Turkey ‘on a balancing act between NATO and Russia’

Turkey ‘on a balancing act between NATO and Russia’

Barçın Yinanç - barcin.yinanc@hdn.com.tr
Turkey ‘on a balancing act between NATO and Russia’

Turkey remains fully committed to NATO in practice, and has no willingness to distance itself from the Alliance, according to international relations expert Prof Mustafa Aydın, who adds that the country at the same time develops good relations with Russia “to balance its relations.”

“From the Turkish perspective, there is a growing feeling that Turkish security perceptions are differing from the rest of the Western alliance,” says Aydın.

“This is becoming the established thinking in Turkey.”

U.S. President Donald Trump criticized NATO members’ burden-sharing. I guess Turkey is not a target of these criticisms.

Turkey does not comply with the target of 2 percent (of GDP for defense spending). But it does better than most others, with 1.5 percent. All the statements coming from NATO acknowledge Turkish contribution. They express concern over Turkey’s decision to buy S-400 missiles from Russia, but [the reaction] is mild.

Sometimes there are unjust discussions in Western media on whether Turkey is moving away from NATO or whether Turkey would leave NATO. But there is no such discussion at all in Turkey.  I think this is a kind of a bargaining policy from the allies: Putting Turkey into a kind of defensive position.

Turkey is heavily involved in many of NATO’s operations. It accepted to become a part of the transatlantic missile defense system with the Kürecik radar in [eastern province of] Malatya. And at the moment, we are also offering the military headquarters in Istanbul to the new land command structure.

How should one read the statement on Syria?

NATO will provide tailored assurance measures to respond to security challenges from the south. It shows that NATO has an increased awareness about threats from the southern flank. Turkey and other southern members have been complaining that there was too much focus on the eastern flank and that the southern flank was being neglected.

NATO now says: “We recognize the problems in the south and we recognize that Turkey is facing a threat.” It singles out Turkey among the southern flank countries. In NATO terminology it says we are ready to support measures specific to your needs.

Has NATO been reshaping itself against Russia?

The NATO-Russia cooperation which was established after the end of the Cold War started to deteriorate in 2008 with the Russia-Georgia war. But it was the annexation of Crimea that has really shaken this relationship.

Actually, many NATO countries might have accepted the status quo in Crimea, although never admitting that officially. But Russians have not stopped there. They keep the pressure and violate the Alliance’s air space regularly and systematically. These are hostile actions. NATO had to respond, and they have started to take measures.

How is Turkey’s stance?

Turkey is contributing, but not that much, because Turkey has been dealing with many other security problems, especially those coming from the south. In addition, Turkey is looking at these issues with a little bit of concern. The enhancement of NATO’s presence in the Black Sea region is something Turkey is very lukewarm about. We are not saying we oppose it, but I know Turkey is not very happy.

The Turkish thinking is that equilibrium has been created in the Black sea area which keeps stability there, and because of the special relationship Turkey has developed with Russia, Turkey does not want to push Russia to the corner. Turkey believes that if you push Russia to a corner, the Russians will react.

How should one read Turkey’s offers to increase its contribution; after all these are efforts against Russia?

Not really. Turkey wishes to assume the command of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) in 2021 for instance, and this force can be used in any area. No specific threat was mentioned when it was created. What prompted it, of course, was the increased threat perception from Russia, but also that from non-state actors.

But NATO’s initiatives against Russia are not opposed by Turkey.

Looking from the NATO perspective, these steps are prompted by Russia. What started all this is Russian aggression in Georgia and then in Ukraine.

Russians say they act against NATO’s enlargement.

But independent countries can make their own decisions on whichever organization they want to belong to.

Coming back to Turkey, obviously it is a difficult situation, but this is not unique to Turkey. International politics has become transactional. It is no longer based on principles; countries endorse case-by-case responses. Trump openly criticized Germany for continuing to buy Russian gas, for instance. All the countries are transactional.

Ankara is trying to balance its relations. From the Turkish perspective, there is a growing feeling that Turkish security perceptions are differing from the rest of the Western alliance. This is becoming the established thinking in Turkey.

Which means NATO membership alone is not sufficient to respond to all the threats.

NATO does not have the same threat perceptions. They don’t attach the same importance to the problems Turkey believes is important.

Isn’t this exactly why some members are thinking Turkey is drifting away from NATO.

Exactly. However, Turkey has no willingness to distance itself from NATO. Turkey wants NATO to understand what Turkey perceives as threats and include them in the NATO parlance.

Still, instead of resenting NATO and downsizing its commitments, it increases its contributions.

Exactly, it remains fully committed to NATO in practice, too. Turkey is distinguishing between NATO as an organization and some of its members. Turkish decision-makers say: “We have a problem with some NATO countries, which unofficially are acknowledging imposing a sort of an arms embargo against Turkey like Germany and the U.S., which are sometimes considering preventing the delivery of strategic weaponry to Turkey.” They are annoyed that some of them have deals with the PKK. But NATO has a separate identity, so Turkey’s military-to-military relations are even increasing and expanding.

Do you think NATO remains indispensable for Turkey’s security?

It is indispensable, but not only militarily. NATO is now the only linchpin keeping Turkey within the Western system.

To what degree will the S-400s spoil relations?

It is a spoiler. Within NATO there would be some level of professionalism and they will stick to the argument that the allies are free to make their own choices. But NATO asks its members to buy from each other. The real issue is, of course, how to integrate it [S-400s] with NATO forces. NATO is linking everything with IT. And it is impossible to integrate weaponry with a different type of IT. It does not fit, and secondly, if you do that, it might obtain sensitive information from your own IT system which NATO would not accept.

Turkey ‘on a balancing act between NATO and Russia’WHO IS MUSTAFA AYDIN?

Professor Mustafa Aydın graduated from Ankara University’s international relations department in 1988. He obtained an MA in international relations and strategic studies in 1991 and a PhD in political sciences and international relations in 1994 from Britain’s Lancaster University.

He was appointed as rector of Kadir Has University in February 2010. He completed his term in early 2018.

Aydın is also the president of the International Relations Council of Turkey, governing board member of the World Council for Middle Eastern Studies and OECD International Management of Higher Education Program, as well as a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Art.

He also served as an adviser for the International Center for Black Sea Studies (2003-2011) and the Hellenic Center for European Studies (2005-2010).