Race’ in order to take their grain and livestock. During the two-year siege of Leningrad, more than 1 million residents starved to death.

Germany fared little better. It lost around 9 million people: 5.3 million soldiers; and 3.3 million civilians. The Nazis murdered 300,000 of their own citizens and the Allied bomber offensive killed 600,000, leaving Germany as a heap of rubble by 1945.

Poland lost 5 million people: 16 per cent of its total population. Of those, 2.7 million were Jews, and 240,000 were soldiers. Yugoslavia lost 1 million people including 445,000 soldiers. France lost 568,000 people, of which 218,000 were soldiers. The United Kingdom lost 60,000 civilians to German air raids and 384,000 military. The United States lost 405,000 soldiers.

Further afield, the war killed 30 million in the Pacific. China lost 20 million, 80 per cent of whom were civilians. In just one incident, the 1937 Nanking massacre, Japan killed around 300,000 Chinese.

Japan’s brutal Samurai Code (‘the way of the warrior’) led to 6 million deaths in China, Japan, Korea, Indochina and the Philippines. This included the slaughter of civilians in villages, slave labour in Korea and China, and the use of human experiments to develop biological weapons. In addition, up to 400,000 ‘comfort women’ were forced into sexual slavery; 90 per cent of these unfortunate females had died by the end of the war.

This lengthy litany of horrifying statistics is vital because they rub home the key point, all too easily forgotten as memory turns to history: Hitler’s war was nothing less than the biggest disaster in recorded history.

The irony is that the war should have come as no surprise. Hitler had, years before, spelled out in cold print his plans for a war to end wars.

As he held court in 1924 as a prisoner in Bavaria’s Landsberg Castle for leading an attempted coup in Munich, Hitler committed his plans to paper. In a turgid and badly written book called Mein Kampf (My Struggle, in English), Germany’s future Führer drafted his battle plan. Germany would rise again and seize by force lebensraum (‘living space’) and raw materials to the east. The malign megalomaniac who caused World War II openly warned the world what he intended to do.

The problem really started in 1914, when the great powers of Europe blundered into a cataclysmic European civil war, thanks to a system of unwise military alliances and epic diplomatic miscalculation. By 1918, exhausted and bankrupt, the old ‘Europe’ had fallen apart. Four empires lay in ruins: Germany; Austro-Hungary; Russia; and the Ottoman-Turks. Out of the ruins the Peace Treaty of Versailles made things worse.

Versailles imposed savage terms on Germany, holding Berlin responsible for the whole war and demanding unheard of sums as reparations. The German Weimar government printed money to meet its exorbitant payments, thus creating hyperinflation: a wheelbarrow full of millions of Reichsmarks was needed to buy a loaf of bread.

As Germans lost buying power, they looked for salvation. The harsh economic conditions made people turn to new leaders, principally the Communists and the Fascists. Adolf Hitler, a spellbinding orator and embittered veteran of the trenches played on ordinary Germans’ fears. Leading his National Socialist Party, he blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat and promised a return to power, full employment and prosperity. A generation of Germans welcomed his policies and his promise to make Germany great again.

Once again, nationalism was on the rise. In Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Japan’s warrior state, new leaders advocated militarism, re-armament and the use of naked force to overcome other nations and seize their natural resources.

In 1931 Japan struck. The island nation required oil and food imports to feed its growing population. In what many consider to be the true start of World War II, Japan invaded China, intent on grabbing the mineral riches of Manchuria. The powder train to a wider war was burning, because the global economy was in crisis; the Wall Street Crash of 1929-31 changed everything.

The Great Depression and economic crisis reduced global trade by 25 per cent. In Germany, unemployment reached 30 per cent. Communism began to look attractive to the millions of unemployed and broke. To quell rioting on the streets, Germany’s politicians and industrialists turned to Hitler and his Nazi Party as a bulwark against this growing ideological threat from the east.

On 30 January 1933 they appointed him Chancellor. It was a grave mistake.

Within months Hitler and his henchmen had seized full power. Following a disastrous fire at the Reichstag – almost certainly ignited by the NazisPresident Hindenburg published a decree on 28 February 1933 as an emergency response to what was widely believed to be a Communist Coup. It suspended many of the civil liberties of German citizens. It was swiftly followed by an ‘Enabling Act’ on 23 March 1933, as ‘A Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich’, an amendment to the Weimar Constitution. It gave the Chancellor power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag.

Hitler was now the legal dictator of Germany. With all power in his hands his plan for a war of conquest was now possible.

The rest, as they say, is history. Hitler, now ‘Supreme Leader’ of the Germans, tore up the Versailles Treaty, re-armed Germany and began his long European land grab for the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and then Poland.

Finally Hitler did two things in that final summer of 1939 to make sure that no one stood in his way.

On 23 July, to the amazement of the world, Ribbentrop and Molotov signed a formal ‘Non-Aggression Pact’ between the two sworn ideological enemies. Unbelievably, Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Communist USSR were now allies.

Hitler’s final step towards the war he had dreamed about and planned for in Landsberg fortress was a typical deceit. Rather than openly declare war, he resorted to trickery.

On the eve of that fateful day – 31 August 1939 – a handful of doomed concentration camp prisoners were given Polish uniforms, unloaded rifles and ordered to attack an isolated German frontier post on the Polish border. The Wehrmacht machine gunners at Gleiwitz were waiting. The wretched prisoners were slaughtered to a man. Journalists were later invited to view the bodies at the scene as Doctor Goebbels’ Nazi propaganda machine swung into action to denounce a Polish atrocity.

At dawn the next day – 1 September 1939 – Hitler’s Panzers and Stukas attacked Poland to seize lebensraum to the East. World War II had begun. It had all been predicted by the Mein Kampf blueprint.

Hitler’s war would complete what 1914-18 had begun: the destruction of Europe. From 1945 onwards, America, fat on Europe’s gold and self-immolation, took over the role of world leader.

Curiously, that outcome does not feature in Mein Kampf….

Obituary: Major Mike Dawkins

This reflection was first published by John Hughes- Wilson on the Intelligence Corps Association website (on 14 August 2019)

I first met Mike Dawkins when I landed at Stanley in July 1982 to take over from David Burrill as Head of Service Intelligence in the Falkland Islands. Mike was Head of the Joint Services Signal Unit and we agreed that, provided he kept me informed, I would not trouble him. I knew from GCHQ that things were going well and with Jim Hammond, his Number Two, we had an amicable and sound personal and professional relationship.

However the problem with Siginters is that they rarely, if ever, come into contact with ‘the enemy’. Just before Mike left to return to UK he remarked wistfully that he always wondered about the Sovs.

As I was billeted with the Stanley Harbour Master, Les Halliday, we decide to give him his chance. Suitably dolled up in an (incognito) assistant Harbour Master’s uniform he set out in the pilot boat with Les to check on one of the several Soviet AGIs masquerading as trawlers off shore, busy hoovering up our transmissions.

Things did not go quite according to plan. At the AGI’s gangplank he was greeted to his astonishment by the beaming Soviet skipper with a smart salute and ‘Major Dawkins! So nice to put a face to the name.’

He was then escorted to the captain’s cabin and feted with cakes and coffee. After an exchange of pleasantries he was escorted back to the pilot boat and the skipper of the AGI thrust a bottle of Crimean champagne into his hands with the words, ‘And this is our gift to Major Hughes-Wilson. Please to give him our best wishes!’

It was a slightly stunned Mike Dawkins who later reported back to J2 at Stanley HQ. As we drank the Russian champagne he kept muttering, ‘I don’t believe it. How did they know?’

I briefed the General and his Chief of Staff, Roger Wheeler, later. They fell about laughing. ‘So much for DI 24 Security.’

I don’t think Mike ever fully recovered from being rumbled…

 And here is the bottle (see right).

August 1974 – Hubris, Nemesis and Lies

Everyone in Cyprus knows that the Turks intervened in Cyprus in July 1974. However, thanks to clever, well-funded and unremitting Greek propaganda, the world has been led to believe that this was nothing less than a brutal and uncalled-for invasion against the peace-loving Greeks – an Ottoman jackboot to seize Greek land and occupy Cyprus.

Nothing could be further from the truth – but for once the victors have not written the true story of events. Thanks to Turkish Cypriot laziness, incompetence and a refusal to see the PR importance of explaining what really happened, the Greek Cypriots’ mendacious version of events is finding its way into the history books.

The true story is simple. On 15 July 1974, the Greek army, in conjunction with fascist Greek-Cypriot gangs, mounted a coup to overthrow and murder the island’s president. A panic-stricken Archbishop Makarios III fled in his socks to be rescued by the British and flown to safety. An EOKA thug and admitted murderer called Nikos Sampson became the new ruler of Cyprus.

On 19 July 1974, President Makarios addressed the UN Security Council in New York and denounced a Greek invasion. The next day, the Turkish army intervened – quite legally – as a guarantor of the1960 Cyprus Constitution. The British forces on the island were ordered to sit tight and become mere spectators. In 1976, the UK House of Commons Select Committee found that Turkey had proposed joint Anglo-Turkish action under the Treaty of Guarantee. However the then Labour Government in Britain refused to help (see written evidence submitted on 30 September 2004 by former MP Michael Stephen to the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs).

They argued that Britain was under no duty to act, even though Article II of the Treaty provided that Britain would guarantee the state of affairs established by the 1960 Constitution. The Parliamentary Committee concluded that ‘Britain had a legal right to intervene; she had a moral obligation to intervene. She did not intervene for reasons which the Government refuses to give.’ In other words, this was not Whitehall’s finest hour.

One of the other inexplicable mysteries of the affair is the extraordinary stupidity of the Greek military junta in Athens not to think through the inevitable consequences of their actions on Cyprus in 1974. A bloody civil war among the Greeks, together with attacks on Turkish Cypriots, gave Ankara the political excuse to move into Cyprus that Turkey had been seeking for years.

The Greek word hubris springs to mind, in its sense of human pride, arrogance and defiance of the Gods. However, hubris is inevitably followed by nemesis – retributive justice from vengeful Olympus  to squash over-ambitious mortals. Nemesis now struck the new Greek-Cypriot regime a fatal blow.

The Greek-Cypriot National Guard and their Greek allies made things worse by making a monumental strategic blunder. One of the principles of war is ‘concentration of force.’ The Greeks should have sealed off the Turkish beach head in the north and counter attacked. Instead, blinded by a determination to wipe out the hated Turkish minority once and for all, they spread their forces all over the island in a muddled attempt to crush the widespread Turkish-Cypriot armed enclaves. The notorious Akritas Plan, to get rid of all the Turks in Cyprus, became the Greeks’ ruinous priority.

This dispersal of effort failed. Turkish forces broke out of the beachhead, and parachute and helicopter infantry were flown in. Outgunned, outnumbered, out-manoeuvred and – critically  lacking air superiority, the Greeks fell back and (on 22 July 1974) the UN Security Council was able to broker a ceasefire that brought an uneasy end to the fighting by 24 July. Turkey had intervened, got her foothold on the island and protected her minority. By then the Turkish forces were in command of a wide land corridor between Kyrenia and Nicosia

Thus far, this part of Turkey’s ‘illegal invasion’ is common knowledge. What happened next is not so well known and is blurred in the history books, because there were two phases to the ‘Cyprus war’. After the July lull there were numerous breaches of the cease fire as both sides jockeyed for position and played for time. The UN ceasefire was more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

On 2 August 1974 Greek forces captured a Turkish armoured resupply column, including an M47 tank and an armoured personnel carrier. (The captured M47 later engaged a confused Turkish tank squadron near Skylloura on 15 August, hitting seven M47 tanks.) Also, on 6 August, Turkey’s 28 Division launched a surprise attack supported by 30 tanks and overran the Greek forward positions around Lapithos (Lapta) and Karavas (Alsanjak), west of the bridgehead to straighten out their line.

By 14 August the Geneva talks, aimed at a political solution, had broken down. Turkey’s demands for a bi-zonal federal state plus complete population transfer shocked Cyprus’ new acting President Glafcos Clerides, who begged for an adjournment in order to consult Athens and Greek-Cypriot politicians. The long shadow of the Machiavellian archbishop fell over the negotiating table, however. No one trusted Makarios, who was dissembling, lying and stalling to the last.

Turkey flatly refused any more delays and the Prime Minister ordered Phase 2 of Operation Attilla. Now with two divisions, an armoured brigade, 200 tanks (many of them the newer M48) and over 150 guns on the island, plus total air supremacy, the result was inevitable. The outnumbered Greeks could do little in the face of such overwhelming Turkish superiority.

The breakout to the West was spearheaded by 28 division and the Commando Brigade, heading for Morphou (Guzelyurt) and Kormakiti. The Greek defenders were pushed back to their final ‘Troodos Line’ to the south. To the east, 39 division’s tanks and armoured personnel carriers attacked along two axes: one raced east towards Famagusta and another to the south east towards Mia Milia (Haspolat), and on towards Larnaca. The 10 Greek battalions and 20 tanks defending the Eastern sector were overwhelmed.

In the centre of the island, a vicious battle developed on 16 August around the Greek national contingent (ELDYK) near the grammar school close to Nicosia International Airport. After the area had been softened up by bomb and napalm attacks, 2000 men of the reinforced ‘Turkish Cyprus Regiment’, supported by 17 M48 tanks, assaulted the regular Greek Army positions. Both sides fought hard. From somewhere near the Star Chinchilla Farm, an unknown Greek Forward Observation Officer (FOO) managed to call in artillery fire from widely dispersed batteries of different guns. This artillery tour de force separated the Turkish armour from the infantry, causing serious casualties until a napalm airstrike silenced the FOO for ever. The fighting went on all day. Four Turkish M48 tanks were knocked out and 100 Greeks died in the fighting before the survivors slipped away.

The final battle was at Pyroi (Gaziler), south east of Nicosia on 16/17 August. As the Turks advanced south, a single Greek infantry platoon with tank support attempted to repel a Turkish infantry battalion. In the fighting four T-34s were abandoned on the road as the defenders fled. The Turks followed, creating the ‘Lourajina Appendix’ in the ceasefire line, bringing Larnaca within range of their guns.

After three days of continuous advance and confused fighting it was all over. Cyprus was sliced in half. The two communities were ethnically separated. Thousands of refugees were displaced from their homes. The Greek Junta and their puppet Sampson went to jail. The UN’s temporary ceasefire still remains the legal position.

Who was responsible? Even the Greek Court of Appeal in Athens ruled in 1979 that the Turkish intervention was legal: ‘The real culprits… are the Greek officers who engineered and staged a coup and prepared the conditions for the invasion.’

Council of Europe agreed: in Resolution 573 it supported the legality of the first wave of the Turkish intervention of 20 July 1974, under the Guarantee Treaty of 1960.

The bitter truth is that Athens and the Greek Cypriots brought it on themselves. Arrogance, pride and stupidity had brought defeat and disaster.

The ancient Greeks were right: hubris invites nemesis…

The Guns of August

August has always been a good month to start a war. The reasons are simple: the harvest is ripening; the men are fit and ready; the long days are perfect for campaigning without worrying about the weather; and the summer heat seems to encourage rash decisions. In the Foreign Legion they call it le cafard – the depression or madness brought on by a hot summer.

We don’t have to look far for examples. Hitler decided to unleash his legions against Poland in August 1939; Putin invaded Georgia in August 2008; on 14 August 1974, Turkey launched its ‘Second Peace Operation’, which resulted eventually in the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus; and, most notorious of all, what started out as a European conflict went global in August 1914 when Britain declared war.

Well might Britain’s then Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, muse as he watched the lights going out on 4 August: ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’

If ever there was a war that changed the world it was World War I. Many of our international problems today stem from that disastrous August of 1914 and the conflict it spawned: Communism, Stalin, the USSR, Hitler and his Nazis, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Islamic fundamentalism were all offspring of World War I. Most damaging of all were World War II and the long Cold War that followed. All have their origins in what was nothing more than a ruinous four-year civil war in Europe.

The irony is that it all went wrong from the start and could have been avoided with a little adroit diplomacy. If there is a villain of the story in 1914 it was the German General Staff, who had been planning for years how to deal with a war on two fronts. Under the eye of a workaholic general (he even went to work on Christmas day, according to his family), Generaloberst Alfred von Schlieffen devised a plan. Blackadder would probably have it called it ‘a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel.’

Unfortunately it wasn’t. The great Schlieffen plan was a deadly political and diplomatic trap. Even some Germans realised it at the time.

Late in the afternoon of 1 August 1914, Colonel General Helmuth von Möltke was driving back to the Army HQ in the Königsplatz when his car was stopped and he was commanded to return to the Royal Palace immediately. Back at the Berliner Schloss, a jubilant Kaiser told the head of the German armies that he had received a telegram from London assuring him that Britain would guarantee that, if Germany refrained from going to war with France, then London would ask the French not to attack Germany.

The Kaiser was ecstatic and ordered champagne; ‘Now we need only wage war against Russia! So we simply advance with the whole army in the east.’

Von Möltke was appalled. ‘But it is too late, Highness. All the planning, the stores and the armies are already moving west. The 16th infantry division is even now securing the railway junctions at Trier and in Luxembourg. It has been planned for years… we will just have a disorganised rabble without supplies. It cannot be done.’

A shocked Kaiser responded coldly, ‘Your uncle would have given me a different answer.’ Thrown out by a balked Kaiser, von Möltke went back to his office and wept.

He might have cried some more if he realised that the great Schlieffen plan was not just a rigid diplomatic and political cage: it had some serious flaws. Any decent general staff planner can spot them immediately. First, it relied on invading Belgium to outflank the French from the north. That would almost certainly drag the British into any war, as they were a guarantor of Belgian neutrality. Not a clever political move?

Second, it relied on Russia taking weeks to mobilise, thereby allowing the Germans to knock the French out of the war before Russia could attack in the east.

Unfortunately the German planners had forgotten their own rule: ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’ The Russians were disobliging enough to mobilise quickly and invade East Prussia and Poland, which caused something like panic in Berlin. Stories of sad German refugees streaming west from the marauding Cossack hordes forced the Kaiser to send his priceless reinforcements to the east, not to France.

Third, and most damaging of all, the much vaunted brains of the German General Staff just hadn’t done their sums. To march through Belgium, then south through France to Paris or the Marne is about 240 miles (380 km). But the German troop trains stopped in Belgium. From then on it was ‘Shank’s pony’, as the increasingly hot and exhausted Ländser pursued the retreating French and British Expeditionary Force south.

This is where the general staff got it so badly wrong; like a piece of elastic the German supply line was stretched a little further every day. In those pre-lorry days, every round of ammunition, every bale of hay for the horses, every bit of food for the weary troops, even horseshoes and new boots for the footsore soldiers, had to find its way forward on an ever-lengthening supply chain to the advancing armies, which were getting further and further away from their logistic bases.

After two weeks the supply chain was stretched so far that hay intended for the front-line horses was being consumed by the horses trying to bring it forward. At the front horses were dying from lack of food or falling sick from eating green unripe corn. The great advance faltered and slowed in the sweltering heat. The German generals then took a fateful decision. Realising that they couldn’t surround Paris – it was now too far and would take too long – they ordered the advance to swing south, to the east of Paris. By doing so they presented a flank to the army in Paris, who promptly attacked and stopped the Germans on the river Marne. The German advance was over; they fell back in September to dig trenches and go on the defensive.

That was the moment the Germans found themselves fighting a war on two fronts. That was the moment Germany lost the Great War .

The four bloody years that followed merely reinforced the outcome of that August. But from that war, the world changed out of all recognition. The effect and consequences of World War I were dramatic. In 1914 Europe controlled most of the world, effectively. For five hundred years Europeans had sailed the globe, seizing land and dominating what Kipling called ‘lesser breeds without the law.’ The 15th-century European voyages of Henry the Navigator – resulting in discoveries and maritime expansion into Africa and Asia – set up the Portuguese Empire. A century later Spain dominated the Americas, to be followed on the high seas by the Dutch, the French, the English and the Americans, all projecting their trade and power across the world. By the 19th century, Europe, and European ideas and values, ruled the world in one form or another. The ‘Guns of August’ put a stop to that. By 1922, the Russian, German, Austrian Ottoman empires were no more. France and Britain were bankrupted and enfeebled and new countries after Versailles were hostages to future problems, from the Balkans to the Middle East.

The Great War opened a Pandora’s box of problems that has haunted us ever since.

Once again we are in the danger zone this month for armed conflict somewhere. So, yes, beware the month of August. Statistically speaking, this tends to be the favoured season for wars to start.

Looking around at our troubled world, it is worrying that there are far too many conflicts waiting to explode.

On the Freedom of the Press

The row that has blown up over the leaking of the British ambassador’s private opinions of President Trump and his administration has far-reaching consequences.

In a crude but accurate of an ambassador’s job description, Sir Christopher Meyer in his memoir, DC Confidential, revealed that Tony Blair’s chief of staff had instructed him to ‘get up the arse of the White House and stay there’ when George W Bush was President. Having been effectively barred from the White House, suddenly finding himself with little or no access to Washington’s movers and shakers, Sir Kim Darroch had little choice but to fall on his sword.

Back in London a hunt is now on to find the leaker of those secret ‘diptels’; there have even been calls for the newspaper that published them to be charged under the Official Secrets Act. This is explosive stuff because the ‘freedom of the press’ is one of the cornerstones of a free society.

Freedom of the press is the right to circulate opinions in print without censorship by the government. Americans enjoy freedom of the press under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which states:

 ‘Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…’

In the late 1770s this was remarkable stuff. Across the Atlantic, radical MP and journalist John Wilkes landed in jail for daring to criticise the London establishment in the press.

Wilkes was accused of treason and seditious libel for publishing articles critical of King George III’s government. He was arrested, thrown out of Parliament and put into prison. His legal travails, his publications, and his every movement were covered with great interest by the colonial newspapers. To those breakaway Britons, he provided a powerful example of why liberty of the press was so critical: after their observations of London’s heavy hand, they saw press freedom as vital for their new American state.

However, this declaration of press freedom caused concern, even in the new USA.  For example, under the existing Common Law, protection against false allegations of defamation was a long standing legal right. How did that square with a press that had the legal right to print whatever it liked? ‘Fake news’ is no modern phenomenon.

Early American courts struggled with the argument that the punishment of ‘dangerous or offensive writings… [was] necessary for the preservation of peace and good order…’ How did that balance with a free press guaranteed by federal law? That difficult question was swept under the carpet for two centuries after the ratification of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Not so in Britain, however. In the early years of the 20th century spy fever gripped Britain. An Anglo-German naval arms race bred a panicky – if totally inaccurate – belief that the country was riddled with spies bent on uncovering the defence secrets of British dreadnoughts and dockyards. A worried government rushed through an Official Secrets Act in 1911 with little debate or opposition. The new Act had extremely wide-ranging powers. There were two main sections: Section 1 contained tough provisions against espionage and concentrated on the theft of military secrets; Section 2 dealt with unauthorised disclosure of government information, making it a criminal offence to disclose any official information without lawful authority.

The absurdity of making publication of even a Buckingham Palace menu a crime was quickly spotted by lawyers and widely ignored.

Across the Atlantic this problem came to light during World War I. In a famous case a man called Schenk had been convicted under the US wartime Espionage Act for publishing leaflets urging resistance to the Draft. This went against the right to freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes tried to unscramble the contradiction, ruling: ‘the question in every case is whether the words are used… to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.’ He went on to add the all-important interpretation of the legal principle:

‘There is no threat to national security implied in the release of this material. It is embarrassing…  but it is the duty of media organisations to bring new and interesting facts into the public domain. That is what they are there for. A prosecution on this basis would amount to an infringement on press freedom.’

The Supreme Court agreed, and held that virtually all forms of restraint on free speech were unconstitutional. The key was that embarrassing the government was no crime; the real illegality was the theft of secrets.

Into this delicate legal minefield one of Britain’s most senior police officers has now blundered. Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said the leak had caused damage to the UK’s international relations, pompously warning that journalists who publish leaked information risk going to jail. Senior legal figures said that Basu, the head of the Metropolitan Police’s specialist operations, appeared to have set out to ‘protect the Government from embarrassment’ after he issued his warning that the publication of the leaked memos could in itself be ‘a criminal matter’.

The subsequent outrage was both unnecessary and predictable. Sharp-eyed lawyers immediately pointed out that in law, the authorities have to prove that ‘damage’ – not mere embarrassment – has been caused to Britain’s international relations through a leak.

However, nothing that Ambassador Darroch said in his diptels was remarkable. He could have been quoting the views of the Guardian or the New York Times on Trump. Nothing has been published that in any way affects national security. So for the Mail to be threatened with the Official Secrets Act 1989 was a clumsy and unwise thing to do. The real crime is the theft and leaking of the secret diptels. Even then the case is arguable: nothing that has been leaked in these particular diplomatic reports threatens Britain’s (or Britons’) security. However, even if there had been sensitive material involved, it is a decision for responsible newspaper editors to decide whether or not they should publish it.

The authorities quickly realised that a PR disaster was looming; from 10 Downing Street downwards the hapless Assistant Chief Commissioner of the Met was thrown under the bus, ethnic figurehead of ‘diversity’ and Common Purpose mole or not. Even London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who is responsible for policing in London, said the media ‘must not be told’ what they could publish. Sir Paul Stephenson, a former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and a mentor to Mr Basu when he was at the force, warned that the police must ‘step very carefully and warily’.

Politicians en masse quickly backed away from what was an obvious tar baby; trying to muzzle – let alone jail – newspaper editors in today’s digital communications world would be political suicide, especially when no lives are at risk from the disclosure.

Here is the key: whereas Julian Assange and his unwitting pawn Private Chelsea Manning stole US military secrets and really did put many undercover lives at risk via Wikileaks, nothing the Mail has published risks anything other than the red faces of officials. So, to threaten editors with the OSA and Court Number One at the Old Bailey was a blunder of monumental proportions.

The irony is that the British press are often far too ‘responsible’. For example, over the Rochdale sex gangs and the Elm Guest House MPs paedophile scandals the press kept too quiet whilst great wrongs continued. They knew all about the Pakistani sex traffickers and they knew all about the behaviour of MPs Cyril Smith and Nicholas Fairbairn; but, under pressure not to rock the political or policing boat, the press stayed quiet. Too quiet, too long.

Press freedom is today a delicate balancing act, requiring skilful tightrope walking by editors and journalists. The threats and heavy hand of Mr Plod would be funny – if it were not so serious.

Telegraph British Troops Must Have Better Legal Protection

The following letter from John Hughes-Wilson was published in The Telegraph on Saturday, 29 June 2019, in response to an article entitled ‘British troops must have better legal protection, say Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt‘ by Anna Mikhailova, the newspaper’s deputy political editor.

Letter to the editor

‘The crass equating of soldiers doing their duty with criminal terrorists has done far more damage than people realise.

‘The result of this weak political leadership is that now almost all service personnel do not trust the MoD’s civil servants or politicians.

‘The armed forces have no separate votes or political clout, and so can be run down, exploited and used as political [mainly Treasury] pawns, with little fear of reprisal.

‘The military now feel they have been hung out to dry by political calculation.

‘Serving senior officers are reluctant to speak out, because they will be instantly muzzled or sacked by politicans.

‘This distrust of politicians will take a military generation to expunge and means that the ‘Military Covenant’ is just a piece of window dressing for cheap headlines.’

Mereo Books release ‘Chronicles of the Winter World’

All five novels in the ‘Tommy Gunn’ World War I ‘Chronicles of the Winter World’ series are now published by Mereo Books.

Written by leading military historian, John Hughes-Wilson, these five historically accurate novels in takes us in the company of protagonist ‘Tommy’ Gunn from the outbreak of the Great War, through the horror of the trenches and arduous campaigns to the eventual Armistice.

Publication date was 28 June 2019, to mark the centenary of the opening of the Versailles Conference (on 28 June 1919) that marked the official end of World War I

‘A unique contribution to World War I literature’
Brian MacArthur, author: King and Country

In 1914, they could not have known just how long this war would last or just how many lives it would cost …

When we first meet TOM Gunn, he’s a young infantry lieutenant in the Sherwood Foresters, back on leave from India just as Europe catches fire in the chaotic summer of 1914.

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) is off to France, and Gunn joins a hastily formed mixed battalion of reservists, regular and territorial soldiers. He soon finds himself pitchforked into the mayhem and suffering of unrelenting war.

Soon the high hopes of short conflict fade into the horrific reality of the trenches. Thaddeus Gunn and his men realise that this is going to be a long and bloody war and they will be lucky if any of them survive ….

Hughes-Wilson places the main character, Thaddeus (‘Tommy’) Gunn, at most of the major battles of the war, in order to show us the utter terror and slaughter suffered by the troops.
Although this series of books are fictional accounts, the use of real diaries of young officers who fought and quotes from newspapers of the day, give these novels authenticity and help the reader appreciate how people actually lived through the war.

Now, with the release of all five novels to mark the Centenary of the Treaty of Versailles, readers can follow Hughes-Wilson’s creation, ‘Tommy Gunn’ throughout the entire war. These powerful novels stand as a testament to the heroism and sacrifice of a generation of young men.

‘Gripping … superbly written, true-to-life down to the least military detail, and very exciting. Readers will be keen to follow the fortunes of Thaddeus Gunn’
Andrew Roberts, FRSL, historian

All five novels are available in paperback or ebook:

  • 1914 First Blood
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-277-2 210pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B00Q386D90; £3.00
  • 1915 Pride & Glory
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-922-1 213pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B07KMB934Q; £2.35
  • 1916 The Big Push
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-923-8 280pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B07KKP874RRRP £2.35
  • 1917 Hanging On
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-925-2 234pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B07KKNCS8C; £2.35
  • 1918 Defeat Into Victory
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-277-2 175pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B07KKLRD7P £2.35

All five titles in the series are published by Mereo Books (an imprint of Memoirs Publishingand are available through all good bookshops and internet booksellers (see Mereo Books: Books by John Hughes-Wilson)

Local UK interest, Nottinghamshire:

Tommy Gunn, the central character in the series, comes from Nottinghamshire and serves with the Sherwood Foresters. (The author also served in the Sherwood Foresters early in his career.)

To request review copies or to be put in touch with the author, please contact:

Andrew Hayward
Court Publishing Services
andrew.hayward21@yahoo.com
Tel: 07876 155663 or 020 8761 0147

Further information:
www.johnhugheswilson.co.uk

Press release issued on behalf of Mereo Books & Court Publishing by Elly Donovan PR
elly@ellydonovan.co.uk | Tel: 01273 205 246

Turkey at a Crossroads?

‘Peace at home; peace in the world.’ Atatürk’s homely ambition has never been more important for Turkey. However, a number of crises are coming together inexorably to force Ankara to think long and hard about its future intentions. Turkey is at a major crossroads.

There are three main reasons: first Ankara’s relationship with the USA; second, Turkey’s position in the Middle East; and lastly, its delicate economic position.

The biggest snowball rolling down the hill is defence, surprisingly. Ankara has insisted that it will take delivery of a Russian-made S-400 advanced anti-aircraft missile system this month, but the US Congress says it will impose penalties on Turkey if it does so. The sophisticated Russian SAM system poses a direct threat to the latest hi-tech US F-35 fighter, also being supplied to Turkey.

Turkey faces a position in which it must either back away from Moscow’s S-400 deal, or accept the possible economic damage of sanctions and its eventual ejection from the US F-35 programme. The result would have been that, whether by levying economic sanctions, or by cancelling Turkey’s participation in the highly advanced (and very expensive) F-35 stealth fighter programme, the US could retaliate and hurt Turkey’s economy badly.

However, risks to its economy and the threat of US sanctions have not stopped Turkey from acquiring Moscow’s air defence system. Ankara stood firm. A government spokesman was defiant: ‘We are a serious country. Our deal with Russia continues.’ Ankara clearly believes that it can withstand US pressure over the issue – because America needs Turkey.

Then, in late June 2019 (in the margins of the G20 Osaka meeting), the Turkish president claimed that a deal had been struck. President Trump had told him there would be no sanctions over the Russian deal and that Turkey had been had been ‘treated unfairly’ over the move.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters that the first delivery of the S-400s would take place within 10 days and that he believed the dispute would be overcome ‘without a problem’ and without sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of Moscow’s missiles. The results were immediate; the Turkish lira soared nearly 3 per cent on 1 July 2019 to its strongest level since April 2019.

However, Ankara’s optimism is a risky calculation. A USAF spokesman later said: ‘Nothing has changed …  Turkey will not be permitted to have both systems.’ Moreover, if the US Congress follows through on its threat to impose sanctions on Turkey by 31 July 2019 and ignores President Trump, that pressure will have a much wider impact on Turkey’s political and economic future than just defence.

Should the USA remove Turkey from the F-35 programme and impose sanctions on its NATO ally, it would be one of the most significant ruptures in recent history in the relationship between the two nations. It would be one more policy dispute that over the years have tested the complicated relationship between Turkey and the USA.

From Turkey’s military intervention to stop the Greek coup and civil war in Cyprus in 1974, to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, more recently, US support for the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units in Syria’s civil war, ties have frequently been strained between the supposed allies. The danger is that Turkey is, for many reasons, drifting away from the West.

This brings us to foreign policy. Turkey is being forced to recalibrate its foreign and regional policy at a time when the Middle East is undergoing a major transformation. Both Russia and Turkey are seeking more influence in an unstable region. Their relationship is a curious mix of cooperative and competitive. Whilst Ankara is well aware of the dangers of creating new risks to its already weakened economy, it also needs to demonstrate its power as a major regional player.

The problem is that Turkey and Russia have serious form going back to the days of the Tsars. For example, the Crimean War in the 1850s was really all about Russian and Turkish rivalry. Since the days of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has always sought to deny Russia a significant presence to the south or in the eastern Mediterranean. But that is now where Russia is becoming increasingly active – especially in Syria. As Russian influence grows, Turkey’s room for regional influence shrinks. Turkey’s recent accommodation of Russia is therefore historically and geopolitically unusual.

However, given Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian civil war in 2015 – and its determination to support President Assad in power – some form of engagement between Russia and Turkey, Syria’s neighbour, was inevitable. The two sides seem, for the moment, to have settled on a wary cooperation. Russia controls northern Syria on Turkey’s border. When Turkey is frustrated with the West – as it is now over US support for Syrian Kurdish forces and the EU’s doublespeak on enlargement –- it finds in Russia a sympathetic ear.

The third factor is economics. Turkey is a major energy-importing country. It needs low energy prices, particularly given its alarming level of borrowing and an unsustainable current account deficit, much of it caused by its increasing energy needs. Ankara is however in serious economic trouble. This spills over on to the streets of Turkey itself, as recent elections have shown.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won support on the streets by using nationalism to highlight frequent challenges from alleged EU and Western hostility, fear of Islam and foreign pressure against the country. The fragile state of Turkey’s economy now however threatens social and political stability. The country’s economy dipped into a recession since the last quarter of 2018. The lira has lost 30 per cent on the global money market.

Over the next year, the Turkish private sector must pay back at least $150 billion in debts, and in foreign currency too. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the money. Financially, Ankara is drifting towards national bankruptcy without serious economic reforms – or getting a lot of new money.

However, there are four more years until the next scheduled elections in 2023. The AKP leadership is banking on having time to stabilise the economy, as Ankara believes it can find alternative sources of money.

Two obvious pots of gold are the hydrocarbons beneath the sea off Cyprus and the lure of a sell-out to the East. To deal with the latter first, China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative (to buy up ports and infrastructure across the Middle East and eastern Europe) could be a tempting offer for Ankara. Turning to the East offers easy cash – but at a heavy price.

The second cash cow could be hydrocarbons off Cyprus, and Ankara has shown itself determined to get as much as it can and, in the process, warn off any competition. South Nicosia’s optimistic alliance of Italian, French, Israeli, US and Egyptian backers to support their national oil companies’ ambitions is being met with hard words and the threat of maritime force. The balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean is being challenged.

Inside Turkey the first tremors of a domestic political earthquake are being felt, too. With the country in economic turmoil, AKP’s legitimacy is suddenly facing serious challenges. It suffered stinging defeats in municipal elections in March and was humiliated in the recent mayoral election in İstanbul, the key to national political power. Already there is talk of a rival party based on AKP’s original blend of Islamism with democracy and liberal market policies. Both former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan and former president Abdullah Gül are now looking to create a rival party and bid for power themselves.

The result is that politically, economically and abroad, Turkey is at a crossroads; ‘peace at home and with the neighbours’ is a fine slogan, but is looking to be an increasingly distant dream …