Why Putin is likely to use Turkey to break NATO – and what to do about it

The flood will only worsen as the Russian air force has doubled down on Assad’s strategy of attacking civilian targets in order to provoke depopulation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Syrian civil war underlines and exacerbates several weaknesses in the West. Diplomatic crises such as threats by several European nations to close their borders show that Europe’s stability is endangered by the refugee flood provoked by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s attacks on his civilian population.
The flood will only worsen as the Russian air force has doubled down on Assad’s strategy of attacking civilian targets in order to provoke depopulation.
Russia has done so because that strategy creates a wasteland that is easier to rule than a populous nation for a weak ally like the Syrian president.
That the strategy also destabilizes a Europe that might contest Russian expansion is a nice bonus.
Russia, under Putin, has proven to be an expansionist power and its economic and demographic weakness means that it will continue to be one. It needs to expand in order to seize new resources that it can redirect toward propping up a state whose economy is inadequate to its survival.
Russia has expanded using a combination of boldness and caution. It has moved boldly to seize parts of Georgia, the Crimea and Ukraine. It has been cautious in laying the groundwork for such moves, and in seizing those areas that it can control most easily – usually because of a large concentration of ethnic Russians, or those inclined to prefer Russian government to the alternative.
Observers worry that similar large ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania make them attractive targets.
Russian intelligence has been recruiting among Baltic economic leaders, as well as political figures. Likewise, Russia has an enclave in Kaliningrad that is physically divorced from the rest of the country by parts of Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus – an enclave that is the headquarters of Russia’s Baltic fleet. There are complications for a Russian move on the Baltic states, but the greatest of them is thought to be those states’ membership in NATO.
As long as the NATO alliance remains strong and credible, at least some of Russia’s options would seem to be off the table.
The Turkish lever
Fate has provided a lever that might be strong enough to break the NATO alliance, however, in that same Syrian conflict in which Russia is already engaged. It comes in the form of NATO member state Turkey, which has departed far from the interests and mores of the rest of the alliance.
In terms of the conflict itself, Turkey is threatening to send ground forces into combat against forces being supported by Russia and Iran. Turkish and Russian forces are already fighting, on opposite sides of the conflict, only a few miles from each other across the Turkish/Syrian border.
That could very quickly lead to an outright conflict between a NATO ally and Russia.
Such a conflict was narrowly avoided after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter-bomber in the autumn. Russia’s response did not include direct military action, but it did involve economic sanctions and support to Turkey’s Kurdish minority. The Turkish response has been to set up cordons and starve Kurdish villages, a practice that US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned as “directly contrary to the law of war” – but only when Syria did it. The US did not condemn its ally, Turkey, for the same practice.
In fact the US does not really know what to say or do about Turkey.
Turkey has turned hard against the very human freedoms that the West believes are the foundation of any just political order. Turkey has begun arresting academics for criticizing its military actions. In a kind of reverse-Passover, Turkish academics who signed a declaration calling for an end to the violence against the Kurds arrived at work to find their doors marked with a red X. Turkey has stymied the American-led effort to defeat Islamic State (ISIS), which turns on supporting Kurdish fighters.
Instead, Turkey’s efforts have prevented much of the Kurdish military capacity from focusing on ISIS by placing Kurdish forces under aerial bombardment.
Turkey is clearly at least winking at supply lines to ISIS and al-Qaida’s “Nusra front” in Syria, if it is not actively supporting them. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought out alliance with radical Islamist factions in his country, and has used them to crack down on media freedom and even the judiciary.
These maneuvers have led a number of commentators across the political spectrum to suggest that Turkey be thrown out of NATO. However, there’s a problem: NATO has no mechanism to expel a member. Further, “NATO decisions” have to be unanimous, so introducing rules would require Turkey itself to vote for its own expulsion.
It is unlikely to do that given the advantages NATO membership gives it in constraining American or European action in the present conflict.
A failure by NATO to support Turkey in the event of a conflict with Russia would badly crack the alliance. Yet Erdogan does not deserve Western support. In the event of choosing between abandoning him and war with Russia, abandoning him would be the obvious choice. Given Putin’s record of cleverness in these matters, it is likely that the conflict will come at a time and in a way that only underlines Erdogan’s unworthiness in the eyes of the Western public. The crack made in NATO will echo in the Baltics.
What is to be done?
The US should lead the Western powers in NATO in immunizing ourselves against Erdogan’s government, so that the refusal to support him does not damage the alliance as badly as it otherwise would. Reversing Kerry’s refusal to criticize Turkey, for doing the same thing that he was criticizing Syria for doing, would be a good start. The West should begin to speak publicly and often about Western values of liberty and freedom of conscience, as well as against Turkish government war crimes. Our governments need to make clear, now and before the crisis comes, that we would not support any government that behaves as Turkey does.
When Putin uses the Turkish lever against NATO, it can crack the whole alliance or simply the seam between Turkey and the rest of the treaty nations. The Turkish government has walked away from the heritage of Ataturk, the modernizing reformer of the early 20th century. Such warnings that it is losing its standing as a true member of NATO might put the brakes on the worst of Erdogan’s abuses against his own people, to include both modern-oriented Turks and the Kurdish minority. That would be a good thing in itself, because it would protect the rights and lives of decent people whom we ought to support.
Even if Turkey did not listen, at least such warnings would preserve a frame for asserting that the NATO alliance without Turkey remains strong and valid. For nations that continue to support the Western ideals of human liberty, NATO would be unbroken.
The author is a Senior Fellow with The Center for Security Policy.