Since becoming a NATO member in 1952, just three years after its formation, Turkey became one of the alliance’s most important members, not just for having the second-largest army after the U.S. in the bloc, but for its geographical positioning on the Mediterranean and Black Seas, as well as straddling across two continents. Turkey’s large army and proximity to the Soviet Union gave the country certain privileges not afforded to other NATO members, including neighboring Greece who also joined the bloc in 1952.
Due to the perceived importance of Turkey in countering the Soviet Union, during the Cold War period it was given the go ahead by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to invade northern Cyprus in 1974; brutally oppress and massacre its Christian, Alevi and Kurdish populations; and, openly support and nurture global terrorist groups, including those fighting in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
The accession of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as leader of Turkey in 2002 was also heralded by the West, believing him to be pro-American, pro-liberal market economy and supporting Turkish membership in the European Union. This of course ignores that Erdoğan said in the mid-1990s when he was mayor of Istanbul: “Democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” Erdoğan certainly stepped off that tram a long time ago, but not only in dealing with democracy, but also in appeasing the U.S.
Turkey’s separation from NATO began with the catastrophe of the Syrian War. Although Erdoğan’s former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s is the brainchild of the “zero problems with neighboring countries” policy, a policy still listed on the Turkish Foreign Ministry website, it was quickly abandoned in favor of an aggressive neo-Ottoman ideology. It appeared that the so-called “zero problems with neighboring countries” policy was also just another tram that one rides until they arrive at their destination.
It was with the Syrian War where Turkey was emboldened to engage in a new aggressive foreign policy aimed at subjugation and domination of neighbouring countries, including landgrabs and demographic change. Although the U.S., Turkey, Israel and the Arab Peninsula countries conspired to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, ultimately their self-interests came to the fore and broke this anti-Syrian coalition into competing factions, with the Turks hedging their bets with Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups, while the U.S. ultimately opted for the Kurds and other militant groups.
The very question of support for the Kurds facilitated the cooling of U.S.-Turkish relations as Ankara recognizes the Kurdistan Workers Group (PKK), the parent group of the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG), as a terrorist organization. It is also partially for this reason, along with immense patience from Moscow after Turkey downed a fighter jet over Syrian airspace in November 2015 that ultimately killed two Russians, that the cooling of relations began.
It is rumored that as part of reconciliation, Turkey had to buy a Russian weapon to compensate for the two deaths and the loss of a jet, thus facilitating the deal to purchase the S-400 missile defence system in 2017. Ultimately, the U.S. were unable to convince Turkey to not purchase the S-400, so-much-so that despite being booted from the F-35 fighter jet program and the imposition of sanctions, Turkey is now in discussions to buy a second S-400 unit.
Despite Russian military equipment not being compatible with NATO systems, following his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi last week, Erdoğan boldly proclaimed that Turkey and Russia were in discussions to jointly produce jet engines, warships and submarines, as well as cooperation with nuclear plants and space exploration. Given that their meeting was only two and a half hours long, when accounting for the translation process, it is believed that the actual discussion would not have lasted more than an hour and a quarter. This is extremely short for the two leaders first face-to-face meeting in 18 months, especially when considering they needed to discuss withdrawing Turkish forces from Idlib; establishing safe corridors and trade crossings in northern Syria; drafting a new constitution for Syria; the situations in Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea; Turkey’s growing military technology cooperation with Ukraine; energy issues; and joint military industrial cooperation and space exploration.
It is more likely that these issues, especially relating to military industrial cooperation and space exploration, will be discussed in deeper detail in future meetings. It is also likely that Russia would be unwilling to engage in many of these joint military productions and space exploration projects unless Erdoğan wins the 2023 election in Turkey. Erdoğan’s popularity is declining as his country becomes more globally isolated because of its unilateral aggression across the region and the permeating suffering of the economy, with the Turkish lira reaching its lowest value in history only last week. Because of this, there are no guarantees Erdoğan will win the next election, and perhaps even a pro-Washington leader will return to power in Ankara.
If Erdoğan is ousted from power one way or another, it is likely that Turkey will be steered back into the path of serving NATO’s interests. None-the-less, not only has Turkey avoided significant sanctions or repercussions because of NATO’s hope that Turkey will become a pro-active member again, but Erdoğan has defied NATO by boldly proclaiming the ambitious plans of Turkish-Russian cooperation, even if nothing is set in stone yet. Turkey’s daily violation of Greek airspace and threats to invade Greek islands ultimately forced a French-Greek defense pact that supplants NATO as the two countries premier defensive alliance. What Erdoğan has done is exposed the frailties of NATO unity by forcing the French and Greeks to prioritize bilateral defensive structures instead of NATO, as well as lessening Turkey’s reliance on Western military equipment.