A confidence-building step between Washington and Ankara would help enable broader cooperation in the delicate act of balancing Russia.
The world has learned much from the first week of Russia's war against Ukraine. The Ukrainian people will defend their independence and have a military that has, so far, enabled them to do so. Putin is not so clever, nor his forces so competent, as was widely believed. NATO is slow and ponderous to respond to the threat – dragged down by caution in Berlin, Russophilia in some corners, and dysfunction in DC - but can still pull together once war strikes. Member and partner states retain the ability to render quick, effective support to a neighbour threatened by invasion, through military, political, economic, and information means.
A less publicised lesson of the war is that Türkiye’s hard power capabilities and balancing role remain considerable assets for the Atlantic Alliance. Turkish assistance to Ukraine since 2014 has been crucial to Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russian aggression. The two countries signed a military cooperation agreement in 2020. Defence industrial cooperation includes the provision of Turkish-made drones and naval vessels to Ukraine and Ukrainian contribution to drone production, transport aircraft, aviation engines and avionics for Türkiye.
Since the war escalated with Russia’s February 24 invasion, Ankara has provided humanitarian assistance, full-throated diplomatic support, military collaboration of drones and ammunition, as well as tightened restrictions on Russian warships through the Turkish Straits that may be in the works. If Ukraine survives Putin’s unjustified war intact, it is due first and foremost to the efforts of Ukrainians. Yet Ukraine’s survival has benefited from the aid of external powers, with Türkiye among the most steadfast – and longstanding – providers.
Türkiye, together with Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine, has formed a NATO-friendly informal alliance that limits Russia’s ability to reassert dominance in the Caucasus and eastern Europe. It does so without placing NATO formally on the hook for Ukraine’s security (an ostensible casus belli for Moscow). The slow and cautious European response has not left the Ukrainians unarmed; in addition to American security assistance, Ukraine has benefitted from Turkish trade and military cooperation and Azerbaijan’s energy exports.
Therein lies Türkiye’s unique value to NATO and the United States in the context of Russian revisionism. If NATO on Russia’s borders is provocative enough to tempt Putin and his circle into a failed war, we can anticipate future friction should NATO offer membership.
Türkiye has its own reasons for not wanting to overtly antagonise Russia, even as it provides the muscle to support Ukraine. Türkiye has important trade and energy ties with Russia, uses Russia to balance against Western pressure, and is not entirely unsympathetic to Putin, yet it also benefits from constraints on Russian re-assertion in post-Soviet spaces.
NATO is in no hurry to admit Ukraine, Georgia, or Azerbaijan, and all three have noticed. Yet in close cooperation with one another, and with NATO heavyweight Türkiye, they have woven a security belt that neither places NATO on Russia’s border nor leaves easy pickings for Russian reconquest. Türkiye is quite literally the only NATO country with both sympathy for Moscow and the ability to effectively block its military moves.
Türkiye has made a habit out of thwarting Russian overreach without triggering a sense of existential threat to Russia itself. In 2020, it turned back a Russian-supported attempt to overthrow the UN-recognised government in Libya. It prevented Russian-backed Syrian and Iranian forces from liquidating a major refugee zone in Syria, thus preventing another massive wave of civilian deaths and refugees. It helped Azerbaijan recover territories seized and occupied by Armenia, carefully managing escalation and conflict termination with Russia.
Now Türkiye has supported Ukraine’s successful defence of national sovereignty, all without an open breach with Moscow. With the issue of off-ramps looming – how to allow Putin and Russia to climb down from a failed campaign without further atrocity or strategic escalation, and without stoking NATO-phobia further - Türkiye has a clear role to play in multilateral confidence building.
There is a clear implied policy task for the leader of the Western alliance. The United States has had its problems with Türkiye (and vice versa). Ankara has resisted US-led interventions near Türkiye’s borders (Iraq, Syria, and Libya, Island of Cyprus and eastern Mediterranean). Türkiye has chafed at US support to affiliates of the terrorist PKK and tolerance of the insurrectionist FETO, as well as a de facto embargo on major arms sales. Mutual antipathy is manifest. A confidence-building step between Washington and Ankara is needed to enable broader cooperation in the very sensitive matter of balancing Russia in a stable European and Middle Eastern order.
The opportunity to do so is on the table: Türkiye’s request to purchase 40 additional F-16 aircraft and upgrade 40 existing F-16s to the latest model. This would message NATO unity, especially on the heels of Putin’s escalated war in Ukraine and Türkiye’s steadfast support to Kiev. It would also salve, to a degree, the wounds of Türkiye’s expulsion from the F-35 program, while fixing Türkiye’s practical problem of bridging from the current F-16 fleet to its indigenous TF-X fighter.
Türkiye may not need US defence technology for very much longer, given its own burgeoning defence industry. Still, there is a current need that can become the basis for future collaboration. Given the shocking events of this February, it would be wise for Congress to expedite the F-16 deal and cement an important relationship that has, and continues, to confer significant geopolitical value.
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