With a focus on Russia’s actions in the Baltic region and Eastern Europe, the July NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland, offers an opportunity for NATO to re-focus on another area of recent Russian saber rattling, along Turkey’s borders. NATO needs to agree to a strategy that ensures that its southeastern flank remains secure and recognizes the vital role that Turkey plays for the security of the Alliance, notwithstanding the many domestic political problems under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
An Important Player
Turkey has been an important NATO member since the earliest days of the Cold War when it joined in 1952. During the Cold War it was one of only two countries (the other being Norway) that shared a land border with the Soviet Union and served as the southern anchor of Europe’s defense.
Turkey continues to play an active role in the Alliance, though not without challenges. Under President Erdogan, Turkey has been a contentious partner for the West, but it remains an important partner and NATO member.
The Turks have deployed thousands of troops to Afghanistan and have commanded the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) twice since 2002. Turkey continues to maintain more than 500 troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s Resolute Support mission, making it the sixth-largest troop contributor of 39 nations.
The Turks have also contributed to a number of peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, continue to maintain almost 400 troops in Kosovo, and have participated in counterpiracy and counterterrorism missions off the Horn of Africa. They also deployed planes, frigates, and submarines during the NATO-led operation in Libya. Turkey’s 510,000-strong active-duty military is NATO’s second-largest after that of the United States.
Turkey is vitally important to Europe’s, and therefore NATO’s, energy security. It is the gateway to the resource-rich Caucasus and Caspian Basin and controls the Bosporus, one of the most important shipping straits in the world. Several major gas and oil pipelines run through Turkey. As new oilfields are developed in the Central Asian states, and given Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas, Turkey can be expected to play an increasingly important role in Europe’s energy security.
In one form or another, Russia has driven Turkish foreign and defense policy for centuries. Since 1568, Turkey and Russia have been to war 12 times. At least nine of the occasions have been over Crimea—which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
Russia is essentially encircling Turkey. Russia is probing and entering Turkish airspace, transiting its warships through the heart of Istanbul with sailors on deck armed with shoulder-fired missiles, and supporting President Erdogan’s arch-nemesis, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Ever since Russia annexed Crimea, its Black Sea Fleet has been bolstered. Russia is arming the Syrian Kurds, to the dismay of Ankara, and also just reinforced the 5,000 Russian troops already based in Armenia, most of which are mere miles from the border with Turkey.
Late last year, Russia and Armenia signed a Combined Regional Air Defense System agreement that essentially allows Moscow to control the airspace in the whole of the region. Russia maintains hundreds of troops in Syria, including the advanced S400 air defense system.
Moscow has also implemented a wide range of economic sanctions against Turkey and has cancelled important energy deals. Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the persecution of the Tatars who live there continues.
Recently, a group of members of the Russian Duma called for the renunciation of the so-called 1921 Treaty of Brotherhood between Russia and Turkey. While the Duma is likely to reject the request, this still offers an insight into the prevalent thinking about Turkey among many of Russia’s political elite.
This has implications and consequences that NATO cannot ignore.
NATO Air Defense
In December 2012, Turkey requested that NATO help protect its airspace from possible threats emanating from Syria as the result of the civil war there. Hundreds of ballistic missiles have been fired by Syrian forces and dozens have landed inside Turkey—whether intentional or not.
Since January 2013, five NATO members (Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and the U.S.) have deployed air defense assets. Currently, the Spanish and the Italians operate in southern Turkey.
Russia also poses a threat to NATO’s airspace in Turkey. Russian planes have been known to probe and illegally enter Turkey’s airspace, and most of these incursions have taken place over Turkey’s Hatay province. In November 2015, a Russian Su-24 warplane was shot down by Turkish F-16s after violating Turkish airspace in Hatay province. This incident was the first time since the 1950s that a NATO warplane shot down a Russian fighter. This followed two other Russian incursions in October 2015, again in Hatay province.
The Importance of the Southeastern Flank
NATO leaders should not confuse their complex relationship with Erdogan with the Alliance’s obligations to defend Turkey just like any other member state. In order to live up to treaty obligations NATO must:
- Bolster the Turkish Air Defense Mission. NATO should provide Turkey with any help it might require to secure its airspace. This might include increased air patrols, more air defense batteries, and increasing the deployment of air surveillance capability.
- Make clear that NATO stands in solidarity with Turkey. The Summit Declaration should contain robust language reaffirming NATO’s support for Turkey’s territorial integrity. It should make clear to Russia that a violation of Turkey’s airspace is a violation of NATO’s airspace.
- Develop a strategy for the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean regions. These two maritime regions sit at an important crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the Caucasus. Ever since Russia illegally annexed Crimea, the Black Sea has essentially become a Russian lake. The Russian navy has become even more active in the Eastern Mediterranean due to its involvement in Syria. Both have ramifications for NATO’s security.
- Remain vigilant. As events heat up between Turkey and Russia, NATO needs to remain vigilant to a potential Russian retaliation, especially in regions like the Baltics.
- Ensure that the Alliance is clear on Georgia’s future membership. Georgia and Turkey are close partners and both share many of the same threats. Georgia’s eventual NATO membership will ultimately make Turkey more secure, and the transatlantic relationship stronger.
Without a doubt Western Europe and the U.S.’s relationship with President Erdogan is complex. Many of the actions of Erdogan’s government, especially when it comes to the crackdown on media freedoms, sit uncomfortably with many NATO members. And, while these concerns need to be addressed with Ankara, it should be done outside the NATO framework. NATO needs Turkey today for the same reasons it did during the Cold War.
This is the geopolitical reality, and it is time for U.S. policymakers to acknowledge it. In the face of Russian aggression and the daily barbarity of ISIS, pragmatism is the only way forward with Turkey. This means fully engaging with Turkey with the NATO framework—not pushing Ankara away.
—Luke Coffey is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.