By Steven Luber
While international attention has been focused on a contentious NATO Summit and a controversial Trump-Putin meeting, important developments on NATO’s southern flank have been overshadowed. The near 24/7 news coverage of Trump’s statements and the indictment of 12 suspected Russian agents dwarf what may be the even bigger, long-term problem for the alliance: Turkey. Bombastic rhetoric aside, there are yet to be any significant policy shifts towards Russia on the part of the United States. American troops remain forward-deployed in Poland, the Baltic States, and even Germany. The recent meeting between Trump and Putin did not yield any US policy changes towards Ukraine, Syria or elsewhere. Sanctions also remain in place with overwhelming bipartisan Congressional support. Further, Trump’s questioning of whether collective defense should apply to small states like Montenegro does not constitute an official US decision on the matter.
Yet, Turkey (the second largest military in NATO) is increasingly cooperating with Russia on a variety of fronts. Ankara plans to go ahead with the purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems despite objections from other members of the alliance and hints of unspecified “consequences”. General Tod Wolters, NATO Allied Air Commander, told Reuters that this issue places NATO operability at risk. Turkish personnel would have the ability to operate both NATO’s most advanced air platforms (namely the F-35, which Turkish pilots began training on in June) and the defense systems most likely to oppose them. Should Ankara make an overt defense realignment toward Russia, this could be catastrophic for the alliance. According to Wolters, “anything that an S-400 can do that affords it the ability to better understand a capability like the F-35 is certainly not to the advantage of the coalition”. These concerns were amplified when Turkish state media specifically boasted that the system is capable of shooting down American aircraft.
Turkey has also been actively working with Russia (and Iran) to create de-escalation zones in Syria, effectively “elbowing out” US influence in the conflict. Disputes between Washington and Ankara over the role of Kurdish militias in northern Syria are the most immediate cause of this rift, a divide that is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Mitat Celikpala, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, commented that, unlike the US, “[Russia and Turkey] managed to compartmentalize issues”, citing divisions such as “the divided island of Cyprus and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea”.
Additionally, Moscow-Ankara cooperation has expanded into the economic arena. As both Turkish and Russian state media attest, revitalizing economic ties are a shared priority, an important step in normalizing relations after Turkey shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 in November 2015. Turkish analyst Şahin Yaman told Sputnik that “In line with the overall reorientation of the global economy’s shifting center of the gravity away from the major OECD economies towards East Asia, Turkey has been calibrating its trade policies not only in enhancing and diversifying its goods and services exports but also looking for gradual geo-economic risk diversification and re-alignment”. Whereas Turkey was previously pursuing a foreign policy oriented toward Western integration, it is now looking to diversify, to increase ties to the East. In line with this thinking, Russia has been helping Turkey to develop its civil nuclear industry and Erdogan has met with the Russia and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, expressing official interest in joining.
For its part, the West has done little to court Turkey back toward its camp. This is largely due to Turkey’s increasingly illiberal domestic environment, which includes the arresting of journalists, purging government agencies of dissenters, and elections which further consolidate Erdogan’s power. These developments are compounded by the renaissance of Turkish ultranationalism, which has already had measurable impacts on national politics. Contrary to expectations, Erdogan seems to have made arrangements with the ultranationalists, who previously were largely opposed to his government.
Of the twenty-two world leaders who attended Erdogan’s swearing-in ceremony, NATO was represented only by Hungary’s Victor Orban and Bulgaria’s Rumen Radev, reflecting an additional intra-NATO rift. Both leaders have expressed frustration with Brussels’ leadership and are at odds over mandatory migration quotas and other issues. Orban in particular is a proponent of the conservative values laid out by Visegrad Group, a group of East-Central European states, which also includes Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. This group fosters economic, political, and defense cooperation in parallel with existing EU and NATO structures, manifesting in such projects as the Three Seas Initiative, the V4 EU Battlegroup, and joint border control efforts. It may strike some readers as odd that a largely Christian and nationalist coalition would have sympathy for Erdogan’s Turkey, but shared interest in halting illegal migration, combating terrorism, curtailing transnational organized crime, and maintaining regional stability result in a common cause, of sorts.
It is certainly understandable that Trump’s statements regarding Russia have been met with a media storm, but careful observers must not disregard Russia’s developing relationship with this other key member of the alliance. A multifaceted coalition like NATO must contend with many differing security priorities and focusing on one leader’s antics risks overlooking the interests of others. It is too early to tell what Turkey’s long-term relations with the rest of the alliance will be, but Western capitals should heed these warning signs or else risk losing one of the coalition’s most powerful members.