Only Turkey can bridge the NATO-Russian divide. Here's why

Only Turkey can bridge the NATO-Russian divide. Here's why
7 min read
10 Mar, 2022
In midst of Russia's war on Ukraine, Turkey has crafted a delicate balance in relations between Russia and NATO. If maintained, it would allow Turkey a crucial and unique role in bridging all sides in the conflict, writes Ufuk Necat Tasci.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during their meeting in Ankara on September 16, 2019. [Getty]

In the words of Mesut Ozil, a German football star of Turkish origins, “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose”. A number of striking parallels can be drawn between the saying and Turkey’s situation vis-a-vis the country’s relations with the West and NATO.

When Russia’s aggression and threats peak against the West, engagement with Turkey takes on a different form, rhetorically transmuted into "a valuable NATO ally", a steadfast partner and an essential partner in regional security.

When Turkey needs its allies' help however, NATO is more likely to play ostrich than not.

This disparity flies in the face of Turkey’s role as NATO's second largest army, having been a seminal part of the alliance for seventy years. In line with the requirements of the NATO alliance, Ankara stepped up to support the organisation’s myriad missions in Korea, Afghanistan, and the Balkans, to say nothing of Turkey’s crucial role in the organisation’s humanitarian missions.

"When Russia’s aggression and threats peak against the West, engagement with Turkey takes on a different form, rhetorically transmuted into 'a valuable NATO ally'...When Turkey needs its allies' help however, NATO is more likely to play ostrich than not"

This was not without deep cost. Turkey has the highest number of military and civilian casualties while fighting at the forefront of NATO's war on terror.

In spite of its contributions as the second biggest military power of NATO, Turkey has been all but left alone in its fight against the PKK terror group (designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU), which has claimed the lives of 40,000 Turks including civilians, women and infants, and the YPG (Syrian offshoot of the PKK).

While NATO and the US seemed content with what was taking place in Syria, it was the same passivity over a decade earlier that enabled the rise of the YPG terror group, Russia and Iran to gain further influence near Turkey’s borders.

In this respect, Turkey’s vital position holding down NATO’s eastern front has been understated.

It is no surprise that accessing the Mediterranean has been a consistent and major goal of Russian foreign policy, seeking to challenge naval supremacy of NATO and the US throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. The same policy, if pursued to its end, could also grant Moscow access to southern Europe and the Middle East and North Africa region. This has deep geopolitical implications for the current world order.

Despite Turkey’s several calls to establish a secure zone in northern Syria to disable Moscow’s plan and put an end to the YPG terror group’s attacks, NATO, the US and the West have remained surprisingly passive and looked the other way.

When Turkey sought to procure US air defence systems to strengthen its defence capacity, Washington refused several times.

When Turkey decided to acquire such systems from other countries such as Russia, it was sanctioned and threatened en masse by its allies in spite of NATO’s clear position on the sovereign right member states have in making defence acquisitions according to their national security needs.

Amid such a situation and isolation, Turkey has tried its best to balance the struggle for power between the West and Russia over the years. This is increasingly relevant since Russia—enabled by the passive policies of NATO and the West—reached the Mediterranean through Syria’s warm water Tartus base and gained further regional influence through support for Libyan warlord Haftar; allowing Moscow to advance its stake in the region through illegal military bases in the North African nation.

Because of the circumstances created by its "allies", Turkey needed to find a diplomatic instrument to engage constructively with Russia in the region over the past few years.

Perspectives

Engineering geopolitical balance

Recently, Turkey has crafted a delicate balance in relations between Ukraine and Russia, itself no simple diplomatic feat. Depending on which side Turkey takes, the Black Sea’s power balance is likely to shift accordingly and not without consequences.

For this reason, it is Turkey's imperative to maintain this balance, requiring careful observation and the initiative to end the crisis before it turns into an endless conflict.

This is best reflected in Turkey’s entrenched opposition to the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea. Yet, Ankara has maintained working ties with Moscow to resolve the Syrian crisis. This is rooted in a seasoned foreign policy establishment that recognises the enduring nature of ties in the region.

Russia will not cease to be a major geopolitical force in spite of NATO’s most fervent wishes, and in the absence of serious containment or effective diplomacy we can only expect continued deterioration of ties.

"It is Turkey's imperative to maintain this balance, requiring careful observation and the initiative to end the crisis before it turns into an endless conflict"

Turkey also sustained its strong relationship with Ukraine by providing its famous drones, Bayraktar TB2s to the country in a bid to create balance in the region.

Turkish President Erdogan has stated that his country cannot turn its back on both Russia and Ukraine.

The raison d’etre behind balance stems from several reasons. First, Turkey learned major lessons from NATO's failures amid the serious challenges it faces. Second, Russia has gained access to the Mediterranean and even advanced its position, forcing Turkey to deal with Moscow on an increasing number of open fronts such as Syria, Libya and Cyprus.

From theory of fairytale to reality

In 1992, when Francis Fukuyama declared the victory of Western-styled liberal democracy following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many followed him and his discourse was hailed and blessed by most prominent IR scholars.

Perspectives

However, time has shown that Fukuyama’s claim has come to naught. Instead of the proliferation of liberal democracies, Western tacit silence and support for illiberal regimes has done its fair share of setting back democratisation around the world. Between American isolationism and NATO’s reluctance to commit to Russian containment, Fukuyama’s grand theory has amounted to nothing more than a dream.

Currently, many rely on what Samuel P. Huntington described a generation ago as “The Clash of Civilizations” in which he argued that modern conflict was between a liberal democratic West and societies that rejected that worldview.

Whether Huntington is right or not, there can be no doubt that Turkey will be needed in the future of politics which can be the only way of bridging between the two sides as it has been approved in several conflicts across the world.

In a world where even NATO members like France collaborates with Russia in Syria, Libya and with the US who converting YPG terror group into its proxy against its ally, Turkey, Ankara is aware of the that it must take matters into own hands.

"Ankara does not want the region to become a hot ground of international proxy competition as occurred in Syria and Libya. Unfortunately, each time the international community’s singular obsession was Turkey, instead of Russia and others"

Turkey prefers to ensure stability in the Black Sea Region, the East Mediterranean and to solve problems as much as possible among the countries of the region. Furthermore, Ankara does not want the region to become a hot ground of international proxy competition as occurred in Syria and Libya. Unfortunately, each time the international community’s singular obsession was Turkey, instead of Russia and others.

On that note, it's worth reflecting on whether the current state of regional affairs would have been possible had the West focused on Russia, present in an increasing number of regional theatres, instead of its 70-year old ally.

For Turkey, implementing the Montreux Convention in the most equitable way is of utmost importance, not only in the interest of upholding peace and stability throughout the region. This is all the more essential given some nations may want to use the flexible clauses of Montreux to draw Ankara into the heart of a war the continent can scarcely afford, now more than ever.

Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, journalist, and PhD Candidate in International Relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University. His research focuses on Libya, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict.

Follow him on Twitter: @UfukNecat

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.