Erdogan in NATO: Russia’s ‘Trojan horse’?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned from London to Ankara as a “loser” who failed to achieve anything at the NATO summit.

al-monitor Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the official opening of the new Cambridge Central Mosque, in Cambridge, Britain, Dec. 5, 2019.  Photo by Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Turkish Presidential Press Office/via REUTERS.

Dec 9, 2019

NATO celebrated its 70th birthday at its London summit. The Dec. 3-4 meeting displayed the alliance’s disunity and revealed the fissures and bad blood among the leaders of its member-states more than any previous ones despite the nine-point statement issued after the summit.

“In challenging times, we are stronger as an Alliance, and our people safer. Our bond and mutual commitment have guaranteed our freedoms, our values, and our security for seventy years. We act today to ensure that NATO guarantees those freedoms, values, and security for generations to come,” the statement said.

Prior to the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron had referred to the “brain death” of NATO in a slap at US President Donald Trump's leadership. In an awkward news conference, Trump and his French counterpart had a tense exchange over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In an earlier Al-Monitor piece, I wrote about the “transatlantic love affair” between Erdogan and Trump.

Erdogan ridiculed Macron, saying he was the one with “brain death.” More importantly, Turkey threatened to block a plan to defend the Baltic states and Poland against Russian attacks unless NATO recognized the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a terrorist group as defined by Ankara.

That was an unprecedented blackmail in NATO history. The London summit, thus, became a predicament for Erdogan. Before the meeting, Erdogan, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar trumpeted the position that if NATO did not define the YPG as a terrorist organization, the alliance’s plan for the security of the Baltic states would not be able to overcome a Turkish veto.

Erdogan’s diplomacy was twofold: To get the endorsement of the NATO for his policy in northeastern Syria and to take care of the concerns of his closest partner other than Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some observers opted to praise the Turkish president for his diplomacy of leveraging the United States and Russia against each other.

But these maneuvers did not work at the NATO summit. Any impartial and sober analyst could tell that he left the NATO summit in the most embarrassing diplomatic defeat in recent years: He came back to Ankara with empty luggage and empty-handed.

Defense One, an online site that delivers news, breaking analysis and ideas about the future of US defense and national security, wrote the following assessment: “In a sudden reversal, Turkey is now ok with NATO’s Baltic defense plan. That’s the word from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg who said in London that Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan has dropped his threat of refusing to support an alliance-wide plan to defend the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland from possible invasion by Russia. It was an unusual threat from a NATO ally.”

What did Erdogan get in return for dropping his threat?

Nothing. "No one demanded anything from us for this. We all thanked President Erdogan for his solidarity," Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told journalists in London, after a meeting between Erdogan and leaders of Poland and the Baltics, The New York Times reported.

Stoltenberg reiterated in a news conference after the summit that NATO leaders did not discuss the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia. 

Not only did Erdogan not achieve anything tangible regarding the YPG, he also did not react to statements from US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Macron. Esper, asked before the London summit if he would support “branding the YPG as terrorist in order to break the deadlock” created by Erdogan’s threat, replied, “I wouldn’t support that. We are going to stick to our positions, and I think NATO will as well.”

During the summit, Macron went as far as to accuse his Turkish counterpart of allying with the remnants of the Islamic State remnants; this was a reference to Turkey’s Syrian proxies. 

Seated alongside Trump, Macron spoke plainly about his disagreement with Turkey on who the terrorists are.

“The common enemy today is the terrorist groups. I’m sorry to say, we don’t have the same definition of terrorism around the table. When I look at Turkey, they now are fighting against those who fight with us, who fought with us shoulder to shoulder against IS and sometimes Turkey works with IS proxies. This is an issue, and this is a strategic issue,” Macron said. “I think any ambiguity with Turkey vis-a-vis these groups is detrimental to everybody for the situation on the ground.” The French president said the top priority “is not to be ambiguous with these groups, which is why we started to discuss our relations with Turkey.”

Surprisingly, Erdogan, despite his well-known skill at polemics, did not respond to Macron’s unusually harsh remarks. The Turkish media, under Erdogan's firm control, as usual hailed Erdogan’s performance in London as a great success while failing to report Macron’s statement.

The London declaration issued by the heads of states and government was explicit about Erdogan’s close partner Russia. “We, as an Alliance, are facing distinct threats and challenges emanating from all strategic directions. Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security; terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to us all. State and non-state actors challenge the rules-based international order. Instability beyond our borders is also contributing to irregular migration. We face cyber and hybrid threats,” the statement said.

This is not a wording that Putin would like to see or would expect to be signed by his Turkish colleague, Erdogan. After all, the Russians tend to see the president of Turkey as “our man in NATO.”

In April, Russian analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote, “Without firing a single shot, deploying a single tank or using a single internet troll, Moscow can soon destroy the unity of NATO by removing a key country from its military network. What’s more, Russia will receive $2.5 billion for its efforts and not a single new sanction. This is a victory that was unimaginable only a few years ago. … If everything goes as planned, Turkey will de facto drop out of the military structures of NATO and will increasingly rely on military cooperation with Russia to ensure its security and interests in the region. … Breaking up NATO from inside and walking away with $2.5 billion to boot — that’s quite a priceless catch.”

Does Erdogan’s return to Ankara in apparent diplomatic defeat rebut Frolov’s argument published in the Moscow Times?

Not really. In the same piece, Frolov wrote, “However, Turkey will not completely leave NATO. Moreover, that is not what Moscow is angling for. Moscow sees greater advantage in having Turkey play the 'troublemaker' in NATO, serving as the one member willing to put in a good word for Russia and to ensure its security in the Black Sea.”

Therefore, even though Erdogan wound up bowing in London to his NATO allies, his value for Russia as “NATO’s troublemaker” did not vanish with his embarrassing performance at the summit. It should not be missed that Russia still needs him in Syria.

What has inspired the Russians to see Erdogan as “our man in NATO” was his decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system. Macron asked in London, “How is it possible to be a member of the alliance, to work with all of us, to buy our materials, to be integrated — and to buy the S-400 from the Russians? Technically, it is not possible.”

It took only 48 hours after Erdogan bowed to his NATO partners and retracted his blackmail to block Baltic security plans for him to go forward with the S-400 missile system. Also, Reuters reported that Russia and Turkey are working on a contract for the delivery of more S-400s.

Metin Gurcan, in a recent Al-Monitor assessment, said Ankara appeared to have alienated NATO's Baltic and eastern European members, undermining NATO cohesion, and that Erdogan is engaged in a delicate balancing act between Russia and the Western security bloc. 

Erdogan may not succeed in this endeavor. In London, the worst consequence of his performance was that he blinked first. He could not achieve anything by blackmailing and he conceded. Indeed, his insistence on the S-400 deal and his going further in relations with Moscow seems more and more to confirm the thesis that he is a “Russian Trojan horse in NATO” or a “troublemaker,” albeit one who could not get what he wants.

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