(Image Credit: Vitaly V. Kuzmin)
When Turkey joined NATO back in 1952 it did so alongside Greece, its primordial enemy. The aim was to constrain their historical hostility and to box in an expanding Soviet Union. The latter objective was met. Turkey and Greece were inherently anti-communist but lacked the arms to fend off a power-hungry Kremlin. NATO was concerned about Soviet expansion and sought to limit their influence. The admittance of Turkey and Greece was thus beneficial for both the existing members and the new entrants. But the idea that NATO would naturally improve Greco-Turkish relations has proven naïve. Their relations have only worsened. Worse still, Turkey has turned into a frequent and unprovoked aggressor toward member-states and non-member states alike. There is no question that Turkey is using NATO as a platform for pursuing its national interests, while actively undermining the treaty organization at the same time.
NATO seems content to allow all of this. Where Greece cries out for arbitration, NATO does nothing. Where France explodes with anger at Turkish aggression, NATO sits on its hands. It doesn’t matter how egregious the violation, or how dangerous the excursion is – NATO refuses to do anything to tangibly discipline Turkey, and Turkey continues on as it has. For an alliance so critical to the well-being of Europe, and indeed, the entire international system, this do-nothing attitude is foolish. Turkey behaves like a super villain, only temporarily making nice with the heroes, all the while hatching its own secret plans to exploit the alliance and later turn on it. Anyone can see this, so why is this behavior excused? The answer lies in Turkey’s strategic position.
Geographically speaking, Turkey is immaculately placed. It has access to both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean; its borders touch part of eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia; it has critical relations with major players in each; and it is practicing a policy of strategic depth. Given its defensive clout, Turkey can be an irreplaceable ally or horrifying enemy, depending on its policy. It is for this reason that NATO is hesitant. It is deathly afraid of a Turkish defection, which would lead to it joining a menacing cast of anti-western powers. But does appeasement of Turkey here truly make sense? As it stands, Turkey doesn’t even need to defect; it need only be duplicitous to have its cake and eat it too.
The last year and a half marked another lengthy spell of outrageous Turkish action. Chief among its acts of defiance, obtrusiveness and outright aggression were its meddling in the Mediterranean, brinkmanship with France, and unbelievable purchase of an anti-aircraft missile system from Russia. This all occurred in the midst of EU outcry and NATO member-state protestation, but neither was sufficient to make Turkey abandon course. Its offenses continue.
Turkish ships were recently found on the Greek continental shelf preparing to drill for energy resources. It is notable that these waters were legally awarded to Greece by the UN, making this a violation of sovereignty on top of what is an outright grab for resources. Turkey, ignoring international consensus and calls for it to relent, decided to dispute these waters and trigger a naval standoff, culminating in Turkish threats of war. It was the US that scrambled, not NATO, and that took action to get behind Greece, and that is perhaps most worrying. NATO’s strength has always been anchored in the hyper-activity and hyper-defense spending of the United States. But with the US becoming increasingly isolationist under the Donald Trump administration, NATO will need to begin acting as a singular and purposeful entity, rather than a US proxy, to maintain peace. So far it shows no signs of doing that.
Cyprus, suffering a similar scenario to the one in Greece, has called for the EU to levy sanctions on Turkey.Greece has echoed this sentiment. But Germany, a major player in both the EU and NATO, has told both countries that sanctions will not be forthcoming. Germany fears that doing so will stiffen Turkish resolve to be disruptive and contrarian. The irony here is that a similar logic was applied to Germany not even a century ago. There is probably not a direct equivalence between these two contexts, but the logic of appeasement remains as doubtful now as it was then.
Perhaps one can be ruthless and minimize the pleading of Cyprus on the basis of it not being a NATO member. But Greece certainly is. Turkish fighter jets triggered a dogfight with a Greek pilot resulting in his death, yet all NATO did was offer verbal condemnations. How can this be when NATO’s own mission statement compels it to defend attacked member-states? There is no doubt whatsoever that Turkey is more important than Greece in terms of pure strategic value, but this logic of appeasement could eventually force NATO to construct a policy for dealing with two member-states at war. The fact that this is even a possibility points to a need to deeply question and scrutinize Turkey’s membership, before that point of no return is crossed.
Nor is the risk of that line being crossed present in only the Mediterranean. This June saw tensions between Turkey and France reach a boiling point:
The incident unfolded quickly in the eastern Mediterranean on June 10, when a French frigate under NATO command tried to inspect a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship suspected of smuggling arms to Libya in violation of a U.N. embargo. The French armed forces ministry, speaking on behalf of the government, said the frigate was harassed by three Turkish navy vessels escorting the cargo ship. A Turkish ship flashed its radar lights and its crew put on bulletproof vests and stood behind their light weapons, it said.
Turkey’s two-facedness is abundantly clear in this incident. Their ambassador to France claimed that the above was a misunderstanding and that the vessels were helping to enforce the embargo, not sneaking arms in. What are the implications of Turkish boldness extending to even a nuclear power such as France? What are we to make of NATO refusing to take action even when a founding and central member-state is threatened? France defected from NATO once before and is expressing great frustration with the treaty organization again under Macron. It is not rational, at all, to go to such lengths to maintain a renegade member at the expense of a truly committed one. It is only a matter of time before member-states resolve to fight the Turkish aggressor or to defect from NATO and seek the safeguarding of their interests, independently or elsewhere.
But the most appalling act taken on part of Turkey so far was the purchase of the S-400 anti-aircraft system from Russia. It must be stressed that this purchase was more than just symbolically problematic, because the missile system actively undermines the security of many member-states and NATO as a whole. The biggest risk is that the missile system could learn to find and shoot down the F-35 stealth fighter jet. Since the US is such a major supplier and user of this stealth fighter, this should have been taken as an overtly hostile act toward the United States. Instead, Trump excused the purchase and justified it as warranted due to Obama-era policies. Legislation calling for sanctions on Turkey as a result of this purchase has stalled due to Trump’s opposition to them and affinity for Erdogan.
The second layer to this problem has to do with the fact that it deepens relations between Turkey and Russia, while increasing Turkish reliance on the latter. It has long been a strategic objective of Russia’s to undermine NATO. The sale of the S-400 system does much toward that end. Tensions have boiled over between Turkey and NATO member-states as a result of it, it has fostered a divide between the US congress and president, and Turkey finds itself accumulating greater independence from NATO through the system itself and its many acts of strategic defiance. Day by day Turkey looks less like an ally and more like an enemy.
Despite all of this, the problem of Turkey has not been discussed in NATO since the end of 2019. Not even the S-400 purchase has been discussed since then. As it stands, NATO seems impotent without a major power such as the US or Germany using it as a proxy. If the organization cannot act independently of these large powers, and in unison as one willful collective of its many member-states, it will continue to be undermined going forward. NATO must acquire teeth of its own and develop methods for tangibly dealing with member-states that violate its rules, policies and values. Something must be done about Turkey. A policy of continuing appeasement is unacceptable.
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