Erdogan's NATO Divorce

For Vladimir Putin, recent events in Turkey should inspire a lot of confidence. But for everyone else, the alarm bells have been ringing for quite some time. 

The cracks emerging between Turkey and nearly all of its western allies have created an opening for Russia to drive another wedge between the members of traditionally stable European institutions. As Turkey devolves into autocracy, European leaders struggle to balance their condemnation of the Turkish domestic political environment with the need to maintain diplomatic relations in light of Turkey’s strategic value as a partner. 


Following the failed coup last July, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s continued purge of political opponents throughout the government has diplomatic relations between the European Union and Turkey at an all time low. The purges have fueled tensions inside NATO after a number of Turkish military officers were imprisoned, abruptly depriving NATO headquarters of a stable and continuous military liaison to Ankara. There’s also the rapidly diverging Western and Turkish strategies for containing the war in Syria. 

The United States has long supported and fought alongside Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq, and recently announced the expansion of a program to provide military equipment and weapons to newly partnered Kurdish YPG fighters working to oust ISIS from its strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul. This runs directly counter to Turkey’s position on the YPG, an arm of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), considered by Turkey to be a terrorist organization responsible for decades-long hostilities.

Then there is the escalating rhetoric between Turkey and Germany. While vacationing in Spain, a Turkish-born German national was arrested earlier this month by Spanish law enforcement stemming from an Interpol warrant in his name. Although the basis for the warrant, which was issued by Turkey nearly four years ago, has not been revealed, the man was a vocal critic of the Erdogan government, and his requested extradition to Turkey was later denied by Spanish authorities. The arrest and subsequent extradition demands have sparked fears within the western community that Turkey may be using the international law enforcement agency to hunt down political opponents far outside Turkey’s borders. 

The degrading political environment inside Turkey, and the increasingly aggressive actions toward its allies have put NATO and EU leaders in a bind. As an institution predicated on the cohesion of its members against an external threat, what do you do when someone inside the alliance goes rogue?

Turkey’s slow pullback has been years in the making, owing to the multi-dimensional proxy war being fought in Syria, fallout from the agreement between the EU and Turkey to address the flood of Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict, and the increasing instability following the failed coup.

At the height of the crisis, Turkey agreed to accept the return of refugees displaced by the conflict who were attempting to enter the EU from the Turkish border. In exchange, Turkey would receive $6.6 billion in aid and enjoy visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. Many hoped that this arrangement would further negotiations on Turkish accession into the EU, but growing concerns over the extent of Erdogan’s post-coup retaliation have obliterated that possibility. Turkish officials have rejected the criticism, saying that the government is simply doing what any other would in the event of a failed hostile takeover. Furthermore, Erdogan’s representatives insist that European leaders should have been more forcefully supportive of its government last July.

Although negotiations have dragged on for years, Turkey’s aspirations for membership are not fully shared by the rest of the eurozone. Turkey has long occupied a cultural grey area between not-quite-Europe-but-definitely-not-Asia, a sentiment compounded by its physical distance from Brussels. And despite its earnest pursuit of membership in European institutions, there is a palpable reluctance on the European side; always eager to strengthen economic ties, political leaders have nevertheless managed to hold Turkey’s full citizenship in the European experiment just out of reach.

The reluctance of Europe to fulfill its part of the agreement in light of the deteriorating situation in Ankara and elsewhere has reinforced Erdogan’s view that Turkey remains a junior member whose interests are not being taken seriously by its European partners. 

If Turkey decides to split from NATO, it will put Russia in a much stronger position to advance its interests on a number of issues. Namely, a Russia-aligned Turkey in opposition to NATO puts the Black Sea in serious jeopardy. 

Russia’s continued support of the breakaway Abkhaz region in western Georgia places valuable coastline under its control. The annexation of Crimea, home to the Russian Black Sea naval fleet at Sevastopol, secures Russia’s only year-round warm water sea port. The unofficial border of South Ossetia, the other breakaway region with Russian military backing, continues to expand deep into the center of Georgia, threatening to cut it in half. 

To Georgia’s south, the Shia Crescent consisting of Iran, northern Iraq (under de facto Iranian control), and Syria effectively surrounds Georgia, while blocking US forces from the south coming out of Iraq. At this point, the discussion on Georgian admission to NATO becomes moot; NATO forces, which would have to travel through an entirely hostile Black Sea region, would not even be capable of responding to an attack by Russia without Turkey’s explicit military support.

Photo by wikimedia / CC BY 4.0

For Putin, there’s a powerful case to be made to Erdogan in favor of turning against Turkey’s Western allies. If Erdogan is to be convinced that he gains little from NATO membership, Putin will likely seek to exploit the cultural divide between Turkey and western European nations, and highlight the commonalities between Turkey and Russia as an alternative. Both nations have an arms-length relationship with European institutions, relationships that are often predicated on financial gain or military value rather than true inclusion. Both nations are strategically critical to addressing a host of pressing international issues, either by geography and circumstance or through concerted efforts to become indispensable, as in the case of Russia’s involvement in Syria.

There is also some basis for an emotional, and much more effective, appeal to renegotiating Turkey’s relationship with the West. Putin is notoriously paranoid about conspiracies to undermine him domestically. He despises being lectured about the importance of independent democratic institutions, and deeply resents being shunned by the wider international community. Erdogan may prove be highly sympathetic to this position given recent events. 

Negotiations for accession into the European Union are completely dead, meaning Erdogan no longer needs to pay lip service to the governing and economic reforms necessary to continue the pursuit of membership. The promise of billions of dollars in aid to Turkey in exchange for its absorption of Syrian refugees has failed to materialize, leaving Turkey bitter and suspicious that it has been duped and left holding the bag on the refugee crisis.  Now, not only are European leaders becoming more critical of Erdogan’s political crackdown at home, his consolidation of power, and his purges of perceived political enemies, but American forces are aggressively arming an extension of the same group Turkey’s leaders have long battled.

Erdogan’s rhetoric and increasingly confrontational behavior has left little room for deescalation. In retaliation for a non-binding vote in the European parliament urging a freeze of Turkish-EU accession talks, he has threatened to release a flood of refugees into the EU. In response to US announcements to ramp up the level of military support for YPG forces in Syria and Iraq, he has promised to hold responsible those who provided the weapons should they ever be used against Turkish military forces or civilians. He continues his provocations against Germany, from the targeted arrest of German nationals inside Turkey, to the repeated diplomatic conflicts over Erdogan-sponsored political rallies, which most recently culminated in his sharp accusation that German officials were engaging in “fascist actions reminiscent of Nazi times”.

Putin’s evolving posture towards Turkey over the last two years supports this theory. There has been a remarkable thaw in diplomatic relations despite several high profile events; Turkish military forces downed two Russian jets after they crossed inside Turkish airspace in Syria in 2015, which was followed by a flurry of retaliatory travel bans and import restrictions. The following year, the Russian ambassador to Turkey was dramatically assassinated by an off duty police officer during the opening of an art exhibition, reportedly in response to Russia’s activity in Aleppo. 

But Russia has since dropped the travel restrictions, easing the $3-billion-dollar loss in tourism revenue Turkey suffered as a result. One stalled project, a Gazprom proposal to build the TurkStream pipeline through the middle of the Black Sea, is now back on track for construction. Turkey has also come out forcefully against EU-imposed sanctions on Russia, citing the economic effects on Turkey, although it’s unclear what impact existing sanctions would have on the pipeline project. 

Putin’s argument is subtle but unmistakeable: the EU has never considered you one of its own, and NATO is only interested in your military value. The United States is arming your domestic terrorists, and the rest of the world doesn’t realize that there are forces inside your country threatening to destroy you if you don’t find them first. But we understand you, and when you finally tire of their insults, we’ll be waiting.

Taken all together, Erdogan’s actions seem designed to provoke precisely the type of forceful condemnation from European leaders that would provide him with justification to sever ties entirely. Putin is positioning himself to reap the benefits of such a separation, cultivating a relationship in which both leaders stand to gain, if not the people of their respective nations. 

It may be possible to minimize the logistical fallout of a split, but the implications of a Turkey-NATO divorce will reverberate far beyond the loss of a strategic ally. 


  1. Of special strategic value to the Russian Navy are the seaports on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. While the bases in Crimea are a necessity to the ability of the Red Fleet to operate in the Middle East and even in the Atlantic, they are still "bottled up" in the Black Sea by the Strait of Bosporus and the Dardanelles. Having bases of operation in deep-water harbors would position the Red Fleet to better project force in the region.
    But, I suspect the big prize that Uncle Vlad has his eye on is the air base at Incirlik. If the US was kicked out of Incirlik it would severely impact the ability to stage air strikes and even run essential supply missions in the area. It would position the Russian Air Force on the NATO southern flank. The US would be forced to depend on other bases in the area that are in counties that are further away from support bases in Europe. The fact that Turkey, long a secular state, is slowly but definitely moving toward a Muslim theocracy, puts the possibility of Europe having to deal with a unfriendly Muslim power close at hand.
    There are no good outcomes for Europe or the US should Turkey and Russia form an alliance.

  2. And so the game begins. I read that Turkey is now buying the Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries instead of American or NATO equivalents. The S-300 is not a plug and play piece of equipment. It requires Russian technicians to set it up, and to train the Turks in its use. It's a little piece of the Russian Army, right there next to the largest NATO airbase in the world. My prediction is that Turkey will leave NATO, tell the EU to go piss off, and forge a new alliance with Russia within the next year. When that happens, the US can either leave the Middle East to try and shore up Europe, or tell the Europeans to up their game and prepare to deal with the Russians themselves. Doing both will no longer be possible. Let's see - seems like there was a reason we did not Germany getting back into the military business....


Post a Comment

Popular Posts