The news from Ankara these days ascertain an important segment in President Erdogan’s drive for global prominence as he is borrowing heavily from President Putin’s guide for autocratic leaders. Yet it is hard to see how he will be able to profit from the Kremlin’s recipes, lacking the tsar’s resources and insatiable pool of social patience.
Russia has been seeking to build on the rifts within NATO and US-Turkish relations by enticing Erdogan into a pool of geopolitical tradeoffs and gambles.
Putin’s attempts to undermine the EU and the US are persisting. The chance to help Turkey steer away from NATO’s mainstream and turn into its weakest element seems up for grabs.
President Putin is visiting Turkey this week to talk over a new strategic framework with Ankara, hoping to impress his domestic and international audience that after the Russiagate flop he still has trump cards up his sleeve.
Moscow has nothing to offer Ankara in the financial and economic realm as international sanctions are slowly but irreversibly eroding the capital base of Putin’s rule.
Russia’s energy weapon has been largely diffused; natural gas is no longer considered a strategic threat. Turkish Stream and Gazprom’s investment in its onshore segment in Turkey attest to the fact that Moscow has given up any hope of using gas supplies for political gains vis-à-vis Ankara and has chosen instead to use it as a partner in challenging US sanctions. Turkish Stream and the gas that will flow through it depend in a varying degree on US technologies and capital and is therefore a potential sanction target.
If push comes to shove, Washington could hope, using pressure on allies, to block Russian gas from entering the EU market via Turkish Stream.
There is little chance that Turkey and Russia will be able to circumvent this barrier and see Russian gas flow into EU territory via Greece or Bulgaria without explicit clearance from Brussels.
Hence both countries seek to explore new bargaining options.
After successfully setting Kim Jong-un as a proxy in the Russian geopolitical standoff with the US, using ‘private’ and business channels to avert accusations of violations of international non-proliferation law, supplying rocket engines and nuclear weapons technology, President Putin tests a similar chord with President Erdogan.
First, Turkey is emulating the Iranian model of using NPPs as the base and a disguise for a nuclear weapons program. President Erdogan agreed to co-finance the NPP Akkuyu, understanding that Rosatom has a military leg to its operations. He intentionally veered off into unchartered territory, maintaining the option to run the Russian reactors on indigenous low enriched uranium, reprocessing the spent fuel. This is the first step on the road to full uranium enrichment that has been used by Iran to develop weapons-grade nuclear materials.
The Turkish President is making full use of the North Korean and Iranian nuclear newsfeed that overshadow his secret attempts to circumvent the nuclear non-proliferation regime and acquire and develop its own nuclear bombs and means for their delivery.
Second, the deal with the S-400 air defense system is not a one-off deal – it bears long term strategic connotations as Turkey is eager to obtain the know-how and develop its own technological base for further arms upgrades.
France has pointedly interfered to uphold Turkey’s right to take sovereign decisions in defense weapons purchase matters, careful to secure its own perimeter for a potential sale of anti-aircraft defense system and export of nuclear technology for power plants.
The purchase of the Russian air-defense system should be fathomed against Erdogan’s panic attacks following the Turkish Air force’s role in the failed coup, which led to the effective closure of the Incirlik air base. The Turkish leader considers less likely an air attack from Russian jets in Turkish or Syrian airspace than one with US-made planes and missiles. In a recent infographic published by the Turkish Anadolu Agency the potential targets are all US planes or missiles.
Third, adding to Ankara’s shopping list, ballistic missiles suggest an entirely different, yet logical dimension. In May 2017 Turkey tested ‘successfully’ its first locally manufactured tactical ballistic missile “Bora”. Yet organic technological growth in missile capabilities could take years, while Erdogan’s ambitions are bursting with imminence. This makes acquisition a must.
Russia today is offering Ankara a boost in nuclear and conventional weapons delivery systems, sidelining the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. One of its guardians, Moscow has become a key subversive actor, encouraging autocratic regimes around the world to develop nuclear weapons programs that could challenge the US, the EU or NATO.
President Putin is adamantly pursuing short-term gains, ignoring long-term risks to Russia and recent hiccups in Turkish-Russian relations.
Turkey’s nuclear ambitions are driven both by internal and external security policy reasons. Although the Turkish president has mastered the art of controlling the political process and the armed forces, this does not offer warranty against future coups, following incessant attacks on the top brass. There are far too many conflicts both inside and outside Turkey, beyond Erdogan’s control, that make the nuclear ‘one-off’ solution look so attractive.
The consequences of an Islamic nuclear Turkey could hardly be overestimated for the whole region and beyond. Regional balances and the trust in NATO’s functioning nuclear shield will be seriously undermined once Erdogan’s autocratic regime secures nuclear first-strike capability.
NATO countries are protected by the nuclear NATO club member states’ security guarantees, yet there is no defense against a nuclear armed neo-Ottoman Turkey.
Turkey’s nuclear power status could trigger a chain nuclear reaction and a proliferation risk both in the Middle East and in the world, taking off some of the heat on Iran’s nuclear program. Further to the now, Saudi Arabia and Egypt more Arab states could embark on their own nukes program in the absence of effective curbs and prevention.
NATO’s security paradigm in all likelihood will need to be revised in the light of Erdogan’s open defiance of the US and other Western nuclear security guarantees. The baseline in NATO’s defense doctrine has always been that member states can rely on Article 5 and need not indulge in developing their own nuclear defense capabilities. Turkey’s neighbors will be in a huge quandary – how to react and balance Erdogan’s nuclear ambitions both within and beyond NATO and the regional security formats.
Turkey is the host to one of the largest stockpile of nuclear bombs, with the Turkish president potentially having access to some 50 B-61 hydrogen bombs in the Incirlik air base, which has risen calls for an immediate pullout and concern in NATO quarters following the decision of the Turkish government to seal off the base during the recent coup attempt.
Islam and Nuclear Weapons
The leading cleric in Turkey and head of the Dianet – the Government’s Directorate for Religious Affairs – Mehmet Gormez, openly called in March for acquisition of nuclear weapons. He was dismissed in August from his post after heavy criticism by the hardline Erdogan protagonists, known as the ‘pelicans’ for being too soft on Gulenists and too modernist. One can only wonder if diehard Islamist radical leaders, close to Erdogan take center stage and control Turkey’s nuclear program and external religious affairs. This explosive blend of nuclear first-strike capability and radical Islam in Turkey is sending jitters in Europe and the West.
The Turkish President often uses the argument that the Syrian crisis has revealed the limits of NATO’s security guarantees, as Turkey continue to be faced with existential threats in its near abroad, mainly in the Kurdish regions. NATO has been reluctant to perceive all of Ankara’s security narrative as a shared concern, notably when Turkish Armed forces are used in Syria or Iraq.
Given historical legacies, Ankara’s go-nuclear strategy could send the whole region into turmoil and in search for a counter play.
As multilateral guarantees from NATO can’t be the answer, at least as long as Turkey is a member of the organization, countries in risk will have to look for bilateral security alternatives and some, like Ukraine, might even opt to arm themselves with nuclear strike capability once it is clear that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is void. Some EU countries (Greece and Cyprus) might seek to respond to Moscow’s nuclear and conventional arms overtures, garnished with air-defense systems and nuclear energy projects.
In the Kremlin’s school of strategic thinking this approach blends geopolitical benefits – undermining NATO – with export deals in the only industries Russia is able to challenge the West – nuclear energy and arms.
Greece and Cyprus are the natural countries to follow, but they are not alone. The relations between Turkey and Greece have always rested on the premise of rough defense parity and NATO’s umbrella, which control excess in the rivalry. Finding it increasingly difficult to sustain its defense capabilities ‘at par’ levels, Athens might turn to the “cheap” ultimate nuclear option, again claiming sovereign right.
The security challenges for Bulgaria will dramatically augment in light of its large ethnic minority.
A regional arms race will be around the corner with EU countries desperately seeking domestic and shared external solutions, moreover that Erdogan has no remorse using ethnic and religious cards in the Balkans and the EU to achieve his ends.
Short of succumbing to Erdogan’s megalomaniac neo-Ottoman aspirations or turning to XIX century Great Powers protection, which is exactly what Putin wants, Turkey’s neighbors do not have a large choice set.
By fostering Turkey’s ambitions, Russia hopes to rock critical regional and continental security balances, triggering demand for its security guarantees and weapon systems.
The Kremlin’s managed chaos game plan might easily backfire with Turkey as a nuclear neighbor along the frontline of conflicts with perceived assets and gains for Moscow easily turning into long-term liabilities and losses. Yet for now Putin believes he has few options left but to engage in a more aggressive all out global proxy confrontation with the West exporting nuclear and conventional weapons technologies, reviving old historic rivalries and hostilities, bringing the world back to the times when Russia’s military power and bullying foreign policy could offset failures in its domestic economic and social development.
The nuclear play is a classic example of Russia’s geopolitical poker politics – borrowing to stay in the game, each time upping the loss.