Turkey’s NATO approach neither pro nor anti-Russia
Turkey became the first NATO member to sign a missile defense deal with Russia back in 2017. It is also in close cooperation with Moscow in Syria, carrying out cross-border military operations in the war-torn country, where the US and its Kurdish-led partners seek to limit Russian and Turkish influence.
Turkey is criticized for cooperating with Russia against NATO interests and for softening the harsh language used within the Western security pact to condemn Moscow. Ankara also used its veto power to weaken NATO’s official condemnation of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko after he forced a Ryanair passenger plane to land in Minsk in order to arrest Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist who was on board. Turkey’s move to water down the reaction from NATO was interpreted as the latest case of collusion between Turkey and Russia to undermine the 30-member alliance.
Belarus, a former Soviet state, is closely allied with Russia and receives strong support from Turkey within NATO. During an interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant on Monday, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei confirmed that Ankara opposed stronger action by NATO and stated: “We are grateful to Turkey for such a position. We have absolutely close, friendly relations with this country.”
From Ankara’s perspective, its decisions in NATO aim to balance its relationship with Russia. Moscow and Ankara managed to bring their diplomatic ties back from the brink after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in 2015 — making it the only NATO country to have done so. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated this week that NATO is powerful only with Turkey as a member. Without Ankara, the alliance would not be strong, he said.
His remarks came ahead of the alliance’s summit in mid-June, when the NATO 2030 report and regional and global conflicts will be discussed. Erdogan will, on the margins of the summit, also hold bilateral talks with US President Joe Biden. Washington needs to consider Turkey’s geopolitical standing, as well as its military and political clout, if it aims to contain Russian influence in the region through strengthening NATO. The upcoming summit is considered to be an opportunity for Turkey and its partners within the alliance to ensure a balanced policy against Russia.
Ahead of the summit, Moscow has stated that it is prepared to discuss with NATO the aspects of its foreign policy the alliance finds worrisome. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated: “If somebody sees some far-reaching dangerous designs in Russia’s stance, we are prepared to discuss this. Regrettably, NATO is not.”
The members of the alliance are becoming more aware of the challenges and threats Russia poses to the North Atlantic region. Russian influence is active in Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet countries that work closely with NATO and suffer the direct impact of Russian aggression. They aspire to join NATO in the future.
As a NATO member, Turkey places great importance on its relationships with Ukraine and Georgia. Ukraine is a long-standing NATO advocate and a pro-Western former Soviet state in a contested region. Therefore, it is also of strategic importance to Turkey, which has stepped up its efforts to boost ties with Kiev. Turkey, which faces Ukraine and Russia across the Black Sea, also sold drones to Kiev in 2019 and pledged support to it amid a buildup of Russian forces along its border. In addition, Erdogan has given his support to Ukraine’s bid for membership of NATO.
From Ankara’s perspective, its decisions in NATO aim to balance its relationship with Russia.
Lavrov recently warned Turkey against what he described as attempts to fuel “militaristic sentiment” in Ukraine after Ankara moved to boost cooperation with Kiev. Meanwhile, Russia is enforcing an ongoing tourism ban on Turkey. Although Moscow says the decision is related to coronavirus disease cases in Turkey, many have interpreted the decision as being linked to the recent escalation between Moscow and Ukraine. The last time Russia imposed this sanction on Turkey was when relations collapsed following the 2015 incident.
Ankara, along with the rest of NATO, criticized Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and voiced support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity as Kiev’s forces battled pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country. Moscow’s desire to turn the Black Sea into a Russian lake is a direct threat to US and NATO security interests, as well as Turkey’s. The upcoming NATO summit is considered to be a good chance to discuss initiatives regarding the Black Sea.
Turkey is aware of its position within NATO, but it has also come to terms with the fact that it can’t trust its alliance partners to balance their approach to Russia. Thus, it implements its own policy toward countries such as Ukraine and Georgia to limit Russian influence without military aggression and Western support. It neither acts for or against Russia within NATO, as many claim. It pursues a policy of balancing its interests with Russia, from Syria to Ukraine.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz