By THO Contributor, Lawrence Cenk Laws
Abstract: Recent events in the Caucasus highlight the importance of Turkey to the military alliance and holds the key to its strength, relevance, and potential expansion. This article will look at the role Turkey played in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh flare-up and how the Turkish Republic is essential if NATO hopes to increase its presence in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asia.
Introduction: Nagorno-Karabakh and Turkish Influence in the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia)
“Bir Millet, Iki Devlet”. It translates to “One Nation, Two States” and is a term coined by the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev when speaking about the close relationship that Azerbaijan and Turkey have had. This term had extreme relevance during last year’s fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan was never in question with its border closed with Armenia since 1993. Yet, it was the recent victories that Azerbaijan made during the conflict last year that highlighted how influential Turkish military support could be. Turkey’s pivotal role in this conflict did not go unnoticed as is evident with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presence at Azerbaijan’s victory parade last December. The ceasefire however did come with the stipulation that Russian peacekeeping forces will stay as a presence in the interior portions of the region that are still under Armenian occupation. This undoubtedly will have Azerbaijan look to Turkey and the West as a counterbalance.
These new circumstances bring a fresh opportunity for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to increase its presence in the Caucuses via Turkey. Since 1994, Azerbaijan has been a member of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme, which involves partner countries varying levels of cooperation with NATO. It has been described as a “track that will lead to NATO membership.” The already well-established military cooperation between NATO member Turkey and Azerbaijan could persuade the former Soviet republic to seek full membership.
Azerbaijan is not the only PfP member in the region that has had to deal with Russian encroachment in recent years. Russia has been occupying the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia since 2008. The events that year
established the NATO-Georgia Commission aimed at bringing Georgia into the alliance. Intensified dialogues with NATO and Georgian officials along with the current political crisis has made it even more imperative that NATO act faster to bring this Caucasian country into the fold as well. Public opinion for Georgia to align with the West has been fairly high. Georgia and Turkey already experience a very close relationship. Along with Azerbaijan, the three countries share a major oil pipeline that transports oil from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline). Turkey also just recently signed a free trade agreement with Georgia setting the Turkish Republic to be a key intermediary for NATO talks with Georgia.
Eastern Europe (Ukraine)
Moving up the Black Sea coast we come to Ukraine, whose dealings with Russia mirror that of Georgia’s. Since 2014, Russia has been occupying eastern portions of Ukraine as well as annexing the semi-autonomous republic of Crimea. The occupation came in response to the Ukranian public shifting their support to a stronger alignment with the EU over Russia. Due to the Russian incursion, there is significant public appetite for Ukraine to become a NATO member. Along with Georgia, Ukraine is considered an aspiring NATO country and is a PfP member as well.
Turkey has long stated that they respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and do not recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea. Crimea itself holds significant cultural and historical importance to Turkey and its Ottoman past. The Crimean Khanate was the first Muslim territory to be lost to foreign powers in 1783 at the end of the Russo-Turkish War. The annexation by the Russian Empire has been argued by many historians as the beginning of the end of Ottoman prominence on the global stage. Since then, Russia’s general actions in the Black Sea are seen by Turks as their historic attempt to gain access to the Mediterranean through the Turkish Straits. On the cultural side, Crimean Tatars and Turks share a common Turkic bond as well. These factors make Turkey a trustworthy ally for Ukraine as it tries to tackle Russian aggression. It should be noted that before the 2014 events, Ukraine and Turkey were in talks for a free trade agreement, which shows the strength of their bilateral relationship.
Balkans (Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
The Balkans were the site of NATO’s first-ever collective military operations in the 1990s, which brings symbolic importance to have the military alliance solidify security in the region. With the exception of Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia all of the Balkan nations are now NATO members. The Balkans also share a long history and cultural tie with Turkey due to the Ottoman Empire’s rule over much of the region from
the 16th century to the early 20th century. Serbian-Turkish relations are amicable but the stronger prospects of NATO membership come from Turkey’s close relationship with the Muslim-majority countries of Bosnia and Kosovo.
Both sites of NATO’s military inventions during the Yugoslav Wars, Bosnia and Kosovo have shown to be the most eager countries to increase their relationship with NATO. To date, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the only nation with a Membership Action Plan. Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, has also made it clear that NATO membership is their top priority. Turkey has long been supportive of both of these countries with respect to their sovereignty and membership to Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union (EU). Turkey still holds extreme cultural and religious importance for both of these countries as well and would be their most important advocate during their membership process.
Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan)
Often overlooked are the relations NATO has with the former Soviet republics in Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. All five countries began their relations with NATO in 1992 through their inclusion of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, the predecessor of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC). All of them are also PfP members. Their partnerships have been particularly important since the War in Afghanistan. Turkey again can play an outsized role when it comes to the four Turkic nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. With all four nations, Turkey has a deep cultural and linguistic relationship. This Turkic identity has resulted in the formation of the Turkic Council. With the exception of Turkmenistan and its neutrality stance, the other three Turkic-speaking Central Asian nations are a part of this Council with the General Secretariat in Istanbul. Turkey’s commitment and support for the Turkic Council has always been strong and fits well into his soft-power ambitions much like its activities in the Balkans. This is evident with the recent visit of the Turkic Council Secretary General to the Turkish Vice President in the last couple of weeks. If NATO decides to pursue full membership with these nations, Turkey will inevitably be involved.
Why Is This All Important?
Russian aggression and encroachment has been increasing more and more in the post-Soviet republics. Russia’s involvement in recent political events occuring in Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan should worry NATO. There is strength in numbers and NATO should look into expanding its alliance as soon as possible. The inclusion of NATO member countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia could also
translate to strengthening energy and trade relations with these particular countries as well. This becomes extremely important as Europe looks to decrease its dependence on Russian oil and natural gas. NATO could help pave the way of connecting Europe to the oil and natural gas fields around the Caspian Sea via Turkey to meet its energy needs.
Conclusion: Turkey’s Commitment to NATO
Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missiles has worried Western observers, who have tried to signal this as a move by Turkey to fall under Russia’s orbit. This could not be further from the truth considering how certain wars have played out around Turkey’s periphery. In Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh, both countries have supported opposing sides of the conflicts. As mentioned before, Turkey has long feared Russian advancements in the Black Sea which is why it has been vocal in its criticism of Russian operations in Ukraine and Georgia. Turkey has also recently shown renewed interest in returning to the F-35 program. Another bright spot in not only NATO-Turkey relations but U.S.-Turkey relations is the election of the U.S. House Representative Gerry Connolly (VA-8th) to President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly this year. Congressman Connolly is also a Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on U.S.-Turkey relations and Turkish Americans.
In a sign that the new Biden administration understands Turkey’s importance in the alliance is Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In the letter, Secretary Blinken states that the U.S. will ask the Turkish government to hold peace talks between the factions in Afghanistan. It should be noted that after the U.S., Turkey is the only NATO country to command the forces in Afghanistan twice. As the U.S. plans to withdraw more forces out of Afghanistan it will look to Turkey to help with this transition. Time and time again, there have been diplomatic spats between the U.S. and Turkey but their broader commitment to NATO as a whole has never truly wavered. Turkey continues to have the second-largest in NATO after the United States and is indispensable to the peace and security of the European continent. NATO will also be wise to use Turkey’s position and relations with these aspirant member countries to bring them in the fold. This will ensure NATO’s relevance and prominence for years to come.