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The Turkish gambit and the future of NATO

Ville Korpela is executive director at the Impact Innovation Institute. Diana Mjeshtri is a policy analyst at Impact Innovation Institute. Both are members of the Councilors Program at the Atlantic Council.

We currently live in a fundamentally different and much more dangerous world than we did prior to February 24.

Ever since the beginning of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation,” the geopolitical landscape in Europe has shifted radically, and traditionally neutral countries, such as Finland and Sweden, have decided to end a crucial aspect of their national identity, formalizing their intention to join NATO — something inconceivable just a few months ago.

Meanwhile, Turkey, a long-standing member of the alliance, has stalled the newcomers’ road to NATO by criticizing the countries for harboring, and even supporting, terrorist organizations. However, it can be read between the lines that Turkey’s objection to Nordic membership doesn’t mean an outright rejection — it is a means of negotiation.

Hesitant to cut its ties with Moscow, stating that someone should keep a line of communication open with the Kremlin, Ankara has since requested several concessions from Sweden in exchange for its support. These include ending political, financial and arms support tothe Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), as well as lifting the arms embargoes and sanctions imposed on Turkey.

So, while NATO membership would provide Sweden and Finland with a security blanket against Russia, it now carries the risk of incentivizing Turkey to unveil bolder plans in Syria and the Middle East, with the United States poised to decrease its presence in the area of former strategic importance. And as the U.S. rebalances its foreign policy to align with its new status as energy exporter instead of importer, while also dealing with China and building up a presence in the Arctic, Turkey is trying to reinvent itself as the great power in the Middle East.

Russian Ambassador for Arctic Cooperation Nikolay Korchunov warned on Sunday that since Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership, the Arctic region has turned into an international theater of military operations, with the Gulf of Finland serving as a direct route to St. Petersburg — the second largest city in Russia and Putin’s home town. Regardless of this strategic proximity, however, Putin said on Monday: “As for the expansion [of NATO], including through new members of the alliance — Finland, Sweden — Russia wants to inform you that it has no problems with these states.”

One may ask whether Putin’s calm was genuine, or whether Russia had prior intelligence about Turkey’s plans to veto the two countries’ membership process in NATO.

After showing its initial red card against Sweden’s and Finland’s accession, on Monday Erdoğan said that Ankara soon plans to launch new military operations along its southern borders, creating a 30-kilometer-deep safe zone to combat terrorist threats from the region. At the same time, the Turkish president has also attacked his country’s traditional opponent, Greece, saying Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis “no longer exists” for him, because of his stance on Turkey’s veto.

Could we possibly be seeing the beginning of Turkey’s pull-out of NATO, or is this all part of dangerous brinkmanship that Erdoğan is playing, copying tactics that Putin has used over the last two decades with apparent impunity?

Initially, Turkey was hoping that NATO’s open-door policy would also help them become a member of the European Union. But since this hasn’t happened, under Erdoğan, it’s been reimagining itself as the protector of Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, aiming to restore its traditional sphere of influence across the territory of the former Ottoman Empire.

And in the absence of any legal limits to the veto by its members, Turkey has now torn NATO with a geopolitical gambit: to either keep its door open to Sweden and Finland and sacrifice the Kurdish people and their territory, or to accept Turkey’s veto and weaken the resolve and unity of the alliance.

Given these developments, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg should undertake robust diplomatic efforts toward negotiating an agreement among current NATO members, focusing on the non-use of the veto in cases where more than three-quarters of members support a new applicants’ entry to the organization.

But with nothing less than the unity of Western resolve at stake, and the strategic emphasis of great power competition moving to the Arctic and East Asia, the time may have come for NATO to carefully assess the value of Turkey’s membership, or to lift the unanimous voting requirement to keep its open-door policy alive. As the alliance gathers for its Madrid Summit this June to adopt the new strategic concept, questions regarding its future direction and the very nature of our global order have never been timelier.

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