The nature of the NATO-Turkey relationship

Despite the S-400 elephant in the room, Turkey and NATO seem to be getting on well. Given this rosy outlook, is the NATO-Ankara template a model for Turkey’s other institutional and official relations? Not really. NATO does not act positively towards Turkey out of sheer benevolence. The biggest issues between NATO and Turkey are still political, and they will not just disappear.

The Turkish parliament and government marked the 69th anniversary of Turkey's accession to NATO on Feb. 18. It is rare to see Turkey’s state organizations commemorate anything related to the ‘Western bloc’ these days; but NATO has somehow been placed on a pedestal by Turkish state authorities.

“In the aftermath of the Second World War, Turkey made the historic choice to side with the free world and the Western bloc. This policy led Turkey to becoming a member of NATO on Feb. 18, 1952. Since then, NATO has been the cornerstone of Turkey's defense and security policy,” the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement praising NATO.

NATO has thus far reciprocated Turkey’s affections: whenever there is a critical juncture, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has been swift in response and intervention.

For example, right ahead of the talks regarding Turkey at the European Union summit last December, Stoltenberg called on Europe to take a positive stance towards Ankara.

Stoltenberg went farther than any head of state or institution in the Western bloc by stating, "There are differences that we have to address, but at the same time we have to realize that Turkey is part of the alliance and part of the Western family.”

In a similar vein, right before the recent ‘Gara controversy’ between the Biden administration and Ankara unfolded, Stoltenberg was firmly asserting that “allies stand in solidarity with the people of Turkey.”
As a reminder, 13 Turkish nationals were killed in the rescue operation of the Turkish Armed Forces conducted in northern Iraq. The initial U.S. State Department response insinuated ambiguity in whether the Turkish citizens were killed by friendly fire or by the PKK.

Despite the fact that 'S-400 elephant' is still in the room, Turkey and NATO seem to be getting on well. Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems must be a hindrance to this relationship, but it is not presenting itself as such.

The NATO-Turkey liaison was the key averting any actual military collusion of the latter with Greece in the summer of 2020. The exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey took off in January 2021 after a five-month hiatus. The second round of exploratory meetings is due to take place in March; without much expectation of tangible progress. Alternatively, the NATO-sponsored Greek-Turkish military envoys talks are about embark in their 10th round talks since last October.

Turkey has been leading the NATO Response Force’s “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force” (VJTF) since Jan. 1; assuming the role from Poland. This special task force, a core armed component of NATO, was created in 2014 to deter, and if necessary combat, Russia.  The VJTF core is now maintained by Turkey’s 66th Mechanized Infantry Brigade with 4,200 troops. In total, 6,400 soldiers are serving, with troops from Albania, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, the UK, and the US.

NATO officials affirm that Turkey has made “considerable logistical investments” in VJTF; as under the 66th Brigade’s command, the task force now operates the latest models of Turkish armored fighting vehicles. In other words, the VJTF sports anti-tank missiles, and artillery such as Fırtına 155 mm self-propelled howitzers, HY1-12 120 mm mortars, TOW anti-tank guided missiles (BGM-71 TOW-U.S. made), Vuran and Kirpi 4×4 armored vehicles.

Let us not forget that in such joint military operations, it is not simply ‘hard power’ at stake, but intelligence sharing. The NATO Response Force is under the command of NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) and the Joint Force Command (JFC) in Naples throughout 2021. The NATO Rapid Deployable Corps (also named the 3rd Corps) based in Istanbul is providing the NRF’s land component command. The command was formerly under Eurocorps. Ironically, the maritime command of the NRF is executed by France, with whom Turkey has soured politically.

So, Turkey may be at odds with France and Greece, but their militaries work well together. And thus far, civilian oversight has not hindered cooperation.

Given this rosy outlook, is the NATO-Ankara template a model for Turkey’s other institutional and official relations?

Not really: NATO’s dialogue with Ankara is mostly technical, not political. That dialogue is carried out through military personnel and Defense Ministry staff and their top brass.  Because of the technical nature of the relationship, parties deliver what they expect from each other.
NATO does not act positively towards Turkey out of sheer benevolence. Turkish Armed Forces are the key to an increased NATO presence in Iraq; the same is true for Afghanistan.

However, this does not mean that everything are bound to get all rosy.

The biggest issues between NATO and Turkey are still political, and they will not just disappear.

Both Turkey’s military elite and political elite at the helm, and those in opposition insist on a ‘Turkey first, Turkey first’ attitude, much like the old ‘pro-Western’ or ‘pro-Eurasian’ positions.

Turkey’s S-400 imbroglio is still in limbo. However, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar (who is also NATO’s top direct contact) indicated that S-400s may remain deactivated, as Greece did with the S-300 in 1997. The “Crete Model,”suggested by Akar back at the beginning of February, is in fact nothing new as he danced around the idea previously. However, Akar was singing a completely different tune a year ago in December 2019. Back then, the S-400s would be installed fully “by spring,” meaning spring of 2020.

Time is indeed relative.

By the way, as Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg affirmed after his meeting with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shmygal, NATO is boosting its presence in the Black Sea these days.

At a certain point, the S-400 controversy boils down to the fact that Turkey cannot just have its cake and eat it too.

March 26, 2021 Living on borrowed time