Turkey is Becoming a Problem for NATO—the U.S. Should Pay Attention | Opinion

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently met in Sochi to discuss military operations in northwestern Syria. While on opposing sides in Syria, before the talks, Erdogan nevertheless described Turkish military cooperation with Russia as "of utmost importance," alluding to what the U.S. already knows: Turkey does not feel constrained by its NATO responsibilities. It will not hesitate to pursue the path most closely aligned with its own interests, no matter where it lies: in the West or Russia. The U.S. can learn something from this shrewd and unashamed realpolitik.

In 2019, after years of toeing the line between cozy relations with Russia and the West, Turkey appeared to put the death knell in its NATO credibility, purchasing Russian-made S-400 defense systems, booting Turkey from the F-35 joint strike fighter program. The White House released a statement on the decision claiming that Turkey's purchase rendered "continued involvement with the F-35 impossible" as "the F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform." However, officials such as Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) were far more candid about the purchase's implications. "This is not some minor dustup with this country," he said. "They've thumbed their nose at us, and they've thumbed their nose at their other NATO allies."

The U.S. has sanctioned Turkey and urged Erdogan to reverse the decision. Erdogan doubled down before the Sochi meetings: "It is not possible for us to turn back from the steps we took. ... It is of great importance for us to continue by strengthening Turkey-Russia relations every day." Turkey has chosen its trajectory. The U.S. should adjust its behavior accordingly and stop treating its NATO alliances as sacrosanct when Turkey clearly does not view the relationship similarly.

Turkey, despite having the second-largest standing military force in NATO, is inching toward a point where it becomes a possible liability, instead of an asset. While not discounting the points of tension in Syria and Libya, the most glaring flashpoint for possible conflict is Turkey's enduring commitment to the defense of Azerbaijan against Armenia, through training Azerbaijani officers and supplying military equipment. Should a conflict erupt once more, it would be between Turkish-backed Azerbaijan and Russian-backed Armenia, presenting the potential for Turkey to, once again, be at odds with the Russian military and call for NATO aid or assistance.

Even among NATO allies themselves, Turkey has fanned the flames of conflict, with Erdogan becoming more and more aggressive in the Mediterranean. In 2020, Turkey disregarded a U.N.-enforced arms embargo around Libya and responded with hostility when confronted by French patrols. Greco-Turkish tensions in the Aegean almost erupted into war in the same year after Greek and Turkish frigates nearly collided over drilling disputes, forcing the U.S. to step in and push for de-escalation and negotiations. Nevertheless, among these hostilities, Turkey has been left relatively unscathed by its NATO allies.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses Parliament
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses Parliament. ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

As Turkey continues to stoke the fires of ongoing tensions, the U.S. must make clear that it will not fight Erdogan's wars under the obligation of NATO defense if these disputes erupt beyond Erdogan's control. Continued concessions and aid to U.S. partners, for simply being allies, are why American allies like Turkey have abused and taken advantage of these leniencies and strayed away from American interests.

Alliances are not meant to be treated as sacred bonds of a covenant. They are formed to recognize parallel interests and commit to jointly serving those interests. NATO was formed to support European nations who wanted to counter the influence and might of Moscow and provide a unified defense against the now dissolved Soviet Union. If these same NATO allies are now flirting with Putin unapologetically, the U.S. should adjust the extent of its obligation to those whose interests lie opposite of American interests. The U.S. should rethink its responsibility of perpetual European defense and stop serving allies like Turkey their cake on a platter so that they can both have it and eat it too.

Natalie Armbruster is a research associate at Defense Priorities.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.