Turkey has been a part of NATO since February of 1952. And it took more than two years for this country to join the North Atlantic military alliance, which it was allowed to do only after meeting the US political requirements, which included rejecting Atatürk’s one-party political system in favor of democratizing the electoral process and establishing a multi-party system, as well as liberalizing trade relations and strengthening the position of pro-Western capital.
Between 1945 and 1952, the United States and the United Kingdom both succeeded in preventing Turkey from losing territory to the Soviet Union after Stalin recognized Turkey’s neutrality as hostile towards the USSR during WW II and made territorial demands to Ankara concerning the status of the Black Sea straits and the fate of a portion of western Armenia (Kars, Ardahan, Artvin, and Ararat). According to the officials from the Embassy of Turkey in Moscow (especially Mustafa Kunt and Berksun Hasan), the “nuclear umbrella” of the West was what gave confidence to Turkey and kept the mentioned lands within Turkey’s boundaries. Stalin did not dare to strike Turkey, and in Potsdam, the USSR took Poland instead of Turkey in its zone of interest.
As a result, Turkey’s eastern territories and western straits were “rescued” by the leaders of the Anglo-Saxon world twice in the twentieth century (after World Wars I and II). All of this, along with the strategic value of its location at the juncture of continents and access to the sea made Turkey eligible for membership in NATO. Naturally, decades of membership in the North Atlantic Alliance, on the one hand, guaranteed Turkey’s security, but on the other, deprived it of key elements of independence from the foreign policy dictate of the USA.
During the 1974 Cypriot crisis, Turkey felt the full force of “American democracy,” for it was the United States, dissatisfied with Archbishop Makarios’ independent policy and pro-communist passion that actually authorized the landing of a Turkish sea assault in the northern part of the island and its occupation (“Operation Attila”). However, Turkey was subjected to a US military embargo that lasted until 1978 and was lifted during President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
During the Cold War, Turkey was an outpost of the United States and NATO on the southeastern flank against the USSR and the Warsaw Pact because of its geographical proximity to, and historical contradictions with, Russia. In February 1986, US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said, “Turkey, with land and sea borders with the USSR and Bulgaria, occupies a key position on the Soviet Union’s path to the Mediterranean and is an outpost of NATO’s southern flank.” The US and NATO placed on Turkish territory about 60 various military installations and bases. These include Incirlik Air Base located not far from the city of Adana, the radio and electronic surveillance centers in Sinop and Anadolu Kavağı (Bosporus Strait), NATO Joint Staff at South-eastern part of South-European Theater in Izmir, the US 6th Fleet ships that refuel in Turkish sea ports, etc.
The United States’ operational interests in Turkey slightly changed after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War as it became clear that Russia no longer posed a military threat to NATO’s interests in general and Turkey’s interests in particular. Instead, the United States was more interested in enlarging its sphere of influence in the Middle East and the Black Sea basin. Although still important to NATO, Turkey has lost some of its appeal as an “anchor” on the southern border of the theater, where there was no other option, particularly in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and the dissolution of the regional military alliance CENTO. By including the nations of the Black Sea (Bulgaria and Romania) in NATO, actively collaborating with Georgia and Ukraine, as well as entering Iraq and a portion of Syria, the USA has increased its sphere of influence in the aforementioned regions.
Turkish citizens remember the United States and NATO for four coups d’etat in the second half of the twentieth century (1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997), when Turkish leaders’ enthusiasm for an independent foreign policy led to their demise and the military leadership of the General Staff of the Armed Forces took power. A similar US attempt to depose the “unwanted and unmanageable President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan” failed miserably in July 2016. Erdoğan’s life was saved in large part due to the Russian Russian Foreign Intelligence’s informational assistance during those crisis days.
Washington has always taken a radical stance toward its military and political allies and partners whenever local leaders deviate from the US course. To that end, the CIA Directorate of Covert Operations has a covert unit that conducts active measures to eliminate undesirable politicians and forces, Operation Gladio.
A mistrust crisis erupted between Washington and Ankara in 2003, when the Turkish Parliament refused to allow the Fourth United States Army to pass through Turkish territory to occupy Iraq. Since 2009, when Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Strategic Depth Doctrine (indeed, a declaration of a new, neo-Ottomanist foreign policy strategy) was published, Turkey under Recep Erdoğan has gradually started to pursue a foreign policy distinct from that of the United States, focusing on contemporary Turkic states in the post-Soviet space in order to strengthen its independence and revive its status as a major power. Naturally, this strategy could not please the USA and was of concern to a number of other states bordering Turkey.
The development of mutually beneficial relations with Russia (including not only economic and trade, but also military and technical cooperation) and Erdoğan’s policy of making Turkey a key transit state for the export of energy resources from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union to Europe drew criticism from the United States. As a result, Washington imposed military restrictions on Ankara once more, specifically by declining to give Turkey its Patriot air defense systems, F-35 or F-16 fighter jets. Turkey’s relations with the United States in the run-up to the 2023 general elections and the approaching 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey have been strained.
President Erdoğan started to conduct active peacekeeping diplomacy to end hostilities after the deterioration of Russian-Ukrainian relations and the beginning of the special operation by the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine in 2022. Turkey declined to participate in anti-Russian sanctions not approved by the UN. Moreover, Ankara initially opposed Finland and Sweden to join NATO due to their support of pro-Kurdish forces linked to the PKK.
Sadly, the tragedy of the catastrophic earthquake in southeast Turkey, which claimed more than 49,000 lives and left behind massive devastation (the damage is proverbially estimated at $100 billion) has presented the Turkish leadership with a difficult choice. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in need of additional funding and lucrative loans for reconstruction work. He has been the target of scathing pre-election criticism from his rivals, and is aware of how the United States is contributing to Turkey’s current predicament. Yet, Erdoğan (like his forerunners) is very adaptable and centered on Turkish interests.
Erdoğan has consented to Finland’s membership in NATO in light of the country’s acknowledged economic issues and in an endeavor to revive a strong (great) Turkey. This poses new issues and tensions for Russia in the northwest and will necessitate more work along the 1,330 km border with Finland. The interests of high confidence and strategic collaboration between Turkey and Russia are hardly served by President Erdoğan’s stance on this topic, as well as other concerns (such as the status of Crimea or competition in the regions of the South Caucasus and Central Asia).
Turkey, as a NATO member, clearly serves as an effective tool and instrument of the United States and the North Atlantic Alliance in the post-Soviet southeastern regions. Active military and technical cooperation between Turkey and Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan is being developed. The importance of Turkish command and combat equipment on Azerbaijan’s side during the second Karabakh war is well known, and Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises have become routine. With the formation of the Organization of Turkic States in November 2021, a number of politicians in Turkey make statements about plans to create a new military bloc called “The Turan Army” from time to time.
All of these processes cannot contribute to Eurasian peace and security, and are causing concern in a number of countries bordering Turkey, as well as undermining trust between Moscow and Ankara. The latter is actively pursued by Washington.
Naturally, Turkish citizens have the sovereign right to elect a new Turkish leader and a new parliament. In all areas of interstate relations, Russia seeks a fruitful and mutually beneficial partnership with Turkey (including in economics, culture, politics, defense and security). However, in Russia, NATO’s expansion into the southeastern regions of the post-Soviet space on “Turkey’s shoulders” is unlikely to be viewed positively.
It is worth reminding Turks that Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine was not so much a result of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, but of NATO’s desire to include nationalist Ukraine in its ranks and create a belt of instability around the Russian Federation. Today, Turkey bases its military operations in Iraq and Syria on concerns about its own security, ostensibly to combat Kurdish separatism (though what do Iraqi or Syrian Kurds have to do with Turkish separatism?). Russia, too, has its own set of interests and “red lines” near its borders. If Turks advocate neo-Ottomanism, why can’t Russians defend the Russian world and the Russian state’s interests in their historical interest and presence?
Russia poses no military threat to Turkey’s security, either alone or as part of a bloc. Accordingly, Moscow can expect Ankara to take a similar approach. Attempts by the West, represented by the United States and the United Kingdom, to continue the historical tradition of using Turkey as a tool of anti-Russian strategy will be met with opposition from both Russia and the countries targeted by this NATO policy.