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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

It Might Be Time to Kick Turkey Out of NATO

F-16 Fighter Jet
Image: Creative Commons.

Europe’s security environment has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Neutrality no longer guarantees security from Russian aggression. The invasion marks a historic turning point for Finland and Sweden, and both Nordic countries have applied to join NATO. Even though their joint accession would strengthen NATO’s security architecture and deter Russian aggression, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatens to veto their applications. Unfortunately, Turkey continues to destabilize the Alliance at a time when NATO needs unity most. If Erdogan blocks Finland and Sweden from joining NATO, the Free World should expel Turkey from the Alliance.  

Turkey’s Bottomless List of Violations

NATO is more than just a military alliance. It is a community of states with common interests and shared democratic values. Article 2 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that members must strengthen their democratic institutions, promote conditions of stability and wellbeing, and eliminate conflict in their international economic policies. During his latest term in office, Erdogan has done the exact opposite. Indeed, he has weakened Turkey’s democratic institutions, implemented conflicting international economic policies, and destabilized the Alliance. There is no shortage of examples to show that Turkey has breached Article 2 the North Atlantic Treaty. 

Turkey has blackmailed Sweden and Finland, jailed more journalists than Russia, harbored members of terrorist organizations like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, attacked U.S. soldiers in Syria, assisted ISIS militants crossing Turkey’s border into Syria, threatened to invade NATO partner Greece, violated the UN Security Council arms embargo against Libya, purchased Russian military equipment and thus compromised the F-35 stealth fighter program, sponsored Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh, and helped Russia and Iran evade sanctions. 

For most countries, NATO membership has served as a tool for democratization and a stepping stone for accession to the European Union. That is not the case for Turkey. Despite being a member of NATO since 1952 and an EU candidate since 1999, Turkey has failed to fulfill the criteria for accession. Given Turkey’s financial crisis, its democratic erosion, its continued occupation of Cyprus, and its consistent threats against Greece, Turkey is unlikely to ever join the EU. Ankara is aware of this reality and has accounted for it in its strategic calculations. For Turkey, NATO membership is simply an instrument to increase its leverage. This enables Ankara to pursue Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions by being a bad partner to its allies instead of a direct opponent to the Alliance.  

Cut Turkey Out of Regional Solutions

Evidently, expelling Turkey from NATO for breaching Article 2 of the North Atlantic Treaty would have grave consequences for the Alliance. For example, it would reduce NATO’s ability to project power in the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. The Alliance would lose its second biggest army on paper. Access to the Turkish Straits and the Black Sea would be restricted. Invaluable intelligence sharing between the Central Intelligence Agency and Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization would probably cease. Finally, Washington’s reduced leverage over Ankara would also increase the likelihood that Turkey invades Greece. 

Nevertheless, there are short-, medium-, and long-term solutions to most of these problems. The Alliance maintains access to the Black Sea through Romania and Bulgaria. Cargo could circumvent the Turkish straits by transiting to the Romanian port of Constanta or the Bulgarian port of Burgas, and then transferring by rail to the Greek port of Alexandroupoli for export to international markets. Basing agreements with Cyprus could replace the airbase in Incirlik and enable the Alliance to project power across the Middle East. Further down the road, potential Ukrainian, Georgian or Armenian membership – all of these countries are signatories to NATO’s Partnership for Peace –  could re-establish the Alliance’s presence deeper in the Black Sea and the Caucasus.  

Despite the consequences Turkish expulsion would have for NATO, it would do far more to weaken Turkey’s international standing. After all, Turkey’s ambition for the 21st century is to be a global power at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and NATO membership gives Ankara the leverage required to achieve this objective at the expense of its allies. In contrast to Turkey’s hegemonic designs, Finland and Sweden are full-fledged liberal democracies that share NATO’s common interests and democratic values. Now, Helsinki and Stockholm have made the difficult albeit necessary decision to abandon neutrality in favor of NATO membership. This represents a critical juncture in both Finnish and Swedish history. 

True Allies

Finland has been neutral since the end of World War II. Despite legitimate grievances about territories ceded to the Soviet Union in the post-war period, Helsinki maintained this neutrality throughout the Cold War. Today, Finland shares a 1, 340-kilometer-long border with Russia. This increases Helsinki’s risk of being invaded by Moscow. 

Finnish accession would put Saint Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, within 200 km of NATO’s borders from a second vantage point (the first being Narva, Estonia). This would help deter Russian aggression. What’s more, Finland has a sophisticated defense industry, boasts the largest artillery arsenal in Europe, maintains a conscription system, and can have up to 1 million reservists ready for combat within a few weeks.   

Sweden’s neutrality goes far deeper, dating to the Napoleonic Wars. For centuries, Stockholm relied on Finland to serve as a buffer state between Russia and Sweden. This enabled Sweden to pursue a more neutral foreign policy, and the country even avoided entering World War II as a result. Stockholm maintains a conscription system, has a sophisticated defense industry, and boasts the world’s fifth-strongest navy. Sweden’s accession would also provide NATO with a permanent presence on the island of Gotland. This island’s strategic location in the middle of the Baltic Sea is crucial for regional underwater communication cables, monitoring of maritime transportation, installation of air defense systems, and projecting power into the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Over time, this would turn the Baltic Sea into another NATO lake in Europe. 

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Unfortunately, Erdogan has repeatedly demonstrated that Turkey does not share NATO’s common interests or democratic values. He is, in Ambassador John Bolton’s words, “a thug, a Mussolini in waiting.” In contrast to Turkey destabilizing the Alliance by pursuing its hegemonic ambitions at the expense of its allies, Finland and Sweden are full-fledged liberal democracies that share NATO’s common interests and democratic values. So if Erdogan blocks Finland and Sweden from joining NATO, the Free World should move on and expel Turkey from the Alliance. Enough is enough. 

George Monastiriakos is a lawyer licensing candidate and political science and history graduate who writes about politics and global affairs. He can be reached on LinkedIn or on Twitter @monastiriakos.