Recent Expansion of NATO and Turkey: What Are the Stakes?

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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance composed of thirty North American and European nations. It was founded in 1949 with the main mission of providing collective security against prospective threats from the Soviet bloc. Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and has contributed in this alliance by sending soldiers for NATO deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Balkans, among other locations. However, tensions within NATO’s European members have been generated towards Turkey as its prolonged struggle with the Kurds, a minority population inside Turkey and Middle Eastern nations. In addition, the acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile system by Turkey has caused anxiety among other NATO members, since had jeopardized the alliance’s security. Despite these tensions, Turkey has been a vital NATO member and is strategically placed at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Its involvement in NATO has been essential for the protection of Europe and the maintenance of regional stability.

Since the ending of the Cold War, NATO membership has extended to include former Soviet bloc nations, with Montenegro being the most recent accession in 2017. It has been viewed as a danger to the national security interests of Russia. This problem has been further exacerbated by the current crisis in Ukraine, since Ukraine has indicated a desire to join NATO and seek security from Russian aggression. Russia has used military measures to halt the growth of NATO, which it views as a security threat. Russia’s continuous invasion of Ukraine may be seen as an endeavor to retain its sphere of influence in the area and upon former Soviet states. After the attack on Ukraine, NATO has criticized Russia’s war on Ukraine and reaffirmed its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, NATO expansion has also led to friction and conflict between Russia and the West, and it continues to be a sensitive subject in international relations.

The enlargement of NATO and Turkey’s participation in the alliance has significant ramifications for regional security in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. During the first months of Russia’s war of Ukraine, Turkey controlled its position in the crisis via a variety of geopolitical and diplomatic maneuvers. As a consequence, the government of Turkey was able to pose itself as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine and escape heavy criticism from Russia and the west. Nevertheless, issues occurred in May due to Turkey’s objection to NATO expansion. Even in the context of the continuing Russian war of Ukraine, Turkey’s resistance to Finland and Sweden’s possible NATO membership was motivated by a mix of strategic, political, and security concerns.

Historically, Turkey has been wary of a significant expansion of NATO membership, since it regards this as a possible threat to its own strategic interests in the area. Turkey is the only NATO member that shares a border with Russia, and its relationship with Moscow is often fraught with tension and violence. In 2014, Turkey condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea as unlawful, but it did not join its Western allies in the sanctions system against the country. This choice was heavily influenced by the economic dependence of Turkey on Russia in energy, tourism, and commerce. Although the expansion of NATO in Europe has benefited the member states to increase the region’s peace and security, but it has also led to a feeling of uneasiness and distrust among certain nations, notably Russia. Turkey’s position as a NATO member in the Middle East has been complicated by its own political and strategic goals. Turkey is also concerned about the continuing war in Ukraine and the larger tensions between Russia and the West. Turkey has taken a cautious position on the war, aiming to strike a balance between its connections with Russia and Ukraine.

Turkey’s resistance to Finland and Sweden’s possible NATO membership may also be influenced by the country’s own political landscape. However, Finland and Sweden have been more worried about Russia’s aggressiveness in the area in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the continuing crisis in Ukraine. This has resulted in a change in their foreign policy, with both nations now pursuing stronger connections with NATO and enhanced military cooperation with the organization. While Finland and Sweden have not sought membership in NATO, they have signed “Host Nation Support” agreements with the organization, allowing NATO soldiers to utilize their territory for training and other activities. In addition, they have engaged in military exercises organized by NATO and boosted their defense budget. Finland and Sweden’s choice to pursue deeper connections with NATO was complicated, since it required weighing the advantages of expanded security cooperation against the possible dangers of antagonizing Russia. In Finland and Sweden, there is support for tighter collaboration with NATO, but there is also resistance from those who think that enhanced cooperation with NATO might aggravate relations with Russia and raise the security risk. In view of the continuing crisis in Ukraine and the deteriorating security situation in the area, Finland and Sweden are assessing the possible advantages and threats of a stronger partnership with NATO.

Also, the Ukraine crisis has presented Turkey with two unsettling questions: how to maintain a power balance in the Black Sea and how to manage its ties with Russia, Ukraine, and the West. Until now, Turkey’s approach with Russia has included both deterrence and engagement. By supplying Ukraine with military equipment to bolster its defenses, Turkey pursues a strategy of deterrence against Russia. Thus, Turkey is willing to abstain from supporting any effort to impose severe punitive sanctions on Russia or to militarily fight it. By inference, Russia is more worried about the deployment of NATO military infrastructure in Eastern Europe and the possibility of a military clash over Crimea than it is about Turkish drones. Despite the fact that there is a degree of congruence between the positions of Turkey and certain Western nations about the present crisis, convergence of their interests has not yet resulted in significant cooperation. As the battle continues, Turkey has agreed to construct a pipeline to carry Russian gas to the south and southeast of Europe that would circumvent Ukraine.

Turkey and other NATO countries seem to be on the same page in resisting Russian revisionism in the present Ukraine issue, as Russia seeks to alter the existing European security framework. The primary issue, however, is the lack of unanimity within NATO over how to tackle this war, which gives individual nations, particularly Turkey, more space for movement. On the one hand, non-EU NATO countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Turkey, have adopted a far more active foreign policy towards Ukraine, especially when it comes to supplying Kyiv with military equipment. Turkey is driving away from the United States and the United Kingdom because it does not want to violate Russia’s red lines. If Russia continues with its present escalation approach, Western players’ opposition to it will likely become more unified, and there will be less desire to participate in a grand bargain with Russia over the future of the European security system. On the other hand, Turkey’s support for Ukraine and its shared goals with European allies is directed to avoid entirely antagonizing Russia. Turkey has been noticeably missing from both Western deliberations on the Ukraine issue and the larger debate on European security. If the Ukraine situation continues in its present shape, Turkey may gain by exhibiting and selling more military products to Ukraine and developing even tighter ties with it, enhancing its contacts with the West, and partly compensating for its geopolitical weakness with respect to Russia. In these sectors, the potential for Turkish and Western collaboration has yet to be completely explored. In the future, Turkey’s historic strategy of counterbalancing Russia via its NATO geopolitical identity may become more pronounced. Even if the Ukrainian issue is momentarily brought under control, if these global shifts are not taken into consideration, the subject of Russia’s and Turkey’s roles in the reconfiguration of European security will plague Western military establishments throughout future crises.

The expansion of NATO and Turkey’s participation within the organization are complicated and diverse problems involving a variety of geopolitical and security concerns. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all NATO countries and Turkey have positioned themselves strategically amid the present global crisis. Nonetheless, all of these nations want reassurance from their friends that their respective security concerns will be handled. The stakes are ultimately enormous for all parties concerned, and any choices about NATO expansion and Turkey’s participation in the alliance will have far-reaching effects on global security and political stability.

– Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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