Howard Epstein



Following World War II, former allies, the Anglo-Saxon nations and Russia, soon regarded each other as potential enemies. The Berlin airlift (June 1948 to May 1949) had to be mounted to keep West Berlin functioning. That and the revelation of the Soviet A-bomb in August 1949 (and then their H-bomb in August 1953) meant that there would not be a solitary super-power, all safe and cosy in Fortress America, far away from foreign threats. The idea that there would be a new normalcy, that meant wars were always European affairs to be eschewed for as long as possible by the New World, was doomed. The USA would truly have to become the World’s Policeman, and would be out there, on patrol, in all regions of the world where Russia could threaten Western and America interests. In the late 1940s (as is, indeed, the case today), there was nowhere more immediately threatened by Russia than Western Europe. Of course, policemen have back-up and that is where NATO came in.


In April 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (“NATO”) was formed as a multi-national military alliance. In addition to the twelve founder members, Turkey (which had been called the Sick Man of Europe in the mid-19th century – as it might justifiably be today, given its fiscal situation) – joined as early as in 1952. This turned out, a decade later, to be a blessing for President John F Kennedy, as he was able to negotiate his way out of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 only because the USA had installed missiles with nuclear warheads in Turkey some years before, within the NATO structure. JFK secretly agreed with Khrushchev to remove them in exchange for the prior removal of Soviet missiles sites from Cuba, thereby averting WWIII.



Perhaps nothing better illustrates how integral Turkey has been to NATO than that little vignette. Be that as it may, during the long years of the Cold War, Turkey – with NATO’s second largest army – was the first line of defence against Soviet power in the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Today, however, the carapace of security with which NATO covered Western Europe is looking frighteningly threadbare. Quite apart from the funding issues, in which the US quite properly complains about member states that expect the US to provide overwhelmingly the lion’s share of the required costs of maintenance of the military alliance, there is the problem, by which President-elect Trump is exercised: most NATO members contribute less than the required 2% of their respective GDPs.

A further problem is that Russian military spending under Putin, whilst being no more perhaps than 10% of annual US military investment, has been focussed – not to say targeted – on those former Soviet states that, following the collapse of the Soviet Empire, assumed they would be protected by the West. Countries such as the Baltic states (of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) and Ukraine (plus some other east-European states) are, following Russia’s taking of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, eyed by Putin as future prizes. Such is the state of Russian readiness, and NATO unpreparedness, that Russia could walk into any – or all – of them, and it would all be over in days – faster than you could shout: “NATO! You’re on!”, and certainly before it could get into top gear.


As against that, the imminent ascent of Trump, a declared admirer of Putin, and the feverish efforts of Russian hackers and media to influence the outcome of up-coming elections in Europe (notably in France and Germany), may mean that the states fringing Russia are safe for now, and none of them who can will need to invoke the mutual assistance clauses of the NATO contract.

One might think, therefore, that no immediate danger threatens NATO. One would be very, very wrong.

Turkey has not only been an integral member of NATO since 1952, but it is also the only non-Christian (in fact, Muslim) country within the alliance. It has a further distinction, too: it shares an inland sea, the Black Sea, with Russia, and Russian ships can gain entry to the Mediterranean Sea only by passing through, well the city of Istanbul actually, along the Bosphorus. If that narrow, natural strait forms the watery part of the boundary between Europe and Asia, it equally separates Asian Turkey from European Turkey. And therein lies the problem. Turkey looks both ways at once, but its legs increasingly strain to carry the Turkish body politic eastward – and into the Russian stable.


It is hard to believe today that it was as recently as 24 November 2015 that Turkey shot down a Russian military jet that had infringed Turkish airspace by a few meters. In the ensuing, and last, twelve months, we have seen an alliance forged between those two powers which should, if not at first, then certainly by now have caused the offices and officers of NATO to suffer very many sleepless nights. Indeed, if they are presently enjoying any good nights’ sleep, they are either brain-dead or plain dead.

President (some regard him, or see him regarding himself, as Sultan) Erdoghan, supreme ruler of Turkey, oft rebuffed by, and now at loggerheads with, the EU (currently over the movement of migrants and over his approach to human rights – basically, he has little time for them) has a new buddy. He cosies up to the supreme ruler (some regard him, or see him regarding himself, as the Tsar) of all the Russias. What may lie behind the Russian bear-hug long-term is of course unknowable, but presently Sultan and Tsar have a lot of time for each other.

Erdoghan is not the only politician in a NATO country who is a fan of the oft-bare chested, bare-back-riding, Judo exponent and nuclear-trigger codes holder in Moscow. Others include: Brexiteer-in-Chief, Nigel Farage; his pal, Donald Trump (and several in his incipient administration); Marine le Pen and François Fillon, contenders for the presidency of France ; Beppe Grillo and several members of the Five Star movement which could soon form a future Italian government; and the far-right Ataka party in Hungary. It seems that Putin’s adventurism has bought him not only much-needed popularity at home but also respect abroad.


Of course, we should bear in mind that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has maintained a warm relationship with the Russian leader, too, which is just as well, since Russia’s war machine in Syria controls the airspace not merely of Syria but of Israel too. (Lesson: if you are going to infuriate a super-power leader, make sure that it is the one who will soon be exiting stage (very-definitely) left and not the one firmly ensconced in your back-yard. Well done, Bibi!)

Accordingly, given that all those western politicians – all from NATO countries – feel comfortable to be associated with Putin, why should we get worked up about Turkey?

The answer, and the problem both, is that Turkey has been semi-detached from Europe for some time, and these days increasingly so. If Turkey’s human-rights record was threatening to exclude it from the possibility of EU membership for many years, the seal has just been firmly impressed into the wax, with Erdoghan’s response to the failed coup (or “coup”) of July 2016. His reaction has led the imprisonment without early trial (or possibly any that is fair) of thousands of military personnel, for thousands of teachers and journalists (many of whom have also been imprisoned) the loss of their jobs, the closure of the last remnants of a free press and generally what may fairly be described as a widespread purge of almost every walk of professional and public life throughout that nominally-democratic but unfortunate country.

At the same time, Turkey controls the floodgates to Europe that until now have held back many thousands more of the migrants, from Syria and elsewhere, wanting to restart their lives in the EU. A proposed deal with the EU to allow 75 million Turks visa-free travel to Europe is faltering because of EU squeamishness over Erdoghan’s policies. If it fails, off go the migrants – en masse. Italy and Greece have been suffering from the pressure of unrestrained immigration, but they will surely buckle under the weight of what the Turks will unleash if they do not get their visa-free-travel-in-Europe deal.



It is complicated by, in parallel with all this, Erdoghan and Putin, fresh from forging their alliance, signing trade deals and carving up areas of influence in what used to be called Syria.

Not worried so far? Try this for size.

Since the failed coup (or “coup”), Turkey has recalled some 150 (about half) of its military officers assigned to NATO. (Some of those summoned back home have declined to go.) Their replacements seem to be more, shall we say, Erdoghanesque than Ataturkista in outlook. They may be properly regarded as something else from that neck of the woods: a horse presented (according to legend) by the Greeks as a gift, in around 1190 BCE, to the residents of Troy. You know where Troy was located: Anatolia, Turkey. Perhaps the gift is now being reciprocated. We should remember that the Trojan Horse contained the soldiers who wreaked the destruction of the Turkish city of antiquity. Perhaps something similar could now happen to NATO and its constituent states: at least one former senior Turkish NATO officer has described the Turkish newcomers as “ultra-nationalists who may be assumed not to be in sympathy with NATO values”.

In a leading article this Saturday, The Times (of London), from its lofty perch, suggested issuing a reminder to:-

“a Turkey flirting with China as well as Russia of the advantages of a place in what remains the world’s richest and most powerful security pact. Those advantages include intelligence sharing on the threat from Isis; access to western military hardware and assistance; and a seat next to the sole military superpower at the top table in world affairs.

Others may believe that a more practical approach would be to start worrying about all that Turkish access to Western intelligence and hardware, not to mention NATO’s plans for resisting Russian adventurism, the secret codes for action, details of NATO ordnance, troop numbers and deployments, present and potential, plans, targets – and fears. All of that, and doubtless much more, is accessible to Turkey as a member of NATO and now, in this era of expanding Russo-Turkish cooperation, susceptible of being shared with the very entity, Russia, that NATO exists to confront. That is some Trojan Horse, come back to infiltrate the West. Let us hope that the writer is not the only worrier on matters equine.

What has all this got to do with Israel, you ask? You may not be surprised to learn, or be reminded of the fact that Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea are all Major Non-NATO Allies (MNNAs), but let us not forget the other three: Egypt, Jordan and Israel. Possibly, Egypt and Jordan would be comfortable with President Putin picking up the juicier secrets that NATO has been able to safeguard until now – but Israel? For as long as Russo-Israeli relations continue as present, all well and fine. After that, we may wish that the Islamist officers now representing Turkey in NATO are shown the door sooner rather than later. Of course, the problem is directly one for Europe and the US, but the time to play war games on the assumption that the Russians know everything it needs to know from NATO’s archives has arrived. To the extent that Israel is dependent on NATO’s capabilities, it needs to factor this into its own planning.

© Howard Epstein – December 2016

Howard Epstein is a political commentator and the author of Guns, Traumas and Exceptionalism: America in the Twenty-First Century, recently published by Amazon and on Kindle. He writes:-

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