NATO Plays It Cool as Russia and Turkey Grow Closer

Washington and its allies are insisting that the relationship with Turkey is as healthy as ever, despite Erdogan moving into Putin’s embrace.

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and John Hudson
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 23: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend an opening ceremony for the newly restored Moscow Cathedral Mosque on September 23, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 23: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend an opening ceremony for the newly restored Moscow Cathedral Mosque on September 23, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

NATO on Wednesday took the unusual step of reaffirming that Turkey, a member state since 1952, is in fact still part of the alliance. Turkey’s status, NATO said in a statement, “is not in question.”

But lately it seems like it is. Ankara and Moscow are rekindling their close ties after a nearly nine-month freeze, brought about by tensions over the civil war in Syria and Russian fury over Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet that violated its airspace last November. For much of last fall, Vladimir Putin threw insults and economic embargoes at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — accusing him, for example, of helping run the Islamic State’s oil-smuggling operations — as economic ties and tourism between the two countries dwindled.

This week, though, the grimaces turned to grins as the two leaders sought to rededicate themselves to creating the “strategic partnership” they’ve talked about for years and that would include high-profile energy projects like a natural gas pipeline and a nuclear power plant. Putin and Erdogan held an unusually friendly meeting Tuesday, and a Turkish military delegation is bound for St. Petersburg Wednesday to hammer out new “defense ties” between the two countries.

“Turkey-Russia relations are much better than the past,” Erdogan said after their nearly two-hour meeting in St. Petersburg, according to a press release put out by his office. “Both sides are determined and have the required will to bring the relations to the previous levels and even take it beyond.”

Putin was just as effusive, telling reporters that the “meeting is of major significance for the future of bilateral relations.”

The newfound thaw is a sign that Putin sees a chance to exploit divisions between Turkey and its partners in the West, especially the European Union, NATO, and the United States. Right when Ankara feels abandoned or betrayed by the West, Putin is again dangling juicy incentives to draw Erdogan closer into his embrace.

“I think [Putin] will use this fear in Ankara to offer both commercial deals and political deals to move Turkey closer to Russia,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

What makes it worrisome, from a U.S. point of view, is that the marriage of convenience comes at a time when NATO is under fire from other quarters. War planners have already suggested that alliance members right now would have trouble defending the Baltic region from a Russian attack. And Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has questioned the alliance’s very utility and said he wouldn’t necessarily help out allies like the Baltic states if they were invaded by Russia.

“Putin’s dream would be to break up the NATO alliance, and Turkey is one of those weak links,” said Michael Reynolds, a professor of Ottoman and Russian history at Princeton University.

Turkey and Russia are already moving closer on Syria, a major sticking point between the two counties because Ankara has long backed rebel groups attempting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a close Putin ally whom Moscow has dispatched troops and warplanes to defend.

On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the state-run Anadolu Agency that Moscow and Ankara now have similar views on the need for a cease-fire and access for humanitarian aid in the country. The remarks came as the Russian Defense Ministry announced a new cease-fire plan for the divided Syrian city of Aleppo involving a daily three-hour cessation of hostilities to allow humanitarian convoys to enter the war-ravaged commercial center, where as many as 2 million people lack access to clean running water, putting children at risk of disease.

Previous Russian plans for the creation of humanitarian corridors have been viewed with skepticism among the rebels and their backers, who believe Damascus uses the pauses to resupply troops. Cavusoglu’s remarks could signal a new openness toward working with Russia on ending the five-year civil war.

Turkey’s rapprochement with Moscow comes as the country is trying to mend fences with other neighbors; it ended a six-year diplomatic spat with Israel recently. But it also comes just one month after an attempted coup that came close to toppling Erdogan and has significantly soured relations between Ankara and Washington. Since the failed coup, Turkey has jailed or detained thousands of soldiers, teachers, and journalists, arguing that they have ties to the network of Fethullah Gulen, a controversial cleric and Erdogan critic who lives in the United States.

Turkey blames Gulen and his followers for organizing the coup attempt and has sought his extradition from the United States. But U.S. officials have not been persuaded that Gulen orchestrated the botched military putsch and have said any extradition request would depend on the evidence — a posture that has infuriated Ankara. Far-fetched allegations in the Turkish press have blamed a range of U.S. actors for the coup, including the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank.

For most Turks, the coup attempt, replete with jets bombing the capital city of Ankara and buzzing the streets of Istanbul, packed a huge psychological punch. It has left both the government and opposition parties reeling and looking for the support they feel has been lacking from the West, especially in Washington.

“We don’t appreciate enough how traumatic that was for Turkey — the last time Ankara came under attack was 1402, when the army of Tamerlane occupied it,” Cagaptay said. He called the failed coup “the most traumatic event since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire,” just after World War I.

And yet, many Turks complain, erstwhile allies were critical of their elected government even while it fought to put down the coup attempt. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, for example, urged “restraint” when he spoke with his Turkish counterpart shortly after the failed coup. Putin, in contrast, was quick to call and offer Erdogan his “unconditional support,” Turkey says.

“The United States has really handled the coup attempt horribly, and that has made a bad situation even worse,” Reynolds said. That, he said, made some inside Turkey think, “‘My God, we really would like to have closer relations with the Russians just to stick it to the U.S.’”

If the U.S. State Department is concerned about warming ties between Moscow and Ankara, it’s not showing it. On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said there’s nothing wrong or unusual with Erdogan paying a visit to his Russian counterpart, even if the United States has sharp disagreements with Moscow. “It’s not a zero-sum game,” she said.

A senior State Department official, speaking on background, took a similar attitude. “We would no more judge Turkey going and visiting Moscow than Turkey should judge us going and visiting France,” the official said. “They do have a lot in common. They do have economic ties. They are doing business deals.”

At any rate, many experts believe that Turkey’s more than 60 years inside the NATO alliance will help anchor the country to the West despite Erdogan’s flirtation with Putin. And even if both Turkey and Russia are seized with anti-American or anti-Western sentiment right now, that’s hardly glue enough for a lasting bond, others argue.

But for now Putin has been quick to seize the opportunity for rapprochement that was already in the air before the botched coup. He said Tuesday that Russia would start unwinding economic sanctions on Turkish firms and roll back travel restrictions. He also vowed to jump-start long-stalled energy projects between the two countries, saying that “energy and energy projects constitute the key point in our bilateral ties.” Turkey is Russia’s second-biggest customer for natural gas, after Germany, and one of the few markets in Europe poised to grow.

Taken together, that would essentially put the two countries back where they were last year, before Turkish F-16s and Russian intransigence threw a wrench in the works, Cagaptay said.

“Russia wants to use this opportunity to make Turkey like what it was a year ago: a member of NATO’s southern flank that doesn’t always play with the United States,” he said.

Photo credit: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP