America, Russia, and the Tussle for Turkey

38 2019-06-17

Turkey, which has been westward looking since the days of Ataturk, has become NATO’s fickle partner since Erdogan has come to power. That is best seen in the fight over the Russian S-400 air defense system and the American F-35 fighter aircraft.

Although Turkey had ordered F-35 aircraft from America years ago, a snag has occurred with Erdogan’s rapprochement with Russia and his order of the Russian S-400 air defense system. Many in America fear that some of the secrets of the F-35 will end up in Moscow, negating much of the technological advantage of America’s (and NATO’s) next generation aircraft.

There is also considerable concern about Turkey’s foreign policy, which has moved from a closer relationship with Europe towards a more active role in the Middle East and closer relations with both Russia and China. The result is that many are concerned about Turkey’s continued role in NATO as the southern anchor of that alliance. There is also concern about how Turkey’s Syrian policy will impact both Russia and America.

There is also growing political polarization in Turkey, which can impact national leadership. The local elections in March saw 6 dead and 115 people injured. The death toll increased a few days later when an opposition politician of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) was nearly lynched by pro-Erdogan crowds.

Violence is expected later this month in the mayoral election rerun – especially if anti-Erdogan candidates win.

But, the biggest impact at this time is that Turkish pilots training on the F-35 in Arizona have been grounded. American Wing Commander Brigadier General Todd Canterbury not only grounded the six Turkish pilots, but he restricted their access to secret and classified materials on the F-35.

The US has given Turkey until July 31 to change their policy and cancel the S-400 air defense system, which may be delivered to Turkey as soon as this month. There could also be additional sanctions which would further damage Turkey’s fragile economy.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Andrews said, “Without a change in Turkish policy, we will continue to work closely with our Turkish ally on winding down their participation in the F-35 program.”

This move was prompted when America discovered that Turkish military personnel had gone to Russia to begin training on the S-400.

Does this mean that Turkey will find itself pushed out of NATO?

Not likely.

Turkey is more likely to become a “non-participating” member until a more favorable government comes to power or the Turkish/Russian love affair falters.

For instance, French President De Gaulle withdrew France’s troops from NATO on June 21, 1966. This decision complicated relations between the U.S. and Europe during the height of the Cold War. Though France remained politically in NATO, its actions cast doubt onto the organization’s future as a counter to Soviet military power and influence.

This move by France was a major military problem for NATO. EUCOM, the European command was in France and had to be moved to Germany. Communications lines from military commands to EUCOM had to be replaced. In addition, all communication lines from the NATO units on the front lines had to be rerouted through Belgium.

Interestingly, despite the political disputes between the leadership, the NATO bureaucracy continued to work. According to Ambassador to NATO Robert Ellsworth,

“The departure of France was designed by de Gaulle to destroy NATO, but it didn’t destroy NATO. And it wasn’t long - in fact by the time I got there in 1969, there was already extensive collaboration and cooperation between the French military forces and the forces of NATO. And that has, of course, continued and even deepened to this very day.”

France would only rejoin NATO as a full-fledged member in 2009 – nearly a generation after the Cold War ended.

So, will Turkey eventually reconcile with NATO and the US? Or, is the Turkish/Russian relationship expected to strengthen and become long term?

Odds are that Turkey will find itself back in the NATO fold eventually – just as France found itself.

Russia and Turkey have been traditional enemies for hundreds of years. Parts of what is now southern Russia and southern Ukraine were part of the Ottoman Empire. It wasn’t until Peter the Great in the late 1700s, that Russia gained access to the Black Sea. There were several Russo-Turkish wars between the 17th and 20th centuries and these military conflicts are the longest in European History.

Russia and Turkey remain on different sides when it comes to several foreign policy issues. These include Syria, Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and Armenia. The interpretation of the Montreux Convention on the movement of warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits also remains a sore point with the two nations.

Relations under Erdogan and Putin have also been tumultuous. In November 2015, Turkish fighter aircraft shot down a Russian military aircraft – leading to Russia imposing sanctions on Turkey and restricting travel.

Relations were normalized in June 2016, only to suffer another rift when the Russian ambassador to Turkey (Andrei Karlov) was assassinated in Ankara in December 2016 by an off-duty policeman over the Syrian issue.

Putin and Russia glossed over the assassination by calling it an attempt to damage Turkish-Russian ties.

From Russia’s point of view, Turkey offers several geopolitical advantages. It makes it easier for the Russian Navy to move in the Eastern Mediterranean and gives Russia a say in Middle Eastern affairs.

Just as important, it gives Russia an opportunity to weaken NATO. Not only is Turkey the southern anchor of NATO, it has NATO’s second largest military (after the US). And, as America fears, Russia’s access to Turkish military officers gives it a chance to learn NATO secrets.

Weakening NATO’s southern flank becomes even more important as President Trump is moving to strengthen NATO in Central Europe.

On Wednesday, President Trump met with Polish President Andrzej Duda and they signed an agreement that will send an additional 1,000 troops to Poland on a rotational basis (there are currently 4,000 US troops there). Poland is also purchasing up to 35, F-35 fighter aircraft from the US.

Consequently, it looks like Russia is gaining strength on its southern flank, while facing a new threat in its center. While Turkey has a large military, so does Poland. Poland also has the second largest armored force in Europe (Russia has the largest), which would be critical if Russia tries any aggressive moves in Central Europe. Poland’s army is more professional, and its soldiers have a higher educational level than Turkish soldiers. The new agreement with the US makes it more likely that Poland will be the keystone of NATO defense in Eastern Europe.

So, has a new set of long-term alliances been formed? Has the US traded a Turkish alliance for Poland, while Russia has picked up Turkey?

If history is any indication, the answer is no. Russia and Turkey have centuries of conflict behind them – most on regional issues that remain current today. There is also the fact that much of the current friendship is based on Turkish President Erdogan – who appears to be facing eroding popularity, if recent elections are any indication. If Erdogan leaves the Turkish political scene, it is easy to see a new Turkish government renewing its relationships with the US, Europe, and NATO.

Meanwhile, Polish/Russian relations have been equally tense for centuries and many Poles remember that Russia has controlled much of Poland during that time. However, it was the US and NATO that stood up to the Soviet Union and supported Polish resistance towards the USSR. The end of the Soviet Empire is only 30 years ago, and many remember the Soviet occupation and are eager to have American forces in Poland in order to prevent any Russian aggression in the future.

Sidelining Turkey will not damage US relations with other NATO nations or even the EU. In fact, the EU has indefinitely postponed Turkey’s request to join the European Union due to Turkey’s political situation and the human rights issues.

Although Turkey appears to have lost the F-35 in return for the Russian S-400, this is likely a temporary situation. National leaders are destined to lose power or die. The same is true with Erdogan – especially if he allows for free elections soon.

In that case, Turkey may still get its F-35s – just a few years later.

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