HALIFAX. Nova Scotia – A top NATO official says the alliance has no choice but to accept for now Turkey’s decision to purchase a highly advanced missile defense system from Russia, a move that puts additional strain on an already damaged relationship with its allies.
“We have to see the situation in a very pragmatic way,” Czech Gen. Petr Pavel, the top military officer for NATO policy and strategy at its Brussels headquarters, told U.S. News on the sidelines of a security conference here earlier this month. “What’s the alternative? Are we going to alienate Turkey because of some issues, when at the same time we know Turkey is willing to discuss these issues? It would be very unwise.”
Following a failed military coup in Turkey last year and a subsequent crackdown on civil liberties by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, analysts fear that Ankara is moving away from Western partnerships and more toward hard-line governments in Russian and Iran.
The sale of the missile system, which Turkey acknowledged earlier this month, is causing headaches for members of the Western alliance for two reasons: Militarily, Turkey will now rely on new heavy weaponry that does not comport with NATO countries’ common arsenals. And politically, it will be doing hundreds of millions of dollars in business with Russia, violating new sanctions that Congress and the Trump administration have put into place.
NATO awaits a formal announcement from Turkey that it has purchased the S-400 long-range missile shield from Russia – as Ankara has already announced it will – and will then begin an assessment of the implications.
Pavel cites the importance of Turkey as a NATO ally, not only by its geography at the borders of Iraq, Syria and Iran, but also the resources it provides as the alliance’s second-largest military. Turkey is also the only predominantly Muslim nation that belongs to the 29-country alliance.
He says he spoke with the head of the Turkish Ministry of Defense shortly after the news of the deal was published.
“There is common will on the Turkish side as well as our side to discuss all issues that may come up. I believe that, up to now, there was always enough good will to resolve these issues successfully. We will also find a solution for this situation,” Pavel says.
Some observers believe the provocative missile deal is the latest move by Russian President Vladimir Putin to undermine the NATO alliance, a relic of the Cold War that found new relevance after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks through operations in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia and elsewhere. Russian propaganda routinely claims the alliance is poised to launch pre-emptive strikes on Russian territory, and it is used to threaten former Soviet nations that have since joined the NATO with claims that Brussels won’t come to their aid if they are attacked.
The missile deal follows other overtures Turkey has extended to Russia, as well as Iran, on the situation in neighboring Syria, including talks that excluded U.S. direct participation in Astana, Kazakhstan, on a plan for the political future of the war-torn nation.
“Russia is trying in any way, even perceived, to fracture the alliance, to build in dividing the alliance,” Pavel says. “Turkey in Astana, I believe, is very pragmatic. They want to address the issues, understand the best way to include all important actors.”