Disappointment with Turkey’s willing rapprochement with Russia is growing in the western capitals and in Kyiv. It had been hoped that the Ukraine war would make Erdoğan reconsider his romance with Putin. Erdogan forgets: Sweden was one of the few countries that had kept Turkey’s hopes of EU membership alive.
It is widely believed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought a new sense of purpose, vigor and unity to NATO. This does not seem to have gotten through to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey’s president blocked NATO expansion last month, warned of a new offensive against US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria and fueled conflict with ally Greece.
Individual experts in both the West and Turkey are now discussing whether NATO and Turkey should go their separate ways. And this time they are not alone. “Leaving NATO should be considered as an alternative,” said Devlet Bahçeli, leader of a nationalist party in Erdoğan’s coalition. “We didn’t come into being because of NATO, and we won’t perish without NATO.”
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Disappointment with Turkey’s willing rapprochement with Russia is also growing in the western capitals and in Kyiv. It had been hoped that the Ukraine war would prompt Erdoğan to reconsider his romance with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Instead, opportunism prevails. Turkey has sold armed drones to Ukraine and blocked access to the Black Sea for Russian warships, but opposes Western sanctions against Russia and openly courts Russian capital. According to a report in the Turkish media, dozens of Russian companies, including Gazprom, are planning to move their European headquarters to Turkey.
Apart from a few warning words at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Turkey has always maintained good relations with Russia. During a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Ankara this month, his Turkish counterpart sympathetically suggested an easing of Western sanctions against Russia should Russia lift its blockade of Ukrainian ports. And when Lavrov again claimed that Russia would invade Ukraine to rid it of neo-Nazis, his host remained silent.
Erdoğan’s blockade of Sweden and Finland joining NATO has further damaged Turkey’s standing in the alliance. The ruler signaled that he wants the Nordic countries to extradite several members of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and to lift a partial arms embargo on his country. He could also demand concessions from the US to lift his veto, or from Russia to the contrary. Erdoğan occasionally reveals his fundamental rejection of NATO expansion. In a recent op-ed piece for The Economist, he went so far as to chide Finland and Sweden for adding an “unnecessary item” to the NATO agenda with their bid for membership.
Erdoğan may have felt that a few foreign crises were necessary to distract Turkish voters from their drastically declining living conditions: a raging inflation rate, which is officially stated to be over 70 percent, is eating up people’s savings and wages. At the end of May, the President warned of a new military offensive against Kurdish troops in Syria. He had to put these plans on hold – presumably against the resistance of Russia or America or both countries. Since then he has directed his anger against Greece and has called for the demilitarization of the Greek islands off Turkey’s west coast. He also claimed that American bases in Greece pose a threat to Turkey (which itself has American forces stationed there).
All this seems to be just momentary din. But the blocking of Finnish and Swedish NATO membership while war rages on in Europe is bound to have consequences, even if Erdoğan relents. Sweden was one of the few countries that had kept Turkey’s hopes for membership of the European Union alive. This support has now expired.
Erdoğan seems willing to pay that price if the dispute fuels his nationalist base. A majority of Turkish politicians, as well as many citizens of Turkey, view the PKK solely as a security threat and have long criticized the West for not taking their concerns about the movement seriously. They are particularly angry about the US decision to join forces with the Syrian wing of the PKK to overthrow the Islamic State caliphate.
Westerners now believe that Turkey is largely responsible for the emergence of the PKK because it denies the country’s Kurds the rights they demand. From this they also conclude that Erdoğan’s classification in the category “terrorist” is not reliable. By applying this label to thousands of people – including bureaucrats, academics, peaceful protesters and Kurdish politicians – whom Erdoğan often put in the same prisons as armed militants, he has debased the term as well as Turkish currency.
There will probably never be an agreement between Turkey and the West on this matter. Both Erdoğan’s taunts and his claim that the West, not Russia, is the biggest threat to his country will only exacerbate the problem. According to a recent survey, 65% of Turks express their distrust of NATO, although 60% approve of belonging to this alliance.
Nevertheless, the relationship between Turkey and NATO is not doomed to fail. The western countries will try to overturn the Turkish veto by assuring Finland and Sweden security guarantees. This could marginalize Turkey within the alliance. But Turkey’s withdrawal or exclusion from NATO remains a dream of the future.
As Ben Hodges, a former commander of US forces in Europe, points out, Turkey is on the front lines of the Syrian war and in close proximity to other conflicts in the Middle East. It also controls access to the Black Sea, the center of recent Russian warfare, and serves as a corridor for trade between Central Asia and Europe, particularly in the energy sector. “I don’t even want to imagine NATO without Turkey,” he adds.
Particularly in the wake of the Russian war in Ukraine, Turkey has no interest in relinquishing the deterrent power that NATO membership gives it. “I don’t think it will ever happen,” said Tacan Ildem, Turkey’s former permanent representative to NATO. There is no convincing alternative, he explains. Even without Erdoğan, Turkey is likely to continue to cause headaches for the alliance. However, there are worries that NATO must continue to live with.
The article first appeared in The Economist entitled “Is Turkey more trouble to NATO than it is worth?” and was translated by Cornelia Zink.
The original of this article “Erdoğan cuddles with Putin and becomes a ticking time bomb for NATO” comes from The Economist.