In The Media

Judy Asks: Is Turkey Weakening NATO?

by Judy Dempsey (feat. Julian Lindley-French)

Carnegie Europe
September 20, 2017

A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.

Federiga Bindi
Senior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, director of the Foreign Policy Initiative at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and D. German distinguished visiting chair at Appalachian State University

Yes it is. Erdoğan’s decision to purchase a surface-to-air missile system from Russia is a huge blow in the face of NATO allies, not least because of the question of interoperability between NATO defense systems. It is yet further proof—as if more was needed—that Erdoğan’s Turkey is drifting away from Western Europe.

The question is what to do next. Clearly, Turkey cannot be expelled (yet) from NATO, so it is up to the European Union to give the signal that the limit has been reached: the European Parliament voted to suspend accession negotiations with Turkey in July, and it is time that the European Commission and the European Council follow suit. Erdoğan will likely respond by breaking the Turkey-EU migrant deal, but this is something that he may do anyway as one more way to upset Europe. Europe and NATO cannot afford to be checkmated by Erdoğan.


Kristian Brakel
Associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations and director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Istanbul

Mistrust of western allies is nothing new in Turkey—the country’s position as a frontline state during the Cold War produced a military elite that became an integral—however, at times reluctant—part of NATO. All those who had reason to mistrust the military, both Islamists and leftists, have nursed an anti-Western discourse that sees NATO as an ally to the different military juntas that have oppressed the opposition. In every Turkish opinion survey that rates trust levels in different institutions, NATO has always ranked at the very bottom of the scale.

However, some things are new in Turkey’s recent turn toward Russia. First, since the 2016 coup attempt, President Erdoğan’s trust in Western allies has reached rock bottom. Second, Erdoğan turned to an old nationalist (and, in his view, anti-imperialist) narrative to mobilize broad parts of Turkish society to secure victories at the ballot box. And third, with the United States and Europe being largely out of the picture when it comes to shaping Syria’s future, Turkey needs to deal with Russia.

All this does not mean that Turkey wants to leave NATO. Staying a member in the alliance remains a priority, especially as Russia does not offer a viable alternative. Turkey’s relationship with Russia is a transactional one, born out of necessity to have a seat at the negotiating table over Syria. The Turkish leadership has the wish to diversify the range of its allies and the possible suppliers of military hardware, just in case. But other than in the NATO Council, Turkey remains just a junior partner for Russia.

The biggest threat to the integrity of NATO is therefore not Turkey’s blustering or buying of some Russian military hardware, but the attempt to misuse the partnership to fight its bilateral battles with member states such as Austria, Germany, and potentially the United States.

Can Kasapoğlu
Defense analyst at the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies

The S-400 deal remains a detrimental factor for NATOs allied cohesion. What we are talking about is a strategic weapons system procurement. So, by nature, the deal would go well beyond a relatively simpler arms transfer of, say, armored personnel carriers or artillery. Such a deal would inevitably bring about further military cooperation projects. Hundreds of Turkish military personnel will need to be trained by Russian experts, and probably, some will be sent to Russia. Besides, the S-400 deal could pave the ground for further opportunities, especially those related to the planned SAM configuration. And finally, the S-400 is not a “buy and forget” system. Thus, once procured, it would twist the Turkish and Russian defense industries together. More importantly, the project was finalized right before the Zapad-17 drills. The timing was not the best at all.

However, it wouldn’t be fair to scapegoat Turkey for the alliance’s eroded cohesion. Since the annexation of Crimea, some important NATO members failed to show a determined posture against Moscow. Many members of the alliance still fall short of meeting the planned defense expenditure requirements. And many allies underestimated Ankara’s threat perceptions emanating from the PYD in Syria. In sum, we’re all weakening NATO as an alliance.
Ian LesserVice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

Turkey’s decision to buy a Russian air defense system should not materially weaken NATO in operational terms. In political terms, the decision—if implemented—sends troubling signals about Ankara’s strategic thinking. Given Turkey’s significance for European defense, east and south, this is not particularly good news for NATO. But it is even less good news for Turkish security.

Ankara’s posture toward Western allies is weakening Turkish security. The alliance can adjust to ill-considered procurement decisions and disruptive rhetoric. Turkey may have more difficulty adjusting to the erosion of confidence in and support for Ankara’s leadership among transatlantic partners. The country faces tough and sustained security challenges. These include the likelihood of durable chaos on Turkey’s Middle Eastern borders, and longer-term geopolitical competition with Iran and Russia.

Under these conditions, the NATO security guarantee matters, not just in clear-cut Article 5 contingencies but also across the range of murkier threats to Turkish security. This is no time to undercut the predictability of security ties. But that is precisely the effect of Turkey’s drift away from Western norms and alignments.


Paul T. Levin
Director of the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies

Relations between Turkey and several NATO allies are severely strained right now.

First, a series of nasty bilateral diplomatic quarrels have erupted between Ankara and several NATO members on a range of issues, which has soured important personal relationships between Erdoğan and key alliance leaders.

Second, the failed military coup in Turkey last year and the massive purges of alleged Gülenist putschists in the military that followed have exacerbated tensions. The purges also targeted many “Atlanticists,” that is, west-leaning and often secular officers. Many of them sought asylum in the NATO countries where they were stationed during the coup, and Ankara now claims that several allies are harbouring coup plotters.

Third, the purges appear to have given the so-called “Eurasianists”—who prefer an eastward turn in Turkish foreign and security policy—the upper hand. The possible purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system suggests a broader Eurasianist reorientation.

All of this has affected intelligence cooperation, access to key military installations in Turkey (especially Incirlik Air Base), as well as NATO cooperation with partner countries, which Turkey has blocked. With its geostrategic location and strong military, Turkey remains an important member of the alliance, especially as the organization is returning to its Cold War focus on Russia. But the apparent divergence of values between Turkey and its allies are weakening NATO at a key moment in time. Only Russia stands to gain from this.


Julian Lindley-French
Former vice president of the Atlantic Treaty Association in Brussels, senior fellow at the Institute for Statecraft in London, and distinguished visiting research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, DC

Look at a map. Now, look at where Turkey sits on it. Turkey is strategically important; the pivot between the EU, NATO, Russia, and the Middle East, and a fault-line between Europe and Asia.

It is easy for European liberals to get exercised by President Erdoğan’s illiberal tendencies. And yes, NATO is ultimately an alliance of Western liberal democracies, even if its partners are often not. Yet it is through the lens of “Mackinder-esque” geopolitics, and the shifting plates of power tectonics, that one must look at Turkey. Rebuffed by the EU, deeply concerned about the de facto alliance the United States has forged with Kurds in the struggle against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and now “home” to 3 million Syrian refugees, Ankara could break with NATO if Turkey’s geopolitical concerns are not taken more seriously by its Western allies. The bigger picture? As Germany and its fig leaf European Commission grow more powerful, all three major peripheral European powers have been alienated—Britain, Russia, and Turkey. Heal thyself, Europe!

Is Turkey weakening NATO? No, it is the geopolitical alienation of Turkey by Europeans who reject twenty-first century geopolitics who are weakening NATO. Look at a map.


Ziya Meral
Resident fellow at the British Army Centre for Historical Research and Conflict Analysis

Turkey needs NATO as much as NATO needs Turkey for a wide range of reasons, from deterrence to operational capacity to defense technology. While the Turkish government is clearly using the possible purchase of Russian antiaircraft missiles to express displeasure with certain alliance members, the country is aware of the limitations of its relationship with Russia. Turkey needs to maintain working relations with Russia, but Ankara also needs NATO to balance its vulnerabilities to Moscow, thus the Erdoğan government’s caution of publically criticizing the alliance outright.

Militarily, the purchase of a limited number of Russian missiles does not weaken NATO. Turkey is still committed to NATO operations, still hosts key NATO assets, and still maintains its soldiers and diplomats across alliance structures. However, underlying tensions between Turkey and the United States (and between Turkey and Germany) are weakening NATO unity—not least because of the ambiguities of the Trump administration over NATO, and the thorny issue of the United States directly arming PKK offshoots in Syria, which Ankara has read as a profound betrayal. Yet Ankara too continues with its self-undermining and reactionary foreign policy, which are weakened daily due to worrying domestic developments.

These provide Russia with a superb playing field to bid NATO states against each other, thus weakening any resolve they might have toward reducing tensions that are building up in the Baltics, the Black Sea, and in the Western Balkans. In other words, the question of S-400 system is a distraction from a deepening crisis at the heart of NATO: one of trust and shared threat perceptions among core members of the alliance.


Marc Pierini
Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

It is too early to say that Turkey is weakening NATO, but it is fair to say that the country is following a new policy of keeping its distance from both its traditional allies and its non-NATO partners.

The first sign is that for the past three years in Syria, Turkey has not primarily been fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State as part of the U.S.-led coalition—though not a NATO operation per se, Turkey has essentially pursued its own national objectives in the fight against IS, while at the same time being protected from potential threats from Syria by NATO’s anti-missile systems and AWACS aircraft.

The second sign is Turkey’s impending purchase of Russian S-400s anti-missile systems (instead of NATO compatible system), while at the same being committed to NATO’s Missile Defense Shield and hosting ballistic missile defense radar in Kureçik. The exact impact of the S-400s deployment on NATO and U.S. operations in Turkey will depend on where the missiles and their Russian operators will be stationed.

The third sign is in the non-military field: for more than a year, Turkey, contrary to other members of the alliance, has largely dismantled its rule-of-law architecture.

To sum up, Turkey is giving multiple signs of distancing itself from the position of an unequivocal member of NATO. This is its free choice, but a choice with strategic implications.


Kati Piri
Member of the European Parliament

When a crucial NATO ally buys an important air defense system from Moscow, which sees the alliance as its primary geopolitical foe, of course there is a problem. Although other allied nations have procured Russian arms, Turkey’s case is different due to its strategic role on NATOs Southern flank—the center of many contemporary security challenges.

Closer cooperation between Moscow and Ankara in the fields of energy and defense is mainly the result of more recent strained relations between the Turkish government and its longtime allies in the United States and Europe. The purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system signals a move toward military independence by Ankara and contributes to an erosion of NATO’s solidarity principle. The open question remains: what has NATO done to prevent this?


Kaan Sahin
Mercator fellow on international affairs

Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system is just one issue in the complex relationship between Turkey, Russia, and NATO.

Ankara’s flirtation with Moscow will not make major points of contention between the two countries disappear: Turkey dislikes Russia’s support for the PKK-affiliated Kurdish PYD/YPG in Syria; both take different stances on the status of Crimea and the Nagorny Karabakh conflict; and both try to outcompete each other as transit hubs for Europe’s energy supply—in spite of the joint South Stream project.

Besides the gloomy prospect of an intensified Russian-Turkish relationship, Ankara’s importance for NATO remains unquestioned. As a guardian over the Bosphorous and the Dardanelles, the country is of high strategic importance. It plays a crucial role in providing maritime security in the Mediterranean Sea, and its proximity to conflict-ridden Iraq and Syria makes it a central player for the alliance’s security.

In addition to geographic factors, one must not disregard the commitment of the Turkish Armed Forces as an active provider to several NATO operations, both past and present. Turkey, for example, is the fifth biggest contingent in Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan.

For the foreseeable future, Turkey will remain a key NATO member that continues to strengthen, not weaken, the alliance.


Stephen Szabo
Resident senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies

The time has come to seriously evaluate Turkish membership in NATO. The country no longer qualifies for EU membership on value grounds, as well as over its obstructionist role in the Cyprus question. In NATO’s case, the key criterion is security. Although NATO is an alliance of democracies, it has had problematic members in the past—most notably Greece during the junta period in the 1960s and early 1970s. Greece remained in NATO because of its strategic location and importance during the Cold War. Today, NATO faces the same questions on Turkey.

Turkey is in a pivotal location and is key to the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean, and Syria. It also has the second-largest military in the alliance, though degraded by post-coup purges. Unlike the Greek case, the Erdoğan government is increasingly anti-American, anti-EU, and pro-Russia. Still, the country is too important to the alliance to lose, meaning that the United States, in particular, has to find ways to work with the Turkish regime—which also has an important stake in alliance membership and its economic relationship to the West.

NATO has work on military-to-military relations and hope to ride out the storm.


Gönül Tol
Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute

Turkey’s large military and geopolitical position make it an indispensable ally for NATO. But the escalating tension between Ankara and its NATO allies, as well as the purges within the Turkish military that followed the 2016 coup attempt, threaten to undermine the alliance.

Tensions between Turkey and Europe have mounted over Erdoğan government’s efforts to campaign in EU member states in favor of a referendum to consolidate the president’s political control, especially in Germany. And Ankara is at odds with Washington over U.S. cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish militia that is linked to the PKK.

Turkey’s flirtations with Russia have set further alarm bells ringing. Ankara has signed a controversial deal with Moscow to arm its forces with Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. If the deal goes through, the Turkish military will need training and technical assistance from Russian counterparts, exposing the NATO member’s defense structure to a belligerent country.

Turkey’s military purge since last year’s coup attempt also threatens to undermine NATO operations. Dozens of officers posted to NATO assignments have received orders to return home and many have been arrested. Liaison officers with NATO were hit particularly hard. NATO officials are concerned that Erdoğan’s sweeping purges are weakening the alliance’s second-largest military, making it more difficult to coordinate operations.

But ultimately, Ankara’s actions are weakening Turkey’s position within the alliance by denting its reputation as a reliable ally. This does not bode well for a country that equally needs NATO support, given its proximity to conflict zones.


Piotr Zalewski
Turkey correspondent for The Economist

For the past couple of years, Turkey has flaunted its rapprochement with Russia to let its NATO partners know it cannot be taken for granted. When first announced, Turkey’s planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system appeared to be yet another part of this strategy. Leaving aside Turkey’s legitimate interest in air and missile defense, some observers assumed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would talk up the potential deal as much as possible, extract a few concessions from his Western allies, and quietly shelve the whole project. That may still happen. Following last week’s announcement that Turkey has paid a deposit on the S-400 system, such a scenario is considerably less likely.

In the event it does happen, Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 will become a big sticking point in its relations with NATO. But it will not place Turkey’s membership in the alliance in jeopardy. Uneasy as they are about the planned purchase, Turkey’s allies appear unwilling to sanction Mr. Erdoğan’s government for going ahead with it. (Mr. Erdoğan might be willing to push ahead with the deal precisely for this reason. He may not trust NATO, but he sees no alternative to it.) The ropes mooring Turkey to the alliance are dangerously taut. But it will take more than the S-400 deal for them to snap.

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