Why Russian actions will help keep Turkey aligned with Western powers

Why Russian actions will help keep Turkey aligned with Western powers

Paul Iddon
Relations between Turkey and the United States over the course of the past six decades have seen their ups-and-downs. In the 1970s, Washington imposed an arms embargo on its fellow NATO ally following its military intervention in northern Cyrus. More recent years have seen divergence between the two over the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurdish issue and the present crisis in Syria. 

While many interests and outlooks between Ankara, Washington and the other powers diverge on a multitude of issues, it’s doubtful Turkey will “go east” anytime soon. Indeed, one just has to look back to how Turkey became so solidified in the Western bloc to understand why it is likely to stay there. Russia’s recent intervention into the Syrian conflict, on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the recent incursions by Russian jets into Turkish airspace has irked Ankara, whose primary goal in Syria is to see to the end of the al-Assad regime. 

Turkey was neutral during World War II. Early on in the Cold War (1952), however, it joined the NATO camp, and the context in which it did so serves as perhaps an apt historical precedent to the present situation. The Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, had his suspicions about the Turks for remaining neutral and chose to aggressively stake his claim to large swaths of eastern Anatolia, which led Ankara to view the Soviet bloc and its motives toward the Turkish Republic with deep suspicion. Stalin also supported separatist movements in Iran’s Azeri and Kurdish regions during the same period. Tehran subsequently grew closer to the United States, at least partially, as a result of Washington’s assistance in helping that country reassert its authority over all its sovereign territory.

The Soviet claims that Ankara cede parts of its national territory ceased after Stalin’s death. By that time, Turkey was also fighting on the opposite side of the Soviet Union in the distant lands of Korea during the Korean War of the early 1950s and was saliently in the Western camp, or on the Western “side,” if you will, throughout the rest of the Cold War period. 

Speaking of territorial claims, Russian posturing in the Crimean region in Ukraine, where Moscow insisted it had the right to deploy nuclear weapons if it wants to, likely worries and/or annoys Ankara. A world power which insisted it can do that just to Turkey’s east (while simultaneously increasing the capacity of its forces in the Black Sea) while also directly intervening to prop up a rival regime immediately to Turkey’s south is one that Turkey is likely wary of. Despite the many differences pertaining to policy Ankara may have with its NATO allies concerning the future of Syria and the Kurdish issue, it is unlikely it views those powers as a possible threat in its own neighborhood. 

The same, however, cannot be confidently said about Moscow – especially in recent weeks. As was the case in the early years of the Cold War, suspicion of the Russians and their motives and possible designs over the strategically important region in which Turkey sits will likely see that regional power remain aligned with the Western NATO powers, despite whatever other differences and disagreements it may have with them.