The Turkish Question on NATO: A larger strategic opportunity in the Black Sea

Swedish and Finnish NATO membership would be a strategic gain for the Atlantic Alliance and the United States, both to counter Russian aggression and to ensure a united front on Eurasian policy. However, there is dissent within NATO about whether Sweden and Finland should be accepted, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opposing both states’ participation in the alliance.  

President Biden must act swiftly, recognize Erdogan’s incentives, and court Turkey properly to strengthen NATO’s long-term position. His response should involve inducements and concessions — Erdogan receiving desired Western military technology, and in return giving NATO warships access to the Black Sea. 

Sweden and Finland’s NATO bids break with both states’ long-standing foreign policies. Each has retained connections with the Atlantic Alliance through the Partnership for Peace and peacekeeping deployments; each deployed forces under International Security Assistance Force auspices in Afghanistan. Sweden has a relatively independent defense-industrial base; Finland, by contrast, has increasingly committed to using NATO technology and is now an F-35 purchaser. Nevertheless, both are formally neutral between NATO and Russia, a policy that served them reasonably well throughout the Cold War, primarily because high-end ground combat would be concentrated in Germany, not northern Europe or Scandinavia. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine overturned this situation and demonstrated the Atlantic Alliance’s value. Moreover, the geography of the Russia-NATO military rivalry has changed: The Baltic States’ membership in NATO makes a Russia-NATO conflict likely to involve Finland and Sweden, or at least to occur within their territorial waters. 

Both states would benefit the Atlantic Alliance. Both retain effective militaries focused upon great-power war; neither would need overwhelming American logistical support. Unlike nearly all of NATO’s current members apart from the U.S., Sweden and Finland can pull their own combat weight. 

Hungarian President Viktor Orban’s positive disposition towards the Kremlin made Hungary a more likely candidate to oppose any NATO expansion. Orban has been restrained, however, focusing instead on opposing EU sanctions on Russian energy exports. Instead, it is Turkey that opposes Swedish and Finnish NATO membership. 

A single country’s opposition can derail a NATO bid. Greece, for example, kept Macedonia out of NATO until 2019 because it deemed the country’s name to be an affront to Greek culture: it only relented when Macedonia added “North” to its name. Cyprus remains out of NATO primarily because of Turkey’s opposition, based on Turkish-Greek rivalry.

However, Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership is neither strategic nor ideological. It is, instead, a diplomatic signal to the Biden administration. 

Erdogan’s public reasoning is that Sweden in particular and, by extension, Finland offer shelter to Gulenists and Kurds, the two great enemies of the Turkish state. Additionally, Sweden and Finland imposed an arms embargo on Turkey after its offensive in northeastern Syria in 2019. 

Both charges have extremely limited substance. Census data is not current, but Finland likely has no more than 30,000 Turks and Kurds, making Erdogan’s Gulenist charge unfounded. Sweden has 150,000-plus Turks and around 85,000 Kurds; however, there is scant evidence of Swedish Turks or Kurds engaging in activities against the Turkish government. Swedish attempts to create a European Union-wide arms embargo against Turkey failed; Turkey’s military-industrial complex has not been hindered by Swedish and Finnish sanctions. 

Turkey is employing a “stick” alongside its “carrot” to NATO. After briefly sitting on the sidelines of the Russo-Ukrainian war, Turkey closed the Dardanelles to all warships. Its legal procedure includes an exemption for Russian Black Sea Fleet warships transiting to their homeport after deployment — but Russia cannot transfer additional warships to the Black Sea, thereby capping Russian naval combat power. Additionally, Turkey has served as a valuable interlocutor between Ukraine and Russia — it is virtually the only power Kyiv and Moscow have trusted to host talks — and the Turkish military-industrial complex produced many of the combat drones that Ukraine has used to extreme effect against Russian forces. Overall, Turkey has sided with Ukraine and NATO in resisting Russian aggression. 

Erdogan, however, surely hopes to extract broader concessions before coming in from the cold. Turkey has been at odds with its NATO allies previously, with its Syria intervention receiving the most attention. Equally relevant, however, was Turkish intervention in Libya; by the summer of 2020, a Franco-Russian-Saudi coalition opposed Turkey and the Tripoli government it backed, creating serious spillover risks. Although Libya’s second civil war legally ended in October 2020, Libya remains unstable — and renewed conflict may resurrect a Franco-Russian partnership against further Turkish intervention.  

Technologically, Erdogan’s desire for foreign policy independence cut off Turkey from high-end Western military equipment. Its purchase of Russian S-400 air-defense missiles led to its exclusion from the U.S.’s F-35 fighter jet program and may jeopardize its ability to obtain additional F-16s. 

So, Erdogan hopes to extract all possible gains from a strategic pivot back to the U.S. and NATO while ensuring he retains a free hand to act in Syria or Libya.

The U.S. should respond with its own blended diplomacy. Its objective should be tying Turkey firmly to the Atlantic Alliance and leveraging Turkey’s geographic position to expand NATO’s options in the Russo-Ukrainian War. 

As an inducement, the U.S. should advocate for the reduction or elimination of military technology sanctions on Turkey, reincorporate Turkey into the F-35 program, and approve new F-16 sales. Thus, Turkey obtains what it seeks: Western military technology in return for its membership in the Occidental bloc. 

However, the U.S. must not simply bribe Turkey. It must receive, in return, Turkish acceptance of NATO naval forces in the Black Sea. This would be an escalatory decision on Turkey’s part and may undermine its diplomatic role between Ukraine and Russia — but NATO would receive an overwhelming strategic benefit. 

The Ukraine war likely will continue until year’s end, barring a Russian or Ukrainian operational collapse or a coup in Russia. Although the first possibility — a Russian military collapse — is more likely than the second or third, none are probable. Once the current Donbas campaign ends — which it will within the next eight weeks, either in limited Russian victory or a broader Ukrainian victory — Russia will settle in for a longer war.   

Russia’s gains in southern Ukraine are its most strategically critical victories. Not only does Putin now have a land bridge to Crimea, enabling more effective resupply of that peninsula, but he holds all of Ukraine’s major ports except Odesa. From that position, and with Russian warships policing the Levantine Basin and Black Sea, Putin can squeeze Ukraine economically, preventing maritime exports, and force the West to sustain Ukraine or risk its bankruptcy and collapse. 

The obvious policy response for NATO, as retired U.S. naval officer Adm. James Stavridis proposed in a recent Bloomberg News column, is an “escort” system akin to Operation Earnest Will, the U.S. response to the Iraqi-Iranian tanker war of 1986-87. During it, the U.S. “reflagged” Kuwaiti tankers and escorted them with U.S. warships while de-mining the Persian Gulf and confronting Iranian naval forces. 

Russia’s blockade of Ukraine already has triggered economic instability elsewhere. Soaring fuel prices have sparked protests in Sri Lanka; North Africa and the Middle East rely upon Ukrainian grain and, even before the war, were likely to face food shortages. The G-7 has warned that continuing food disruption will spark crises throughout the greater Middle East. 

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simmers, Iran considers a nuclear breakout, and the Gulf Arabs spurn the U.S., the last issue America and the West wish to confront is a global food shortage. We should recall the structural conditions before the Arab Spring: Food shortages, high unemployment and corruption combined to ignite a conflagration. A similar situation may be impending, especially as inflation surges in the West, and the U.S. and China appear to be on the brink of a recession. 

NATO should consider an Operation Earnest Will-style response if the war drags on. A relatively restricted force commitment, primarily of surface combatants supported by forward-deployed tactical aviation in the Black Sea and high-altitude combat drone surveillance, would suffice for a reflagging operation. A Russian strike against an American warship is possible but unlikely. After all, NATO has provided tangible military assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, including critical intelligence support that Ukraine has used to plan its offensives, to target Russian generals (including Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov) and to sink Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship; an escort mission would be of a similar nature to this intelligence support, which Russia has tacitly accepted despite its nuclear sabre-rattling. 

Turkish approval, however, is critical for this mission. The Biden administration should tie its inducement package for Turkey’s support of Swedish-Finnish NATO membership to this reality, prompting Turkey to accept a significant NATO naval deployment in the Black Sea. 

The Ukraine war has shown that NATO can rise to the occasion when challenged. Sweden and Finland’s membership would strengthen the alliance in the face of a threat that cannot be ignored. The U.S. should assure a positive outcome to these Scandinavian states’ bids for membership. 

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).

Tags Black Sea Finland Food shortages Foreign relations of Turkey global food crisis Joe Biden Military technology NATO NATO expansion NATO membership naval escort Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Russian invasion of Ukraine Sweden Turkey

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