Turkey Stalls NATO, Clings to Defunct Status Quo in the Black Sea

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 116

Turkish naval exercises in Sea of Marmara, 2017 (Source: tsk.tr)

United States President Donald Trump’s behavior at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) recent summit in Brussels (July 11–12) and in its aftermath has cast a shadow on this landmark event. Trump’s follow-up actions, including the meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, continued hitting at NATO and the European Union from afar. Trump’s persona and his possible motivations furnished the main topic of analysis throughout these events, diverting attention from the actual results of the NATO Brussels Summit. Its agenda and decisions clearly identified Russia as the main source of threats and challenges to the Alliance. The summit’s balance sheet is a mixture of significant accomplishments and unfinished business left over from years past, notably in the Black Sea region and NATO’s eastern neighborhood (see EDM, July 25, 30, August 1, 2, 7, 8, 9).

Russia is rapidly accumulating superior power in the Black Sea, and posturing offensively in and around the region. Nevertheless, whenever the matter comes up for debate within the North Atlantic Alliance, Turkey maintains that the Black Sea basin is a secure region with a stable equilibrium of power. With that argument, Turkey resists proposals for NATO measures to counterbalance Russia’s increasingly threatening power in and around the Black Sea. By the same token, Turkey has opposed the proposals to draw up distinct documents on Black Sea strategy at Alliance summits, including at the Brussels Summit, just held.

Ankara, in effect, feels (or at least so argues) that it would be dangerous to tinker with this purported equilibrium in the Black Sea region; that any NATO measures to address the imbalance could undermine what Ankara deems as stability; that security for NATO member countries in the Black Sea basin is primarily a “regional” matter (i.e., for riparian countries) rather than an Alliance matter; and that it behooves Turkey (more as a matter of prestige than of real power) to manage the “regional” security in some form of agreement with Russia.

Although NATO’s recent decisions are not yet commensurate with Russia’s threats in the Black Sea region, Turkey calls for NATO to prioritize the southern flank in the Mediterranean, rather than the eastern frontline in the Black Sea. At the summit just held in Brussels, the Alliance announced that “tailored assurance measures for Turkey to respond to the growing security challenges from the south contribute to the security of the Alliance as a whole, and will be fully implemented” (Nato.int, para. 22, July 11), while putting decisions regarding the Black Sea on hold for another year.

Indisputably, Turkey has been NATO’s mainstay in the Black Sea region until recently. But this can no longer be taken entirely for granted in this region. Ankara is not using its political influence to encourage a more active presence of NATO in the Black Sea and around it. Instead, it looks for justifications to stall such proposals.

Ankara offers such arguments in the name of maintaining the status quo in the Black Sea basin. This is a reality-denying position. Ankara is clinging to a status quo that no longer exists (see EDM, March 21, 2014; June 24, 2016). Turkey does not, and cannot on its own any longer, counterbalance Russia’s threatening power, but neither does it work proactively with its NATO riparian and non-riparian allies to deal with this mounting challenge.

Long before the NATO era, Turkey had rightly been described as the ultimate status quo power in the Black Sea basin. For 200 years, facing the threat of Russian power directly across the Black Sea, the Turks aligned successively with Napoleonic France, with the United Kingdom in the Victorian age, with Germany in the run-up to and during the First World War, and with the United States and NATO during the Cold War. Its role as guardian of the Montreux Convention added to Turkey’s status quo vocation. Throughout those historical phases, the Turks’ consistent rationale was that of counterbalancing Russian power by aligning with Western powers.

At present, however, that pattern seems to have shifted. Turkey’s policy is no longer to align with the West for counterbalancing Russia, but rather to position Ankara for transactional maneuvering between the West and Moscow. The Kremlin holds the upper hand in military-strategic, economic, and political terms vis-à-vis a seemingly complacent Turkey in this transactional relationship (see below).

It is an astute, if cautiously understated Turkish observation by Professor Mustafa Aydın that “Turkey is very lukewarm about the enhancement of NATO’s presence in the Black Sea region. We are not saying that we oppose it, but […] Turkey is not very happy [with it]. The Turkish thinking is that equilibrium has been created in the Black sea area which keeps stability there, and because of the special relationship Turkey has developed with Russia, Turkey does not want to push Russia to the corner” (Hürriyet Daily News, July 16, 2018).

That relationship, however, is no longer one of equivalent powers. Back in the late 1990s and the first decade of this century, Turkey could shape that relationship on its own terms, as a Turkish-Russian de facto condominium in the Black Sea basin. That temporary condominium took the form of the BlackSeaFor and Black Sea Harmony naval operations; one or two then-exalted, now-forgotten regional economic cooperation organizations (all presented as security and confidence-building panacea for the region); and Turkey’s passive acceptance of Russia’s territorial expansion in the Black Sea basin against Georgia and Ukraine. However, the events of 2008 and 2014 showed that Turkey could no longer define the terms of its special relationship with Russia. The Kremlin has demonstrated how it defines those terms unilaterally: by overturning the balance of military power in the Black Sea against Turkey and the latter’s NATO allies, and by using economic incentives to influence Turkey’s external policies.

Turkey is tempted to view the Black Sea as an area of its profitable, privileged economic cooperation with Russia. This view seems to mitigate Ankara’s perception of potential threats from Russia’s surging military power, as well as to erode Ankara’s sense of solidarity with NATO allies and partners around the Black Sea who are more vulnerable to that power.

Russia supplies the lion’s share of Turkey’s natural gas requirements at competitive prices, as well as offering to turn it into a transit country (misleadingly labeled as a “hub”). The second line of Russia’s gas pipeline project, TurkStream, would serve the latter function (at the expense of Ukraine in this case). Turkey also benefits from mass-scale Russian tourism (some four million Russian tourist visits in 2017), and large lucrative markets in Russia for Turkish construction companies and Turkish agricultural products. Such economic considerations undoubtedly affect Turkey’s positions on Black Sea security issues, when these come up for discussion in NATO.

While Turkey will remain an irreplaceable pillar for NATO in the Black Sea, the Alliance needs a second pillar country in this region. Romania can never take over that role with its own resources, but can gradually step into some of the functions associated with a pillar country. While any competition would be out of question, complementarity would seem to answer the needs of an increasingly fluid security environment. NATO will soon decide on the location of a corps-level headquarters that would command and control NATO response forces if these have to be deployed to the Black Sea region. Romania has offered to host this headquarters.