How NATO can punish Turkey

In NATO’s 70-year history, no member state has strayed as far from the alliance’s foundational ideas as Turkey has in the past year. Yet as they gather for this week’s summit in London, NATO leaders are still determining how to respond. 

Any recounting of Ankara’s recent offences should begin with its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems, which began arriving in Turkey in July. The transatlantic alliance was created primarily to oppose the Soviet Union, and at the 2016 Warsaw summit the alliance named Russia as its most destabilising threat. 

Nearly 30 years after the USSR’s collapse, members of the alliance deploy NATO-friendly systems and shun military equipment from Moscow and its allies. Turkey’s purchase upended that dynamic and handed Putin a significant win, according to Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.

“The S-400 deployment has cast a shadow on Turkey’s willingness to abide by the alliance commitments,” Pierini told Ahval, adding that the bigger concern was a political one. “Russia is installing its equipment and soldiers on NATO’s territory.”

The S-400 purchase has led the Pentagon to suspend Turkey from its U.S. F-35 fighter jet programme and put Turkey at risk of U.S. sanctions. NATO officials have said the presence of S-400s in an allied country would create security risks for its defences. Analysts expect NATO members to avoid deploying fifth-generation fighter aircraft, like the F-35s, to Turkey as long as it operates the Russian defence system. 

Ankara’s second offence is its ongoing offensive in northeast Syria, which has displaced some 300,000 people and led to numerous reports of war crimes on the part of Turkey’s rebel allies. Several prominent observers have described the incursion as ethnic cleansing, in part because of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to resettle up to two million Syrian Arab refugees in areas that until recently were predominantly Kurdish. 

“Turkey’s military incursion in Syria has been unanimously condemned by fellow NATO members and there is no support for a repatriation plan in the absence of a UN-agreed settlement in Syria,” said Pierini, who nonetheless expected Turkish officials to call on fellow NATO members to support their aims in Syria. 

Indeed, Turkey has in the past week refused to back a NATO defence plan for Poland and the Baltics until the alliance recognizes the Kurdish militia it has been fighting in Syria as a terrorist group. 

NATO officials are also concerned about Turkey’s drilling for natural gas in Eastern Mediterranean waters claimed by the Republic of Cyprus, as well as its deal with Libya last week that would favorably redefine Turkey’s maritime borders. 

On Sunday, Greece said it would seek NATO’s support in responding to the Turkey-Libya agreement, which Athens views as illegal. "An alliance cannot remain indifferent when one of its members openly violates international law and aims (to harm) another member," said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. 

If all this weren’t enough, on Friday Erdoğan said French President Emmanuel Macron’s warning that NATO was dying reflected a “sick and shallow” understanding of the alliance, advising Macron to “check whether you are brain dead”.

Jed Babbin, former U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, has argued that Turkey may deserve to be expelled from NATO, as have other prominent voices, including David L. Phillips, a former top adviser in the U.S. State Dept, and Gulf State Analytics’ senior adviser Theodore Karasik. 

Analysts generally agree that expulsion is unlikely, given Turkey’s crucial geopolitical advantages, particularly its border with Syria, where Russia has a significant presence and growing influence. 

Rachel Rizzo, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a fellow at Robert Bosch Stiftung, a German research foundation, said NATO is in a tough spot. 

“It needs Turkey for a variety of reasons, so it can’t completely ostracize it,” she said. “It’s a delicate dance that both sides are trying to learn as they go.”

Rizzo added that NATO is a consensus organisation, so any alliance-level penalisation of Turkey is off the table because Turkey would just veto it. Even if NATO officials were able to find a way to punish Turkey, it could backfire and further heighten tensions. 

“Any formal NATO ‘sanction’ against Turkey would inevitably play into the hands of Russia, so it will not happen,” said Pierini. “What is in the cards is a policy of ‘containment’ of Turkey in some of NATO’s most sensitive activities.”

This may have already begun. In May, several reports said NATO had begun freezing Turkish officials out of key military meetings and committees due to increasing security concerns related to the S-400s. 

Rizzo sees such piecemeal punishments making little impact in the long run. “The issues with Turkey aren’t simply military issues, or S-400 issues; they go much deeper than that—to the heart of its democracy,” she said. “Keeping military hardware out of the country, or freezing Turkish officials out of key NATO bodies won’t change that.”

Pierini expressed little hope that Tuesday’s meeting between Macron, Erdoğan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could begin to mend NATO relations with Turkey.

“Turkey has broken a lot of trust with allies...its political leadership thinks it is to its advantage, which is in my view a mistaken assessment,” he said. “The NATO meeting is therefore bound to be very tense and the years to come will continue to show a Turkish leadership at odds with its Western allies.”