Renewed Turkish-Russian ties are not disadvantageous for NATO, nor need they suggest Ankara is distancing itself from NATO
In the 21st century, NATO-Russian competition is more of a geopolitical contest than an ideological, Cold War remnant. On the one hand, as explained by the Warsaw Summit Communiqué, NATO’s threat perceptions from Russia primarily emanate from violations of sovereign borders by force, first and foremost Crimea-Ukraine, and large-scale snap military exercises near NATO borders, coupled with Moscow’s aggressive nuclear and military rhetoric. These threat perceptions of the Alliance have been fueled by Russia’s non-linear – or hybrid – warfare concepts in Ukraine. In response, NATO openly voiced its concerns at the 2014 Wales Summit, and initiated the Readiness Action Plan, which is recognized as the most important collective defense reinforcement since the end of the Cold War.
On the other hand, the Russian military doctrine (2014) describes NATO and its enlargement as the number one “external military danger”. In fact, Moscow’s threat perception is augmented by its “near abroad” concept. Modern Russian strategic thinking places utmost geopolitical importance on its surrounding regions – near abroad – from the Baltics to the South Caucasus, and tends to define its immediate surroundings as the sphere of privileged interests, or sphere of influence. In this respect, some experts even claimed that Russia’s recent military interventions, being in line with its geopolitical concept, aim to pursue a renewed Yalta Conference status quo with the West.
Understanding Turkey’s key importance for NATO
In the absence of the above-mentioned analytical framework as a starting point, any international assessments on Turkey would be unrealistic and politically biased. The determining references of geopolitics are mainly based on realpolitik and balance of power. Turkey’s role in contemporary international affairs should be seen through this lens.
Geostrategist Nicholas Spykman underlines a crucial point: “If the three land masses of the Old World can be brought under the control of a few states and so organized that large unbalanced forces are available for pressure across the ocean fronts, the Americas will be politically and strategically encircled.” Notably, the U.S. Joint Operating Environment-2035 report quotes Spykman’s above analysis verbatim, and draws attention to “antagonistic geopolitical balancing” and “shattered and reordered regions” among the key contexts of future conflict in coming decades.
In other words, pivot nations “in the three land masses of the Old World” are invaluable and very hardly replaceable, such as Japan and South Korea in the Far East, and Britain in Europe. Within this understanding, Turkey is no exception.
The outcome of the Warsaw Summit suggests that, geographically, three regional flashpoints come into the picture as the possible confrontation lines between NATO and Russia: The Baltics, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Black Sea. Of these three flashpoints, Turkey remains a key actor in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, where Ankara has special national interests and is able to project considerable power. Furthermore, Turkey’s contribution to NATO’s new defense and security concepts are crucial for the alliance as well. In this regard, Turkey is expected to assume the framework nation role in forming the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force – NATO’s spearhead asset against hybrid threats – and plays a crucial role in the Alliance’s missile defense architecture, and will become an even more important player in confronting future chemical and biological warfare threats that are likely to stem from the Middle East. Besides, Turkey has the potential to function as a critical link between NATO and its Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative partners, which are key assets in fostering the Alliance’s cooperative security and soft power leverages against radical extremism.
Turkish-Russian restoration in the NATO context: Between two flanks
Restoration of Turkish-Russian bilateral ties is not a disadvantage for NATO, nor does it necessarily suggest that Turkey is distancing itself from the Alliance. Rather, it could pave the way for more effective NATO-Russian cooperation in the southern flank for addressing ISIS (Daesh) and the foreign fighter threats – the latter is especially a menacing issue for Russia – while Moscow is likely to remain a competitor on the eastern flank, notably in the Baltics. As a matter of fact, when commenting on the rapprochement between Turkey and Russia on the occasion of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, U.S. State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau emphasized the common goal of confronting ISIS in Syria. Thus, the high-level visit to St. Petersburg by President Erdogan could signal a possible compartmentalization in NATO-Russian relations, namely pragmatic cooperation against the threat of violent extremism on NATO’s southern flank, along with collective defense-related competition on the eastern flank.
According to media reports, the two leaders also talked about cooperating on defense issues at the St. Petersburg meeting. It should be understood that it is unlikely for Turkey to seek an alternative to its traditional defense ties with the West. Yet, a critical issue seems back on the table again: Turkey has long had unmet defense priorities. Firstly, technology transfer has had top urgency in Ankara’s procurement policies. And secondly, due to the ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) warheads threat at Turkey’s Middle Eastern doorstep, Ankara has perennially been in need of defensive strategic weapons support from NATO, such as the Patriot deployments. In both cases, Turkey has been facing disappointments.
At this point, a new NATO procurement project might bring hope. At the time of writing, the U.S. State Department approved an arms sales program in which NATO would be the lead buyer of advanced weapon systems from the U.S, and would act as a pooling source for member nations to reach advanced weapons with cost efficiency. Currently, a $231 million sale of high-tech systems to the NATO Support and Procurement Agency – for distribution to Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Spain – is awaiting Congress’ approval. Without a doubt, it remains to be seen that the new U.S.-NATO acquisition model would extend to co-production options in the future. Yet, related to this new acquisition model, any significant progress in NATO’s Smart Defense Initiative, especially based on the 2012 Chicago Summit decisions, could be helpful in addressing Turkey’s concerns.
Turkey’s strategic agenda
Above all, it should be understood that Turkish foreign and defense policies are not only shaped by fluctuations in the conjuncture. Rather, Ankara follows its own geostrategic perspective in several key issues. For instance, Turkey will resume nuclear energy projects with Russia, not as a shift in its foreign policy directions, but in accordance with the long-pursued strategic priority of diversifying its energy portfolio. Besides, high-level energy projects such as the Turkish Stream could be resumed as well, reflecting Turkey’s strategic objective of becoming a hub. Yet Ankara will not change its policies in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, will keep boosting its political-military alliance with Azerbaijan, and has been maintaining a position in Syria that is at odds with the Kremlin. In all of these geopolitical disputes, Russia and Turkey have diverging perspectives. Likewise, Turkey will not withdraw from its NATO commitments that are un-welcomed by Moscow, such as contributing to the Baltic Air Policing (the NATO air defense scrambling mission to protect Baltic airspace), or framing the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. Yet, the Turkish administration will most likely preserve Turkey’s traditional Montreux priorities when handling NATO’s Black Sea policies.
Notably, NATO cooperated with Russia in Afghanistan. On July 13 of this year, the Alliance even held a Russia-NATO Council meeting, something which was suspended in 2014 due to the Ukraine crisis. Thus, from a NATO standpoint, under a compartmentalized fashion between the eastern and southern flanks, Turkish-Russian rapprochement could even be productive in confronting ISIS in Syria, and mitigating the risk of military escalation such as last November’s Su-24 incident.