Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a press conference at the end of a Group of Seven (G7) leaders' meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on March 24., 2022. Image: Screengrab / EURACTIV / EPA-EFE

Turkey has had an uneasy history as a NATO member country. The push and pull of strategic autonomy constantly grated against a security guarantee the alliance offered and also a way of reinforcing its Western identity. The West wanted Turkey because of the Cold War. 

The enigma continues: Was Turkey’s shift from neutrality to alignment a real necessity in 1951? Did Josef Stalin indeed cast an evil eye on Turkish lands? Would any other Kemalist leader than Ismet Inonu, an unvarnished Euro-Atlanticist whose conception of modernization implied cooperation with the West, have succumbed to the Anglo-American entreaties?  

The relations between Turkey and the Soviet Union remained relatively calm during the period of Turkey’s admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

In November 1951, Moscow actually directed a note to the Turkish government protesting the latter’s decision to participate in NATO, which asserted that “it is quite obvious that the initiation to Turkey, a country which has no connections whatever with the Atlantic, to join the Atlantic Bloc, can signify nothing but an aspiration on the part of imperialist states to utilize Turkish territory for the establishment of military bases for aggressive purposes on the frontiers of the USSR.” 

The ideological aspirations of becoming an integral part – at least within the framework of a military alliance – of the Western world played a decisive role in Turkey’s decision in 1951, whereas, in reality, there was no imminent or explicit Soviet threat to Turkey.

On the other hand, Turkey’s geographical importance to both the West and to the Soviet Union gave it a particular value in an East-West context, which, to its credit, Ankara would successfully leverage to its advantage through subsequent decades. 

Curiously, this complex interlocking in some ways bears an uncanny resemblance to the current accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin must have alluded to it obliquely when he told the media last Thursday on the sidelines of the Caspian Summit in Ashgabat: 

“NATO is a relic of the Cold War and is only being used as an instrument of US foreign policy designed to keep its client states in rein. This is its only mission. We have given them that opportunity, I understand that. They are using these arguments energetically and quite effectively to rally their so-called allies. 

“On the other hand, regarding Sweden and Finland, we do not have such problems with Sweden and Finland as we have, regrettably, with Ukraine. We do not have territorial issues or disputes with them. There is nothing that could inspire our concern regarding Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO.

“If they want it, they can do it … let them do it. You know, there are rude jokes about stepping into  unsavory things. That is their business. Let them step into what they wish.” 

While returning from NATO’s Madrid Summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan underscored that by lifting Ankara’s reservations about Sweden’s and Finland’s membership, he advanced Turkish interests, and he added the caveat that their accession is far from a done deal yet, and future developments would depend on their fulfillment of commitments under the memorandum of understanding they signed in Madrid with Turkey. 

Neither friends nor foes: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Sergey Guneev / Sputnik

Indeed, both Sweden and Finland have bent over backward to give Turkey extensive anti-terrorism assurances that require changes in domestic legislation in return for Ankara withdrawing its veto against accession talks. Erdogan insists that what matters is not their pledges but the delivery of those pledges. 

It is a tough sell domestically for both Sweden and Finland, since one of the pledges is the extradition of 76 Kurds, deemed as terrorists by Turkey. This is easier said than done, as the courts in Stockholm and Helsinki may have their own definition of “terrorist.” 

The Turkish National Assembly’s ratification is a must for the Nordic countries’ admission to be formalized at the NATO level. There is some speculation that US President Joe Biden incentivized Erdogan to compromise, but make no mistake, the latter’s warning about compliance by Sweden and Finland – as well as the audible rumblings already on the left in Sweden – are reminders that the issue is still wide open. 

After all, North Macedonia had been a NATO partner country since 1995 but didn’t become a NATO member until March 2020. And Greece’s reservation was that the newly independent former Yugoslav republic wanted to be known as Macedonia whereas Athens saw that name as a threat to its own region of Macedonia – and ultimately, Greece won. In comparison, Turkey’s concerns are tangible and directly impinge on its national security. 

Turkey was never a “natural ally” of NATO. How far Turkey subscribes to NATO’s latest strategic concept of Russia being a “most significant and direct threat” is debatable. Arguably, Turkey would feel more at home with the alliance’s 2010 doctrine that called Russia a “strategic partner.” This would need some explanation.

Professor Tarik Oguzlu, a leading exponent of the changing dynamics of Turkish foreign policies in recent years from a structural realist point of view, wrote an analysis last week titled “Madrid Agreement and the balance policy in Turkish foreign policy,” which was interestingly featured by Anadolu, Turkey’s state news agency. Oguzlu explained the rationale behind Turkey’s decision not to veto the two Nordic countries’ accession: 

“Turkey began to change its perspective on NATO a long time ago due to its strategic autonomy and multilateral foreign policy understanding.… Considering the realist turnaround in Turkish foreign policy in the last three years, it is quite meaningful that Turkey did not veto NATO enlargement…. 

“On the one hand, the second Cold War between the West and Russia narrows the room for maneuver in Turkish foreign policy, while on the other hand, it increases Turkey’s strategic importance.

“The most important challenge for Turkish foreign policy in the coming years will be the successful continuation of Turkey’s strategic autonomy-oriented multifaceted foreign-policy practices in an environment of deepening international polarization. 

“The balance policy pursued between the West and Russia is one of the most important strategic legacies left to the Republic of Turkey from the Ottoman Empire. It is a strategic necessity for Turkey, which has a medium-sized power capacity, to follow a policy of balance in order to achieve national interests.

“The policies adopted by Turkey since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine until now and the stance displayed at the last NATO summit in Madrid show that this historical heritage is embraced and successfully executed.”  

To put matters in historical context, in 1920, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk formally approached Vladimir Lenin with a proposal for mutual recognition and a request for military assistance. The Bolsheviks not only responded positively but by throwing in their lot with the growing movement of Turkish nationalists, they helped shore up the new Turkish state’s southern borders.

In the period from 1920 to 1922, Soviet Russia’s military help to Ataturk was almost 80 million lira – twice Turkey’s defense budget.

Turkish soldiers conduct a counterterrorism operation at Gollerbasi Base Area on Mount Ikiyaka, Turkey, May 23, 2020. Photo: Ozkan Bilgin / Anadolu Agency

In 1921 in Moscow, the two sides concluded the “Treaty of Friendship and Brotherhood,” which resolved the territorial disputes between the Kemalists and the Bolsheviks. The northeastern border of Turkey established then remains unchanged to this day.

However, both Moscow and Ankara understood that cooperation between Turkish nationalists and Russian communists would be short-lived. Soon afterward, Turkey deserted Moscow’s camp, banned the Communist Party, and, during the Nazi invasion, looked for an opportunity to invade the Soviet Caucasus if the Red Army collapsed. Nevertheless, Ataturk never forgot the help that Soviet Russia provided in his hour of need. 

A historical perspective is needed to understand the United States’ manipulation of – and of Sweden and Finland in the present-day context. Biden is following president Harry Truman’s footfalls. Washington has used the very same Cold War tactic to draw Sweden and Finland into the NATO fold as it employed 70 years ago with regard to Turkey.  

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat. Follow him on Twitter @BhadraPunchline.