Why is Turkey a Member of NATO?

Image Credit: Clay Rodery

With Turkey’s balancing act between Putin and the West since Russia’s eastern offensive of Ukraine, the NATO country’s affiliation may finally, yet debatably, be swaying to the west.

Up to now Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, has had unsettling trade and geopolitical relations with Russia. Under the governance of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prescribed sanctions against Russia by western allies have been largely ignored by Turkey.

Turkey is buying Russian weapons and Ankara, capital of Turkey, has said it was forced to opt for the Russian weapons because allies did not provide weapons on satisfactory terms. In 2020 the U.S. even issued sanctions against its fellow Nato ally Turkey over its deployment of a Russian-made missile defence system acquired in 2019. Analysis by the Washington-based Atlantic Council indicates a nearly 100% surge in Russo-Turkish trade when comparing 2022 to 2021.

In 2022, Russia became Turkey’s number one import partner buying US$ 58.85 Bn value of imported goods – twice as much as in the same period in 2021. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has gone as far as to defend Ankara in March stating that “Turkey’s strong leadership and commitment to NATO’s collective security is highly valued.”

In 2003, the new Turkish government refused to allow Americans to operate against Iraq out of Turkey. Early in the Syrian conflict, Ankara worked with the Islamic State, allowing its fighters to travel in and out of Syria. Later, they began effectively fighting the U.S. by proxy against the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Today they still wage war on the same U.S.-backed forces in Syria, exhibiting what Amnesty International described as “a shameful disregard for civilian life, carrying out serious violations and war crimes, including summary killings and unlawful attacks.”

In recent news, while Moscow reacted calmly to Ankara’s willingness to approve Sweden’s NATO accession, Turkey’s transfer of five Ukrainian commanders who had been captured by Russian forces back to Kyiv and Erdoğan’s remarks in support of Ukraine’s entry into NATO have sparked outrage.

Regardless of the marginal support to Ukraine, it seems that Erdoğan is diverting the attention of Turkish voters from the troubled economy, especially from the fivefold depreciation of the lira against the dollar in recent years and enormous inflation, which reached 85 percent in annual terms last November.

With Erdoğan’s constitutional overhaul in 2017, justified by a failed 2016 coup, and his Ottoman foreign policy, it would appear that Turkey’s interest is to ultimately consolidate presidential power, enhance diplomatic relations, and boost war profiteering. With municipal elections scheduled for March next year, he needs to attract pro-Western urban voters to his side to regain control over major cities such as Ankara and Istanbul from the opposition.

Turkey continues to provide enemy support multilaterally against the United States and they are a member of NATO.

In July, during NATO’s annual summit in Vilnius, Joe Biden applauded Erdoğan’s “courage, leadership, and diplomacy.” “This is a historic day,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

On a geostrategic level, Turkey is an unparalleled ally that gives the U.S. access to the Balkans and the Middle East. The Bosporus Strait is integral maritime waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. However, on a diplomatic level, a militaristic level, this relationship could be waning.