Reilly Barry

Policymakers have discussed Turkey’s role within NATO constantly in the last decade. Headlines on this matter usually summarize the debate with slogans like “Who lost Turkey?” and other familiar frameworks. 2022 swiftly came with the realization that we can no longer afford to think this way. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this discussion cleaved into two camps— one where commentators lamented Turkey’s role in mediation and another where it was celebrated, with renewed hopes for Turkey coming back into the fold and embrace of the West. This policy note does not seek to add to commentary and opinion already proliferating on this matter. What it does seek to do is to evaluate Turkey’s contribution as a NATO member state in the Ukraine crisis and secondly, to offer reflections on the existential nature of questioning Turkey’s membership in the alliance as NATO looks and grows toward its 2030 vision.

        Unquestionably, “the crisis over Ukraine has reignited the geopolitical relevance of Turkey and NATO for each other,” as Kemal Kirişci of Brookings Institute stated. A cursory glance at Turkey’s contributions so far includes its self-selected role as mediator between Russia and Ukraine, its notable absence of invoking sanctions against Russia, and its implementation of the 1936 Montreux Convention (Montrö Sözleşmesi) to block access of Russian ships through the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits. Let us turn to the implications of these actions for the Ukraine crisis and NATO alliance.

Mediator and Absence of Sanctions

        Taking on the role of mediator between Russia and Ukraine, Turkey solidified its position as a powerful regional player, which it has attempted to build up over recent years. A 1958 Time Magazine article profiling Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes said that, “the U.S. could be grateful that it had so rugged an ally in so vital a location…as the one power belonging to both NATO and the Baghdad Pact, Turkey is an anchor in a chain of alliances that the free world has forged to head off Russian aggression.” Turkey’s mediation between Ukraine and Russia should not be viewed as being at cross-purposes with heading off Russian aggression in 1958 or in today’s climate. There are geopolitical realities that Turkey grapples with, that have changed since the years NATO’s founding. Threat perceptions change over decades. On March 17, 2022 according to statements from Ibrahim Kalın, Presidential Spokesperson for Turkish President Erdoğan, a balance between NATO’s commitments which it promises to fulfill, and heeding its own best interests for territorial integrity, must be struck. Half of Turkey’s gas needs are dependent on Russia.

        Kalın said that in the aftermath of the war, “there will have to be a new security architecture established between Russia and the Western bloc” and that, “every decision we make now regarding Russia militarily, politically, economically, and otherwise will have an impact on that new security architecture” (Pearson, Middle East Institute). This new security architecture will be something that NATO needs to seriously consider, in terms of both its strategic 2030 Vision and its founding principles. To the chagrin of Western states and other NATO members, Turkey abstained from applying sanctions toward Russia. Policymakers consider this in hand with Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s from Russia in 2017, a major point of contention between Turkey and NATO, to be discussed in the second installment of this paper series. Turkey attempted to strike a balanced chord to keep its fraught relationship with Russia sustainable for its own security apparatus and to assist Ukraine, and ultimately seek as swift as possible an end to the outbreaking conflict.

Montreux Convention (Montrö Sözleşmesi)

       While Turkey has assisted Ukraine with military and arms support, an important move was declaring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “war” on February 27, 2022, in contrast to language which Russian officials at all state levels were applying to the breach of territorial integrity at that point. Once Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu labeled the conflict as war, Turkey could fully implement Article 19 under the 1936 Montreux Convention which stipulates that, under wartime conditions, warships of belligerent nations are barred from accessing the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits. This halts movements of any wartime ships between the Black Sea and Mediterranean, apart from allowing Russian ships at the time of the announcement to use the straits to return to their fleet.

         While the declaration of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a wartime act by Turkey is expected as a NATO member, it allays fears that Turkey has turned away from the West or is pro-Russia in the conflict. While Turkey is still on reasonable terms with Russia now as it continues to attempt peace brokering, former Turkish diplomat Sinan Ülgen says that Turkey’s implementation of the Montreux Convention could further antagonize Russia if, over time, a scenario comes “where Russia claims that the war is over, but the international community and Turkey do not recognize that” (Isler, CNBC). President Zelensky took to Twitter to urge Erdoğan to implement the Montreux Convention, and on February 26 wrote, “I thank my friend Mr. President of Turkey @RTErdogan and the people of Turkey for their strong support. The ban on the passage of Russian warships to the Black Sea and significant military and humanitarian support for Ukraine are extremely important today. The people of Ukraine will never forget that!” While these measures do not drastically change the overall power balance in the Black Sea, it is a move of major political importance as evidenced by President Zelensky’s remarks to Turkey on behalf of Ukraine.

Turkey's continued NATO commitment

        To echo pundits and policymakers over the past months, “Turkey’s role now as NATO member [in the Ukraine crisis] moves to center stage” (Pearson, Middle East Institute). Having provided drones and other levels of support to Ukraine, fulfilling NATO commitments and implementing the 1936 Montreux Convention for the first time since World War II while keeping Russia in the fold to facilitate mediation, Turkey occupied a central international role. Considering discussion on Turkey’s viability and future in the alliance, its continued importance and partnership cannot be underscored enough.

        One of the most pressing challenges facing the NATO Alliance is the erosion of shared threat perception that formed the initial strength and cohesion of the alliance. Turkey's role in NATO, for instance, was incredibly geostrategic at the time that Turkey gained membership due to its acting as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, reaffirming itself as such in the shadow of Ukraine tragedies today. Now, in the wake of the breakdown of the USSR and the shift from bipolar, to briefly unipolar, to current multipower world order, we are living under a different geostrategic framework than NATO was first formed within. Thus, common threat perceptions need to be redefined and emphasized to make sure that member states understand what is at stake for all states, collectively, involved. This is to say that Turkey’s role as mediator vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine, and certain policies that it has pursued under the Erdoğan administration, need to be assessed dynamically and as part of today’s security balance.

        Misinterpreting considerations of domestic security and Turkey’s own foreign policy necessities, in addition to its NATO commitments, is harmful. Distrust of Turkey’s intentions as a NATO member would be tantamount to the underpinnings of NATO as an alliance. Looking ahead at the NATO 2030 Agenda Proposals also points out that the NATO community cannot afford to question Turkey’s position as an ally. Take Proposal 5, "Uphold the Rules-Based Order." The rules-based order that NATO is a direct product of is under existential threat from strong global actors operating in a less stable, multipower world order than ever before since the alliance was founded. This is the most important policy issue as it precedes all others; the rules-based order is threatened by several states, Russia and China at the helm, and this order could truly be upended in the years to come. It has undergone further recent hits and destabilization under the administration of Donald Trump in the U.S., and the ideals that the U.S. speaks for within NATO will also take years to regain the brunt of its credibility. Upholding the rules-based order is the foremost priority, in order so that the rest of the policy issues can be realized without existential threats. One can see that, for example but not limited to, in the cases of the United States and Turkey as NATO members, it is paramount to look beyond current administrations and their own policy formulations as well for the longevity of the alliance.

        Scholars argue that Turkey’s role in the Ukraine crisis is a golden opportunity to bring it back into the western security landscape for NATO and also to rehabilitate the bilateral relationship with the US. Past these analyses, however, as seen with Turkey’s role in mediation and implementation of Montreux after Ukraine’s invasion, it is both reaffirmed as an integral member state and one that is continuing to fulfill its duties while understanding its own domestic risks. As Turkey looks toward its next presidential election in 2023, opposition leaders’ policies could forestall Russian advances with even stronger stances against Putin—for instance, a candidate with aspirations for Prime Minister from opposition Iyi Parti (Good Party), stated on Ukraine: “Russia’s threat to the security and sovereignty of the regional states is not a foreign policy doctrine, but a mental crisis of the type seen in Dostoevsky novels” (Meral Akşener, Twitter). Certainly, if opposition parties come to power, we will see some change in policy toward the crisis. Of the six opposition parties, varying differences in views toward handling Ukraine and Russia abound.

        This paper series investigating Turkey’s role in NATO historically, in the 20th-century, and in the Ukraine crisis underscores Turkey’s never-ending importance to the transatlantic framework. As in 1958, Turkey remains a “bulwark against Russian aggression”…but as the world operates in a different climate than mid-20th century, one must adjust the frame of analysis for assessing how states operate to preserve their interests and reinvigorate alliance commitments. Understanding holistically Turkey’s role within NATO is not just to study Turkey’s role as such—to treat Turkey’s role in NATO is to study the heart of NATO principles (and their reevaluations) themselves. One must look to the past, to founding principles which enable members to “consult and cooperate on defense and security-related issues to solve problems, build trust and, in the long run, prevent conflict.” At the same time one looks to the future, in the 2030 Agenda, involving “deeper political consultation and coordination” and “improved resilience” (NATO, June 2021). Turkey’s maneuvers in the conflict heighten awareness in the NATO community to work together cohesively with all members and to not alienate strategic and reliable partners.