Russia And Turkey: Is Putin Trying To Pull Turkey Away From NATO?

Recent interactions between Russia and Turkey, and specifically their respective leaders – Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan – have caused some concern among Turkey’s NATO allies that the volatile nation may be drifting away from NATO toward a closer link with Putin’s Russia.

Such a shift in Turkey’s relationship with the NATO alliance would have a tremendous impact on the balance of power in the region, as well as United States strategies for confronting an increasingly aggressive Russia. The truly amazing thing about this situation is that – if true – this shift in the Russia and Turkey relationship would represent a complete 180° turn in a few months.

As reported by the BBC at the time, it was only nine months ago that Turkey shot down a Russian fighter that – according to Turkey – drifted into Turkish territory. Russia had been testing the Turkish border in this way for some time. The Syrians – as well as the Russians – had objected to Turkey’s policy of allowing Syrian rebel soldiers and arms to pass freely across their border.

Relations between the two countries soured fairly quickly after this shoot-down. In addition to a small trade war flaring up, by January there was the possibility of the real thing breaking out. Such a war between Turkey and Russia would have also been a disaster for NATO, since Turkey’s NATO membership would have guaranteed the intervention of other powers like the United States and the United Kingdom.

A supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves a flag against an electronic billboard during a rally in Ankara.
Russia’s decision to cut off tourism to Turkey may have influenced Turkey’s decision to try to tone down the animosity between the two powers. Thousands of Russians visit Turkey every year, bringing tourist cash with them. The loss of a gas pipeline was another blow. But there are other even more substantial reasons why Turkey might have attempted a rapprochement with the Russians.

Turkey’s present leader, President Erdogan, has a different view of Turkey’s future than did his predecessors. Since the days of Ataturk, Turkey has attempted to maintain a close relationship with the West – and particularly the United States – as well as a separation between the activities of government and religion.

Erdogan has a far closer connection to Islamic fundamentalism than prior Turkish leaders. This connection frequently places him at odds with nations like the United States that have been – as fellow members of NATO – close allies of Turkey for decades.

As Time points out, the current chaotic situation in Syria and surrounding territories – largely resulting from the Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS – has certainly made political alliances in the region unstable. Turkey opposes the Kurds, the Kurds and Turks both oppose ISIS, Turkey opposes Syria, Syria opposes virtually everyone. Russia and the United States have thrown themselves into the mix as well.

In addition to the above, you also have participants from Iran, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. You literally can’t tell the players without a program.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a State Council Presidium meeting.
In this unstable setting, it seems clear that Vladimir Putin has recognized an opportunity to turn the relief of tensions between Turkey and Russia into something more. He’s almost certainly salivating at the opportunity to drive a diplomatic and even military wedge between Turkey and the rest of NATO.

The recent coup attempt against Erdogan by segments of the Turkish military has only made the situation more volatile. And volatility and distrust favors the interests of Russia. President Erdogan and several of his key government advisors have openly suggested that the United States was somehow behind the attempted coup.

Whether these officials actually believe this or simply want to use this as an excuse for distancing themselves from the United States is unclear. Some outside of Turkey have suggested that the entire coup may have been staged by Erdogan himself in order to create a pretext for cracking down on his political opposition.

Certainly, thousands of people in government, the military, and academia have been rounded up and arrested. The United States’ response to this draconian crackdown has annoyed Turkish authorities, who feel that the United States should have more strongly supported them. Given the instability of the existing situation in the region – and in Turkey in particular – it remains to be seen whether Russia and Turkey will form a closer relationship than anyone thought possible at the beginning of the year.

[Photo by Guneev Sergey/Getty Images]