by Ioannis E. Kotoulas
Is Turkey really needed as a NATO member? Does the cost of keeping Turkey as a NATO member begin to exceed the benefits of its inclusion? These questions, difficult as they may be, should be increasingly raised inside the Alliance. The issue is essential, especially as the U.S. on its own and NATO as a collective security framework intensify their efforts to confront the challenges of the Eurasian revisionist powers, Russian aggression and revisionism in Eastern Europe, Chinese hostile assertion in East and Southeast Asia, and Iranian proxy activities and oppressive record over the Middle East.
During the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkey has kept an ambivalent stance enabling Russia to evade the economic sanctions imposed by both the U.S. and the EU. Turkey is deepening its economic ties to Russia disregarding the united Western stance. More importantly, Turkey is still blocking the enlargement of NATO with the inclusion of Finland and Sweden, while all other NATO members have already ratified their accession. On Feb. 16, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the “time is now” for Turkey to ratify applications by Finland and Sweden to join the Alliance, a prospect hindered by Turkey evoking its veto power as a member-state. The Russian invasion has produced a seismic effect on Swedish and Finnish self-perception concerning their security and changed overnight decades of self-imposed neutrality. Turkey is using its veto power as a leverage against Finland and Sweden.
Over the last years, Turkey’s unilateral and compromising for NATO interests actions include support for different armed groups of Islamist affiliations in Syria; its 2019 purchase of S-400, a sophisticated Russian antiaircraft system over fierce objections by the United States and other NATO members; its interference in Libya, with transport of Syrian fighters and violation of the UN arms embargo; its aggressive drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean violating the rights of EU member-state Cyprus; its frequent attacks on Arab states for normalizing ties with Israel and its increasing use of state-sponsored disinformation and the autarchic transformation of Turkish society. In the framework of the Alliance Turkey has blocked NATO partnerships for countries which are considered not friendly, like Israel, Armenia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. In 2020 Turkey engaged in a spiral of aggressive regional policy in the Eastern Mediterranean against two EU member-states, Greece, and Cyprus, even instrumentalizing migration flows as a weapon against the EU and Greece in particular.
Despite all these transgressions and more essentially despite the amicable relationships with the Moscow-Beijing axis in the context of the West’s confrontation with Russia in Ukraine, the consensus among NATO hierarchy runs that Turkey should be kept as a member of NATO -at an ever-increasing cost for NATO cohesion and credibility. There is no mechanism in NATO’s founding treaty to allow the expulsion of a member against its will. Still, Turkey can be forced to a de facto expulsion. After all, Turkey is already since years on its way out. Essentially the time has come to declare that all member-states should share the fundamental views of NATO, not just in principle but in practice also. Turkey is increasingly finding itself at odds with the values and mission of NATO as a framework of Western interests against Russian interferences and regional aggression.
Turkey is a member-state of NATO since 1952, when along with Greece they formed the South East Flank providing stability against the Eastern Bloc and Soviet incursions on a front extending from the Aegean Sea to the Caucasus. The ongoing transformation of Turkish foreign policy under the Erdogan regime Turkey is increasingly adopting unilateral regional policies, while it functions as an agent of Russian influence in NATO, West Asia, and the Mediterranean.
Greece on the other hand has radically altered its self-perception in the last years from a peripheral EU member-state tied to the Brussels bureaucratic core to a dynamic independent actor in the Mediterranean. Greece is a state in a strategic position, in control of the largest naval base in the Mediterranean, Souda Bay. Greece features the 4th strongest air force in Europe in total military aircraft fleet and the 2nd in fighter jets after France. Greece is one of the few European countries with a standing mandatory military service (conscription) system. Greece could host the US nuclear missiles currently stationed in Incirlik Base of Turkey in the case their transport out of Turkish territory is considered a strategic move. Greece aspires to form a vital bridge between Europe, the states of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf. By upgrading its military forces and its ties to the U.S. Greece is poised to become once again a frontline state that can project power towards the Black Sea, Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.
NATO can create regional frameworks of cooperation that shall include external amicable states and shall act as forward frontier NATO mechanisms. In the Eastern Mediterranean two NATO members, France, and Greece, have already established patterns of military and economic cooperation through overlapping multilateral networks with Israel, Cyprus, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE. Establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum and cooperation from the Mediterranean to the Gulf highlights an emerging new regional order uniting three major seas (Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, Gulf) and three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa). Using reliable member-states, as Greece, and potential partners, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as focal points of outward power projection, NATO can evolve and effectively combat the increased Russian interference from Libya to Syria and the Balkans. NATO can remain a meaningful framework of safety and deterrence against Russian influence and the rise of China in Eurasia and in Africa, new mentalities should be developed and a completely new perception of NATO’s spatial mission. NATO should be able to keep a reliable presence over an extended geographical area from the Arctic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and the coasts of Africa.
Western diplomats are only avoiding the inevitable and losing time that could be well spent in the spatial restructuring of NATO’s priorities against Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus and Chinese ambitions in the Mediterranean and Africa. The time has come for a coherent NATO without Turkey.
Dr. IOANNIS E. KOTOULAS (Ph.D. in Geopolitics, Ph.D. in History) is Adjunct Lecturer in Geopolitics at the University of Athens. His latest book is Geopolitics of the War in Ukraine (Foreign Affairs Institute, 2022).