For some, it may be ironic to see Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan taking the role of mediator between Russia and Ukraine at a time when NATO is struggling to speak with one voice – given the past tension within the military alliance. But then it isn’t, because Turkey has always done its fair share of the work, as an expert of the country’s military stresses.
In the dispute between NATO and Russia and the military buildup along the boarders of Ukraine, much has been made of the implications for the two Nordic countries Sweden and Finland, as well as the security implications for the Baltics and other Eastern European states, including Poland. Turkey, which covers the Southern flank of the alliance, hasn’t featured strongly, at least in the major Western European press.
Until now, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke up and offered to mediate between Russian and Ukraine (see an article in “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” on Thursday). For Turkey, the dispute is much closer than for many other NATO states, as the Ukraine and Russian-occupied Crimea as well as Russia proper sit directly across the Black Sea. Turkey is also the guardian of the Bosporus, the natural and only connection between the Black Sea and the outside world.
Putin and Erdogan: A Complicated Relationship
Erdogan has been steadfast in his support of Ukrainian territorial integrity and has been clear in his opposition to Russia’s power grab of the Crimean peninsula. Turkey has also come to the aid of the Ukraine military by providing drones and other military equipment, much to the anger of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Turkey, Russia and the Ukraine all have a sizeable share of the Black Sea and any dispute threatens to pull all the three sides in, whatever their outside alliances might be. But of course, there is much more to the relationship between Putin and Erdogan than meets the eye. While their troops directly or through proxies have and still are pitched against each other in several theaters of war (Libya, Syria to name but two), Erdogan has also used the Russian side in his conflict over the procurement of defensive missiles with the U.S.
When the Americans failed to provide the Turkish armed forces with its Patriot missile system, Erdogan instead bought the Russian-made S-400 missiles – and Putin was obviously more than keen to help deepen the rift between Turkey and the U.S. Turkey and Russia, Erdogan and Putin clearly are two sides with a highly complex relationship.
NATO Membership Is in the National Interest
“The Ukraine isn’t a major obstacle for Turkey and Russia,” said Professor Haldun Yalcinkaya. “They can have different positions on the field and still meet around the negotiating table.”
Yalcinkaya, who is head of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at TOBB University in Ankara, has served more than a decade at the Turkish Military Academy and knows more than most how the Turkish security forces think.
He is particularly adamant to dispel any suggestions that the military would somehow fail to live up to the duties of a NATO member state, despite the occasional public outcry over the alliance in the country.
“At an operational level, Turkey has always been doing whatever it was required to do,” Yalkinkaya said. “Also, being a member of NATO is very much in the national interest of Turkey.”
Kurdish Question in Syria a Tough Nut to Crack
The recent flare-up of public debate about Turkish membership in NATO is not something new and the political parties have also been known to raise that question from time to time. However, making political statements during election times and taking political decisions isn’t the same, as the professor is keen to stress.
“NATO membership has become a political issue, but it hasn’t been an issue at the level of decision makers,” Yalcinkaya said.
In his opinion, it was the U.S. support for the Kurdish fighters (Syrian Democratic Forces), associated with PKK, in Northern Syrian and the U.S. reaction to the procurement of the S-400 missile system by Turkey which mostly angered the Turkish government and general public.
Better Within Than Outside – for All Sides
The Turkish position over the links between the PKK and YPG is well known and a source of continued disagreement between Turkey and the U.S. and European allies. Turkey says the U.S. is providing support to a terrorist organization, even though it is a strategic ally of the country, while the U.S. has seen the Kurdish troops as the group with which it could do business in the ravaged stretch of land between Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
Yalkinkaya also mentioned that the Turkish public perceived as exaggerated the reaction to the S-400 purchase and the sanctions imposed on procurement officers, the so-called CAATSA sanctions.
While those two issues won’t go away quickly, the conflict with Russia over its demands for written security guarantees by NATO is ongoing. And it’s where the realism begins to sink in about the importance of having countries such as Turkey onboard.