John Helmer: The Classic Rules for Combatting Turkish Aggression

By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears


A generation ago, a Greek prime minister, whom the Soviet Politburo in Moscow underestimated, defeated a Turkish attack on Greek territory. That was Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou; the victory was the battle of the Aegean of March 26, 1987. Before that, no Russian had defeated a Turkish attack for more than a hundred years. Since 1991 Russians say Turkey has been “not merely a close neighbour, but a friendly state.”

Papandreou prepared for his fight with the knowledge his enemies judged him a coward. He also had the hope that if he struck hard and fast enough, his enemies would be confounded and retreat. The decision also included Papandreou’s private wager that one way or another, he might not have long to live himself. So he moved the Greek air force, targeted and fully armed on 90-second order for take-off. He planned with the Bulgarian President Todor Zhivkov, an enemy of NATO, to order his tank columns towards the Turkish border, allied against the common historical enemy. He ordered the electricity supply cut to US command-and-control headquarters in Greece. Not a spark, not a signal from foreign spy or Greek traitor warned the Turks, the Americans, or the Russians of Papandreou’s war plan.

Papandreou had decided the previous January that if he didn’t go on the offensive, the Turks would advance in the Aegean airspace, and on the seabed, taunting his weakness. The US would then overthrow him in Athens, he expected. In the outcome of the battle, there were no casualties. The Turks withdrew their forces without the Greeks firing a shot. Except for the Turkish prime minister, Turgut Ozul – he had to be evacuated to Houston, Texas, suffering from a weak heart. Ozul’s survival was one salvage the Reagan Administration could manage at the time. Papandreou’s agreement to switch on the lights at the Nea Makri communications base was another.



President Ronald Reagan with Prime Minister Turgut Ozal

That victorious episode has not been repeated by any of Turkey’s historical adversaries, including post-Soviet Russia. Igor Sechin, the former deputy to President Vladimir Putin, was a leading advocate of forgetting Russia’s historical lessons for dealing with the Turks, and disdaining to learn new ones. Putin was reluctant to learn them until yesterday.

Here they are:

1. Turkey never makes a military move without getting Pentagon approval first. In order for yesterday’s shoot-down of the Su-24 to take place as it did, a battery of signals intelligence and other electronic warfare means would have been deployed by a joint US-Turkish command unit, giving the Turkish F-16 pilot confidence he was taking the Russian pilot unprepared. It was not, as the Turkish Government has announced, “an automatic response to our airspace being violated” because the airspace was Syrian, unilaterally claimed by the Turks to be their “exclusion zone”. Neither was it, as Putin has announced, a “stab in the back” from the Turks. Nor was it, as Putin added, “despite the agreement we have signed with our American partners to prevent air incidents”. What happened was full frontal – it was because of the agreement the Turks have with the US military command. Nor can Putin have been genuinely surprised that “instead of immediately establishing contacts with us, as far as we know Turkey turned to its NATO partners to discuss this incident.” Had Putin said he suspected that Turkey turned to “its NATO partners” before the “incident”, he would have been closer to the truth.

2. Aggression by Turkey and the US can be defeated by a smaller force, but it must be in constant readiness, employing every form of early warning and disguising its force by surprise. Putin has said the Russian Su-24 was struck by a missile fired by a Turkish F-16 when the Russian aircraft was one kilometre inside the Syrian side of the border. That being true, Russian air defence support for the fighter must have been tracking the Turkish aircraft from the second it started its take-off roll. It ought to have tracked its course upward, and monitored its missile-arming electronics and such fire orders as came from elsewhere. The Russian warning and control operators and the Su-24 crew should have detected the hostile fire-radar, and had the option to jam it. If none of these things was done on the Russian side, alerting the Su-24 crew to their peril, the Russian forces weren’t ready, and the Su-24 was taken by surprise. The consequences cannot be explained by the commander-in-chief telling a visitor – the King of Jordan pretending to call the Russian president his “brother”: “we will never turn a blind eye to such crimes as the one that was committed today.” Blind is the word for it – before, not after.







3. In western Europe, in the Balkans, and in the Middle East the Turks have no durable friend or ally. For Russian strategy not to be ambushed by the Turks, it must have strong allies like Iran, weak ones like Cyprus and Serbia, and vacillating ones like the Bulgarians, and listen to their experience of warfighting with the Turks. It is a waste of breath to try reassuring Ankara that Russia’s “plane and our pilots were in no way a threat to the Turkish Republic in any way.” That’s because the Turks know we know they are threatening, as well as financing the break-up of the Russian Caucasus. It’s because they know Russia is committed to blocking Turkish expansion, and to protecting Shiite Iraq and the Kurds from Turkish attack. If these aren’t the new strategic commitments, then Russia should hasten to withdraw its forces before it falls into more bloody ambushes. If they are the new commitments, then the consequences are as obvious as they are immediate.

All Russians are now at risk if they travel to Turkey, so President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s exclusion zone should stop all Russian flights and all Russian nationals from entering the country.

Time, too, for the Turks to warm their houses and cook their dinners with someone else’s gas.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. liberal

    IMHO Turkey didn’t consult with the US first. It smells of a stupidity that Ergodan would commit.

    I mean, here’s the idiot who apparently didn’t game out the overthrow of Assad, and the likely impact it would have on the Kurds.

  2. timbers

    Great article. It’s implication of how Russia should respond might be:

    Russia should concentrate on protecting it’s fighters near Turkish border and be prepared to protect and respond to head off Turkish aggression, and not directly escalate militarily but instead stay focused on it’s original mission.

    Putin’s past behavior may suggest he will choose a good course not unlike the above, weather he knows of the lesson Helmer describes, or not. Putin is not rash, realizes that while Russia is powerful and has options it is not the only powerful nation and faces constraints as well (if only the US did, too), considers before he moves. Hopefully this will keep him focused on what he wants to achieve in Syria and not get side tracked with Turkey even if it makes him look “weak” in the media. Read that Putin is looking at sealing the Syrian-Turkish border, which would freeze out the biggest influx of trouble makers in Syria. Am thinking Putin should slowly move to freeze out all Western access to Syrian airspace, perhaps with the much discussed S-400’s and another methods.

    Positioning more defensive missiles, jet fighter escorts, and using the radar warning Helmer discusses to deter and preemptively defend against Turkey repeating this incident, is the best corse IMO. It appears Russia is doing at least some of these things from what I’m reading.

    1. mike

      Fair enough assessment; I would not expect a second Russian plan to be shot down! Your right Putin is not rash!

  3. kl

    The West forgot Turkey. We forgot something it never did, that its main role is ultranationalism and ripping off the West.
    Apparently, Russians forgot this too. As a Russian passport offers few travel opportunities, Turkey and Egypt are prime destinations. I see Russian women suck up to Turkish and other middle Eastern men regularly. It’s sad and shows a complete lack of understanding of the Turkish aggression, including enslaving slaves not that any centuries ago (officially) and the extant burgeoning sex slave trade (unofficially) today.

    1. al apaka

      uhhh regarding Russian passports, that is just plain wrong. go to Asia sometime. or Africa.
      the rest of your screed is sad, you’ve obviously got issues with swarthy folks, me senses projection in your focus on Russian women…lose your wife to a raghead, did you?

  4. optimader

    The Turkish radar track is most plausible for a laden SU-24 optimally* collecting altitude and lining up to do an iron bomb run on an Turkmen rebel enclave.
    * to preserve geriatric airframe/powerplant on a meager lineup of deployed aircraft.

    SU-24 not monitoring, or not, radio transmissions from Turkey is plausible if the flight plan intention was to overfly that southern most nib of Turkey on the premise Turkey would not act on a territory incusion.
    If there were F-16s loitering in that area it would imply to me the SU-24 incursion was typical for bombing that particular Turkmen occupied area of Syria.

    It is also plausible (likely that an AtoA missile launched in Turkish airspace caught up w/ the SU-24 in Syrian airspace,

    Based on the sparse factual evidence I know ( and I think that goes for every other poster here including Helmer) It is also plausible the SU-24 pilots didn’t actually know where they were due to GPS navigation displacement error.

    Check Out The Walmart-Grade GPS Systems In These Russian Attack Jets –foxtrotalpha
    Setups like these were not totally uncommon in the late 1990s in some US combat aircraft that still had not received an embedded GPS/INS upgrade, but seeing this in 2015 is a bit startling. They even have what looks like a homemade plastic cradle made for the unit replete with rubber band “hold-back system!”
    What I do know is that I would be feeling bad if I were in a 60’s vintage aluminum coffin that did not detect an IR guided missile to at least have an opportunity to deploy countermeasures.
    Personally I am agnostic about the relationship between Russia and Turkey. If the Russians did cut over turkey to bomb Syrian ethnic Turkmen it was a miscalculation. This raises the game that Puti has to play by orders of magnitude.
    Is Helmer paid by the pixel? He would be more credible with factual backup. Does he have a link to offer that confirms Turkey solicits explicit endorsement for all its moves from the US??? Seems inplausable

    1. timbers

      My guess: Russia would jam the approaching planes, with their nifty jamming thingy the Pentagon is freaking about about. Them maybe shoot the blinded planes down.

      1. ambrit

        Russia can jam, and let the “Novorussians” do the shooting down of military aircraft. Cleaner and fewer political issues.

  5. digi_owl

    Turkey has always been a wild card in NATO. Heck, the reason they are a member at all is that USA needed a standing ground army near the USSR that was not made up of US troops. And turkey had the biggest such after WW2 (and still has the biggest one next to USA within NATO). Their physical location also provided a “second front” deterrent to a land war in Europe.

    Then again while a land war was perhaps a risk during Stalin, afterwards it was more about having a buffer between Russia and Germany than anything else. the Soviet leadership was more worried about a offense from USA than planning some kind of grand takeover of Europe.

  6. Jon

    Turkey is no longer the solid Nato member and unflinching US ally that it was during the Cold War, or indeed even 15 years ago. The AKP government has new friends in the World and is happy play its cards against the EU and US when it chooses. Most like this move was part of Turkey’s soft-on-ISIS/hard-on-PKK-and-other-Kurds playbook and most unlikely to be cleared with the US – though of course playing the Nato membership card after the event makes sense.

  7. Mustafa

    Whenever Russian and Turks are fighting our enemies win. When they come together the history is changing its direction. This the a lesson from the history. There is a saying in Russian ” The Russian-Turkish war from 1877 is a war where we have lost 100 million golden rubles and 100.000 lives and won nothing.” Turkey have lost the Balkans and Cyprus in this very same war. But Atatürk and Lenin made it differently and the course of the history has changed. The battle in Galipoli where Atatürk defeated the super powers at that time the British and French and opened the door for the success of the Soviet revolution in 1917. Then Lenin gave his hand to Atatürk in 1920 and opened the door for the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. This was the end of British and French dominance in the east. Putin and Erdogan have to learn from the history…

  8. likbez

    To me Erdogan and his government more and more look like members of Grey Wolf organization, a copycat of Ukrainian Svoboda with the same level of ultra-nationalism and neofascism in their brains.

    Looks like in several countries we are return to 1930th. Talleyrand complain about the restoration of the monarchy “These people have learned nothing and for­gotten nothing” is perfectly applicable to nationalism Renaissance we experience today. It this an allergic reaction on neoliberalism or may be nationalism is once in a century epidemics that hit mankind to regulate its numbers is unclear to me.

    The sad side of this incident is that will damage Russia economically by increasing economic isolation. so the winner of Peace Novel Price and all neocons around him got a good Thanksgiving present. Or from another point of view Putin’s decision to save Alawite community from extermination by Islamic radicals backfired. No good deed is left unpunished in high politics.

  9. Fiver

    Has anyone considered the possibility this was not Erdogan’s decision – perhaps his son’s oil partners in ISIS had the right connections in the Turkish military, or suppose Uncle Sam just directed Erdogan to ratchet it up or watch his career dissolved by that same military, or maybe something worse, for males.

    It’s not like going after Syria was Erdogan’s idea – he’d had good relations with Assad for years, but he (and everyone else outside and in) was relentlessly pushed from the ‘west’ (yes, no capital ‘W’ earned this century) even as the European portion of it again failed to open for Turkey – the big payoff of Admission to the EU/EZ that is just recently promised yet anew for Turkey, but with events will recede again as the ink dries. So Erdogan cast his lot with Uncle re the ‘Arab Regime Change Spring’ and like the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar, GCC et al, Erdogan took deeply of the sort of Kool Aid that makes bad ideas look good – and so Erdogan got religion in both supporting ISIS by enabling ISIS oil operations and trade in Syria and profiting from it, even while assuring the west it was taking the fight to ISIS.

    This is what they call a ‘fluid’ situation, and I can well imagine other events that place one or more other allied leaders in even worse political jams. The collateral damage this confrontation has already inflicted is stupendous, and being borne by all the wrong people. I’m sure this will give Erdogan plenty of future reasons for him want to flip back to a more pro-Syria, or pro-Russia footing. Or more.

Comments are closed.