Do relations between Russia and Turkey threaten NATO?


The relations between Russia and Turkey, which for some years have become increasingly articulated, are characterized by an ambiguous relationship, complicated by Turkey's long membership in the Western (NATO) alignment that opposed the Soviet Union (Warsaw Pact) and, despite the recent rapprochement, especially from the opposition regarding some dossiers of particular geopolitical importance.

The two countries, in fact, are deployed on two opposing camps both in Syria and in Libya, the two Mediterranean areas currently hottest, from all points of view.

In fact, in Syria, Turkey opposes government forces supported by Russia, Iran and Lebanese militias of Hitzballah. On the one hand there is the Turkish desire to "settle" the Kurdish question definitively, by all means, while on the other there is the active Russian support for Kurdish requests, which manifests itself in the supply of abundant material, reciprocated by authorization to build an air base on its territory. A base that would be of particular strategic importance as it could allow the Russians to control and keep the whole of southern Turkey in check (v. article). The tension is such that on both fronts there is talk of frequent breaks in the ceasefire agreed on March 5, 2020.

In Libya it is known that, while Ankara actively supports the Tripoli government by obtaining control of its Coastal Naval Forces in exchange (to the detriment of Italy), Russia together with Egypt (another great and influential Middle Eastern actor) resolutely supports General Haftar.

Furthermore, the intricate Russian-Turkish relations certainly do not benefit from the fact that Ankara is openly very close to Kiev, both at a military and diplomatic level, a fact certainly annoying for Moscow, which already resents the attention of the European Union and of the USA on that particular theater, considered by Putin to be extremely important from a military and geopolitical point of view. To increase international attention (and Moscow's irritation) was then added Washington's recent alarm about a possible Russian attack by the end of next January. This led Europe, through the voice of its High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the Spaniard Joseph Borrell, to affirm that the European Union "... will stand by Kiev in the event of an attack ..."1.

Collaboration in the aeronautical field ...

Nevertheless, the points of contact between the two countries are numerous and important, especially from a military point of view. In this regard, it is enough to recall the purchase of the Russian S-400 missiles and the nuclear orders for the Mersin power plant. In fact, as early as December 2017, Turkey signed a contract worth 2,5 billion dollars for the supply of four batteries of the aforementioned missiles. A supply that, as the agency has made known to Reuters on 23 August 2021, it will be augmented with a second batch of units from the S-400 “Triumph” air defense system. A move tending, according to many observers, to accentuate the distance from the US and NATO, who do not fail to express strong perplexities and concerns.

A marriage of interest, so to speak, which led to the Sochi Summit on September 29, at the end of which Russian President Vladimir Putin and his counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emphasized the points that united them. The head of the Kremlin has, in fact, highlighted that "... even if the negotiation was not easy, it ended with a positive result, having found some compromise points favorable to the two parties ...". Erdoğan replied to Putin, noting that "... there is great benefit from the fact that Russia and Turkey continue to strengthen their relations ...". A collaboration that will lead, among others, to the Turkish production of some components of the S-400, as pointed out by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti last November 17th. Added to this is the information released by the Turkish agency Anadolu, through which Ankara has leaked that it is considering acquiring Russian fighter jets, in response to its exclusion from the F-35 program.

Indeed, the United States pulled Turkey out of the production program of the fifth-generation F-35 fighter in reaction to the Turkish acquisition - the only NATO country - of Russian weapon systems. During the bilateral talks in Washington last November 17, however, it seems that the two countries have reached an agreement for the "restorative" supply of 40 F-16s and 80 modernization kits for the aircraft already present in the Turkish Armed Forces.2. The agreement, however, according to some observers, does not seem to exclude the possible possibility of yet another Turkish turnaround on the subject, on which Erdoğan stated that he is also evaluating the possibility of acquiring Russian engines for the TF-X. the program for the fifth generation Turkish fighter whose first flight would be scheduled for 2025 and entry into service by 2030. A possibility also highlighted by Dmitry Shugaev, director of the Russian Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation (FSVTS), when it claims that “… There are areas of interest where we can make contributions of technology, also taking into account the experience our specialists have in the field of aircraft development and manufacturing. And we are ready to share our skills with Turkish partners ... ". Should this collaboration materialize, it will be interesting to verify how Russia will manage to reconcile this partnership with the antagonism in the area on the border with Syria, for example.

… And in the air, naval and naval sector

In any case, the collaboration in the combat aircraft sector could have possible repercussions also on the air-naval one since, at the moment, Turkey does not seem to have any concrete project on the horizon for a valid STOVL fighter to be used on its main platform. Anadolu (image), an LHD equipped with a large flight deck, as well as having significant amphibious capabilities. It is therefore understandable how the eventual STOVL fighter equipment could expand the Turkish projection capacity on the sea. And, given Ankara's aggressive posture, it might not be reassuring news.

In this regard it is worth remembering that, given the progressive US detachment from the area, Italy (Cavour) and France (Charles de Gaulle) are the only Mediterranean countries that have an aircraft carrier, the only units capable of counteracting Turkish assertiveness on the sea should Ankara also acquire this operational capability. It therefore appears very necessary and urgent to put the Cavour, quickly acquiring all the Navy F-35Bs needed to reach full operational capability (full operational capabilty - FOC).

The perplexities and concerns raised by the Russian-Turkish collaboration regarding air and missile armaments can therefore also be extended to everything concerning naval armaments, another area of ​​collaboration emphatically evoked by Erdoğan.

On the sea, in fact, the Turkish posture is the most assertive and there have been, in the last three years, moments of strong tension deriving from the arrogance and arrogance of Ankara, even going so far as to point the shooting radars (extremely aggressive measure) against French naval units. A destabilizing posture that has now upset the delicate balances achieved with difficulty in the Mediterranean after the Second World War (v. article).

On the sea, therefore, the Sublime Door is playing its most important geopolitical game, being mainly related to the acquisition of energy resources but also to securing the rights of the future "energy highways", which will connect Asia, Africa and Europe, as well as the expansion of its political influence and military.

Regarding the energy issue concerning the eastern Mediterranean, the news is very recent that Turkey has publicly "... threatened to block any unauthorized research (from Ankara, ed) of gas and oil in its Exclusive Economic Zone ... "in response to Nicosia's assignment of hydrocarbon exploration and drilling rights to Exxon and Qatar Petroleum3. The only problem is that the Turkish EEZ is not recognized by the international community and, consequently, Ankara's assertiveness currently has no legal basis. The delicate issue is likely to worsen, given that ENI has also announced that in the first half of 2022 it will resume drilling operations in the area legitimately assigned, but not accepted by Turkey (v. article).

Erdoğan on the naval question also underlined how, similar to the collaboration in the missile and air field, Moscow and Ankara could converge on the collaboration for the acquisition of underwater units.

Everyone knows that the use of submarines requires a very high degree of secrecy, due to the very nature of their operations. It is therefore inconceivable that a NATO member could find himself in the event of sharing such highly confidential information with a historically adversary country of the Alliance. Erdoğan did not give any further details on what he said, but it is a fact that Russia has good diesel-electric boats, the "Kilo" class, and is developing valid projects such as the "Amur 950" and the "Amur 1650".

The “Kilo” class boats have been designed to carry out reconnaissance, surveillance and attack missions against underwater and surface targets. They are very compact and can operate even in relatively shallow water. The “Amur” classes will be acquired with two different displacements, they will have more accentuated capabilities stealth acoustics, new combat systems and the possibility of independent air propulsion (air-independent propulsion - AIP), or the possibility of operating without having access to the outside air and, therefore, without emerging or using one snorkel.

It should be emphasized that many modern non-nuclear submarines are significantly less noisy (and therefore more "invisible" to underwater tracking devices) than nuclear submarines. Hence their greater danger in terms of underwater combat, while nuclear boats remain a threat at a strategic level, having the possibility of hitting surface targets (sea and land) even very far away and with remarkable precision.

This would be a significant diversification of the Turkish Navy which, at the moment, is planning to acquire six U-214T submarines, supplied under German patent, also with diesel propulsion and AIP capability. Their construction takes place thanks to the collaboration between the Turkish shipyards of Gölcük and Sistemi Marini of the German TyssenKrupp. The first in the series, the Piri Reis, was launched in 2019. A collaboration that was heavily criticized in Germany, precisely because of the tensions produced by the assertive and aggressive Turkish attitude in the eastern Mediterranean. However, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Heiko Maas, and the Minister of Defense, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, opposed the interruption of the program, stating that “… An arms embargo against Turkey is strategically incorrect. It is not easy to make such a decision against a NATO ally. We have seen that Turkey bought missiles from Russia, only because it did not have the opportunity to obtain them from the US ... "4.

Pecunia not olet, one would almost say, also in light of the fact that Germany does not hinder Turkish maritime assertiveness in any way but, especially on the question of the pipeline EastMed, it facilitates their requests in favor of German interests (gas pipeline Nord Stream) and to the detriment of European and Italian interests. And yet, despite this (very interested) German willingness, Turkey has not looked away from other boats.


It seems that, for the protection of Turkish claims, the fleet has recently been assigned selective rules of engagement according to the nationality of the ships that could carry out exploration activities in the Levant Sea. In this context the Turkish fleet would be rather compliant with US units (question seems to have been addressed during the aforementioned bilateral talks in November) but intransigent with explorer units of other European nationalities, including Italy, considered less combative, going so far as to prevent such activities also by resorting to military intervention. Precisely for this reason, the Turkish attitude in the Eastern Mediterranean is, as mentioned, a source of great concern not only as regards the application of international law and the relative stability of the area, but also the stability of the Alliance (v. article).

In that theater a very delicate game of chess is being played which sees Turkey raise the stakes from time to time, in an attempt to increase its bargaining power in the area, and Russia use Ankara to create a breach in the solidarity wall. of allies. A wall that, under Erdoğan's dictatorship, is slowly disintegrating as a result of an increasingly muscular and unscrupulous neo-Ottoman policy.

A loosening of the cohesion of the Alliance would be an extremely serious event that could probably trigger perverse dynamics, capable of definitively and disastrously destabilizing the whole area, as well as creating the conditions for the inclusion in this theater of extremely determined actors coming from very far.

On those waters, therefore, a very delicate geopolitical game is being played. The border represented by the wall built in the aftermath of the Turkish invasion of a part of Cyprus now indicates that on the one hand there are Europe, the Western world and its values, while on the other there is Erdoğan's Turkey, which he wants to play his dangerous Mediterranean game all the way, even in areas that traditionally were our areas of influence. It is therefore necessary to carry out a serious, profound and mature reflection on our role in the Mediterranean because, either we go back to being decisive as we have been over the centuries and in recent years, or the Mediterranean could become our serious problem.

The EU and Italy should, therefore, finally have a clear policy and they should demonstrate your determination not to accept further maritime and territorial provocations from Turkey, also calling the American and German allies to a serious reflection on their respective relations with Ankara, which are becoming more and more ambiguous and which are undermining collective trust.

Therefore, the concern with which European countries are following the evolution of military collaboration between Russia and Turkey is palpable because, should relations between the two countries further deepen, Turkish membership in the Alliance itself would be put more than ever. under discussion, coming to represent a weakness rather than a strength of NATO.

The military collaboration between Moscow and Ankara is, in the meantime, continuing and the second, while its international intemperances continue, is profoundly renewing and diversifying its arsenal which, if things do not change, could come to represent a threat in the future. for Europe and Western countries.

An additional threat that Europe and Western countries do not feel any need.

Renato Scarfi (CESMAR)

1 RAI News, 5 December 2021

2 LUISS International Security Observatory, 5 December 2021

3 Selcan Hacaoglu, Bloomberg, December 5, 2021

4 Heiko Maas, December 2020

Photo: Kremlin / MoD Russian Federation / presidency of the republic of Turkey / Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri