A group of Turkish businessmen closely linked to the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan conned Ukrainian officials out of $5 million in an apparent scheme that involved false promises of the sale of military equipment.
When it was exposed to the public in a complaint filed by Ukraine's arms procurement representative in Turkey, the Erdoğan government resorted to the familiar tactic of stalling, similar to what it has done in recent years in other politically sensitive cases.
The fraud case is the latest example of the Erdoğan government "sandbagging" efforts to effectively investigate criminal conduct when the investigation implicates senior government officials or members of the ruling Islamist elite or their associates.
The fraud was made public when the Ukrainian official in charge of arms procurement in Turkey filed a complaint with the police and prosecutor's office in Ankara on April 7, 2022. Vladimir Krakovetsky, officially the Ukrainian Interior Ministry's director of public relations, reported that his government was defrauded by several people closely linked to the Erdoğan government.
Stating that he was tasked by Kiev with procuring military, defense, logistical and humanitarian supplies from Turkey, Krakovetsky noted that he works with the Ukrainian Embassy in Ankara to meet the demands of his government. The scheme to defraud the Ukrainian government appears to have been planned by Murat Özvardar, a pro-Erdoğan businessman whose wife works for Turkish intelligence, and his associates.
According to the complaint filed by Krakovetsky, Özvardar was the first Turk who contacted the embassy on March 4, stating that he would supply the arms and provisions that were listed on the embassy's website as goods needed in Ukraine. Özvardar's communication was followed by an email sent to the embassy by his associate, Koray Altınel, who said he would supply the necessary articles to Ukraine and gave Özvardar's name as a reference. Altınel is involved in multiple companies that are in the business of selling arms and defense materiel.
The initial deal was to provide body armor and protective helmets for Ukrainian troops. Altınel promised that they would be delivered to the client in Poland in a week. Later, he offered to sell arms and took Krakovetsky to the basement of a building where he showed off guns of various calibers including sniper rifles. The two talked about delivering the weapons to Ukraine as well.
The next day, Krakovetsky had lunch with Altınel, Özvardar and their associates including an unnamed person who worked at the Ministry of Family and Social Affairs. During the meeting Krakovetsky was told there was a misunderstanding about the donation by the group in Georgia and was informed that Ukraine needed to pay for the shipment of arms and military goods.
Disappointed, Krakovetsky told them he did not have that kind of money and that any agreement needed to be dealt with at the intergovernmental level. He updated his superiors in Kyiv on the developments.
But Ukraine was in desperate need to procure such supplies and racing against time to obtain military and defense articles. When Altınel called Krakovetsky for a meeting on March 6 and offered to deliver arms, body armor and helmets for $5 million, he found a receptive audience. He also stated that Turkish intelligence, the Interior Ministry and the government's top procurement agency, the Presidency of the Defense Industry, all had approved the sale and transfer. With a green light from Kyiv, Krakovetsky transferred the money to accounts provided by Altınel in several installments.
After receiving the funds, Altınel wanted to sell more military goods to Krakovetsky and initially took him to a company that produced drones. The company representative said they had 2,700 kamikaze drones that were manufactured for Azerbaijan and were willing to ship them to Poland for delivery to Ukraine if needed. Altınel also arranged site visits for several other Turkish defense contractors that were willing to sell arms, including sniper rifles, to Ukraine.
With all the meetings and visits to arms factories, Krakovetsky was convinced that Altınel was a man whom he could deal with. Altınel also helped Krakovetsky bring his and his fiancé's family members to Turkey and settled them in an apartment in Antalya. Some of the family members did not have passports, so Altınel called the Turkish Embassy in Warsaw to arrange travel papers for them.
However, no deliveries were made after a month had passed from the original deal despite the pledge of a shipment within a week, prompting Ukrainian concern about fraud. The Ukrainian government held Krakovetsky responsible for the deal, and he was desperately trying to contact Altınel and get the money back.
Altınel could not be reached.
Krakovetsky had to go to the financial crimes unit of the Ankara police department as well as the prosecutor's office to file a complaint against Altınel, Özvardar and their accomplices. The police and prosecutor did not immediately act on the complaint and sat on it until the issue was raised at bilateral government meetings.
On April 22 the police detained Altınel and others but did not take Özvardar into custody. All the detainees were quickly released. Özvardar was detained only after the complaint was made public and Özvardar's name was mentioned as an accomplice. But as anticipated, he was also let go after a brief detention and statement.
No progress in the case has been recorded since and no indictment was issued for any of the suspects. In his interviews, Özvardar denied any wrongdoing and claimed he just wanted to help Ukraine. His only role was to introduce Capt. Dmytro Filip, the naval attaché at the Ukrainian Embassy, to a business colleague named Mehmet Dağlar, a defense contractor and suspect in the case. He said Filip leased an apartment from him in Ankara and sought his help.
This is not the first time Özvardar was accused of committing a crime, however. He was prosecuted over a cocaine drug bust in 1988. Last year Nordic Monitor reported that he was allegedly involved in plundering the wealth and assets of Syrians in territories under the control of the Turkish military and its proxies. He dismantled factories in the industrial zone and relocated them to Turkey through his companies, pocketing profits on the back of the Turkish government's occupation of north and northwest Syria.
He operates in multiple sectors, from construction and furniture to energy and appliances. His Twitter profile photo pictures him sitting at a desk with the Ottoman state insignia behind him. In April 2020 he posted a picture with Interior Minister Soylu, who controls the Turkish army-occupied areas with governors his ministry appoints and runs local security and civil governance.
Özvardar made the headlines in 2017 when he married Hande Fırat, who was earlier identified as a MIT operative by Nordic Monitor, expanding his network in the government. Fırat works as a journalist for CNN Türk, a government propaganda media outlet under government control.
Fırat's frequent visits to MIT headquarters were exposed in court records, and her role in a 2016 coup attempt with a staged interview of Erdoğan on FaceTime was revealed to be part of a false flag operation planned by intelligence. While speaking wth Erdoğan on the phone, an incoming call on the screen showed she was called by intel agency head Hakan Fidan's right-hand man.
The fraud case with respect to Ukraine does not appear to be a solid investigation and prosecution that would actually result in punishing the perpetrators because it involved people close to the Erdoğan government. Turkish prosecutor Ali Ağaçtan, who is investigating the allegations, has not yet drafted an indictment.
In similar cases in the past the Erdoğan government allowed investigations and judicial proceedings to move forward only in a very controlled environment to paint a false picture that the government was cracking down on criminal elements when in fact it was doing nothing but whitewashing wrongdoing or helping criminals go free with a slap on the wrist.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.