At the Vilnius summit, Turkish foreign policy seems to have made significant gains in the fight against terrorism in the face of Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership. However, what is the return for this in terms of NATO?
In the run-up to the NATO Vilnius Leaders’ Meeting held in Lithuania on 11-12 July, which coincided with the five hundredth day of Russia’s war in Ukraine, numerous predictions and analyses were made globally before the Summit regarding the possible decisions to be taken at the Summit. In the aftermath of the Summit, it was seen that the predictions made earlier were put to the test of reality and this time the focus was on observations on what kind of future awaits the Alliance with the decisions taken.
It was observed that many analyses based on current or purely daily developments were based on a narrow understanding that ignored NATO’s internal dynamics, the radical transformation process in the global security environment, which became more evident on 24 February 2022, and the multivariate characteristics of the context that formed the background of the Summit decisions.
WHAT KIND OF PROCESS?
After Obama took office in the US in January 2009, significant changes began to be seen in the US approach to global politics. In February 2009, Obama announced a new chapter in USRussia relations (reset) announced. In November 2009, the US announced its intention to join the Trans–Pacific Partnership (TPP), which brings together twelve countries in the Pacific Rim. In this framework, the US moved towards a dual-generational approach, prioritising cooperation for two separate continents (Europe and Asia-Pacific). These two processes could not prevent Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in March 2014, nor the US-China rivalry that started with the Trump administration and continued with the Biden administration.
Despite Putin’s 2005 statement that ‘the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’ and his 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference challenging unipolarity and the hegemonic power of the United States, and despite the outbreak of the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, the strategic concept document adopted at the 2010 NATO Lisbon Summit described Russia as ‘a partner of strategic importance to cooperate with’. This designation did not prevent this priority partner from launching an invasion of Ukraine in 2014, nor from attempting a second invasion in February 2022.
While these developments were transforming global security in the Euro-Atlantic region, China continued its rise, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, by increasing its military power. Starting from 2013, China has launched ambitious initiatives such as the Belt and Road Project, the ‘Made in China’ Initiative, its goal of becoming the world leader in Artificial
Intelligence, and its Global Security and Global Development Strategies. In the EuropeMiddle East-Africa-Latin America line, it has turned towards moves to expand its economic influence. Especially in the Asia-Pacific, it started to display an assertive attitude towards projecting military power on the high seas.
The relative coherence and adventure of global security has been in a perfect storm for the burgeoning strategic rivalry between the three great powers. It would be incomplete and misleading to focus exclusively on the decisions taken at the NATO Vilnius Summit in July 2023 without a sound reading of these decisive processes behind it.
The NATO Response Force (NRF), which was launched at the Prague Summit in 2002 in response to the threat posed by Russia’s attacks since February 2022, especially for European security, was increased to 40,000 after 2014.
WHAT KIND OF A PERIOD?
In his speech to the Russian Federal Assembly in February 2023, Putin made the internally inconsistent observation that the war in Ukraine was being fought against an existential threat to Russia, while at the same time the West was turning this ‘local conflict’ into a phase of global conflict. In short, if the Western world had recognised the Russian aggression as a ‘local conflict between brothers’, there would have been no problem for Putin and Russia. What Putin and his ruling oligarch supporters did not want to see was the denial of the fact that a new era in terms of ‘Realpolitik’ (balance of power) had begun, especially in the post2014 period.
The NATO 2030 Report, which was adopted in June 2021, and the new strategic concept document approved at the Madrid Summit last year were among the most important works that symbolised the opening of a new era within NATO.
For NATO, Russia was defined as a direct and significant threat and terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, as a direct asymmetric threat. China, on the other hand, was portrayed not as a direct military threat, but as an important partner, but also as an economic and strategic competitor. The picture was therefore clear for NATO and its members. Against the two main threats (Russia and terrorism), it became inevitable to adapt NATO’s force structure and command and control arrangements. This meant that the basis and scope of deterrence against Russia had to be changed. As a matter of fact, this area, which does not receive much attention from our public opinion, which is generally trapped in shallow views and ideological patterns, was among the main decisions of the NATO Vilnius Summit.
While the global security balances have been undergoing radical changes since 2014, China, which has become the biggest rival of the US, has not been idle, and in its security strategy announced in 2019, it acknowledged and declared its strategic competition with the US, especially in the Asia-Pacific, although not based on a full-fledged confrontation approach.
Not long after the strategy built on this, a period of tensions erupted in the Taiwan Strait and in the South and East China Seas in response to the US’s implementation of steps to contain China’s power. In this context, tensions in the northern (Korean peninsula) and southern (China-U.S.-Regional Countries) belts of the Asia-Pacific region have risen to a higher level in parallel with the line of conflict in the Euro-Atlantic region that emerged with Russia’s revisionist and aggressive attitude and reflected on the field. In this environment, China has also turned towards a more security-oriented axis in its foreign policy.
Having approved and implemented its new strategic concept document last year, it has become clearer that it is not possible to consider the decisions taken in the global environment that set the agenda of the Vilnius Summit of NATO apart from the characteristics of the geopolitical-geostrategic period prevailing in the field between the USA-Russia-China.
In any case, within the defence planning to be adapted to the new environment, it is understood that Area Focused defence plans will be developed at the operational level to support the high-level (strategic) defence plan, and three regional defence plans will be developed at a lower level.
WHAT KIND OF NATO INSTITUTIONAL FRAMEWORK?
In the run-up to the NATO Vilnius Summit, official and unofficial circles responsible for
‘enlightening’ our public opinion, which was mainly focused on whether Turkey (and
Hungary) would pave the way for Sweden’s NATO membership and, to some extent, how Ukraine’s NATO membership would be handled, reintroduced an understanding of NATO’s institutional framework, working culture and decision-making processes that was either based on incomplete and distorted observations or was compressed into a purely ideological view.
For example, there were retired officers who referred to ‘NATO’s list of terrorist organisations’. For some reason, it was avoided to explain to the public that NATO does not have a list of terrorist organisations like the UN or the EU in its fight against terrorism, but instead relies on the periodically updated Joint Threat Assessment prepared according to the intelligence data provided by each of its members and the measures included in defence plans.
Others argued that NATO was pursuing a path aimed at the disintegration of Russia and that Turkey would also disintegrate if Russia dissolved. In short, instead of focusing on the extent to which the rivalry between the ‘three hegemonic powers’ could open up space and opportunities for Turkey, as well as its inherent challenges, an understanding was put forward that indexed Turkey’s integrity to the future of Russia, one of the important neighbouring countries in our region. Thus, the Russian ruling class, as well as NATO, was ‘adjusted’ and personal egos were satisfied.
The NATO Response Force (NRF), which was launched at the Prague Summit in 2002 in response to the threat posed by Russia’s attacks since February 2022, especially for European security, was increased to 40,000 after 2014. The decision taken in Vilnius to increase the size of the NMK, which also includes the ‘Very High Readiness Joint Task Force’ (VJTF), to 300,000 points to a serious transformation in NATO’s force structure and deterrence-defence capability.
NATO faces a complex, conflicted and unpredictable security environment. In this context, NATO decided at the Vilnius Summit to enhance its deterrence and defence capability through enhanced forward defence, battle groups and high readiness forces, preferably at brigade level, with an increased number of forward deployed forces in the east of the Alliance.
In this way, all allies are to be defended on land, in the air, at sea (surface and sub-surface), in cyberspace and in outer space. The aim is to strengthen deterrence and defence against Russia and terrorism, which were declared threats in the strategic concept paper adopted last year. In this context, the current defence plans of the Alliance are to be put on a firmer footing by preallocating forces to the defence of each ally and by maintaining a larger number of forces in high readiness.
The Summit reviewed the progress achieved so far in the fight against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, which is among Turkey’s priority issues, and reaffirmed the need for determination and solidarity, including intelligence sharing and support to NATO partner countries, within the framework of the fight against the terrorist threat by the allied countries in the future.
This year’s agreement on a Security Compact between Turkey and Sweden in the bilateral framework in the fight against terrorism is a plus point.
It is well known that such a high level of military build-up in the region NATO is responsible for protecting will not be realised tomorrow. On the other hand, the fact that such a high level of targeting indicates that a serious transformation has been initiated in terms of force organisation. In the process of transformation, it is impossible for the reorganisation of the force structure not to affect the command and control structures and arrangements. Therefore, it can be expected that the functions of the existing command and control structures will be reviewed.
In the new security era, a redefinition of NATO’s deterrence function in the defence of the Euro-Atlantic region is one of the issues under consideration. Some experts describe this as a shift from ‘deterrence based on punishing’ an adversary power (Russia) to ‘deterrence aimed at restricting access to the region’.
While there is a degree of truth in this observation, it is important to remember that deterrence, in addition to its uncertainty characteristic, also includes punishment and denial of access, depending on the situation at hand. It should also be noted that NATO is familiar with the doctrine of a forward and gradual defence against a potential adversary in past defence plans.
In any case, it is understood that within the defence planning to be adapted to the new environment, Area Focused defence plans will be developed at the operational level to support the high-level (strategic) defence plan, and three regional defence plans will be developed at a lower level.
The Vilnius Summit saw decisions that will significantly transform NATO’s future forcecommand-control structure and functions.
On the other hand, these decisions do not mark an end but a new beginning. Therefore, each member will have to adapt itself accordingly. The emerging picture suggests that national freedom of action regarding the allocation of forces to NATO will be restricted in the new era, unlike in the post-Cold War period.
In this context, it would be useful to be more careful and sensitive in the future in determining the forces for NATO missions. In the event of a possible conflict, the use of the forces to be allocated outside the national command echelon, in other words, outside the NATO chain of command and control, as was the case during the Cold War, should be thoroughly calculated from the beginning.
As a result, a Trilateral Memorandum of Understanding was signed between TurkeySweden-Finland just before the 2022 Summit. With this text, a process towards meeting Turkey’s legitimate expectations from both candidate countries in the fight against terrorism has begun.
TURKEY IN VINNIUS
Since last year’s Madrid Summit, we have witnessed Turkey’s focus on Finland and Sweden’s membership of the Alliance, whose threat perception has radically changed in the face of the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine.
In May last year, President Erdoğan publicly stated that he was not in favour of the two countries’ NATO membership due to their tolerance of terrorist groups operating against Turkey, and a curtain of sharp images and heavy noise was opened before the Madrid Summit.
As a result, a Trilateral Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Turkey-SwedenFinland just before the 2022 Summit. With this text, a process towards meeting Turkey’s legitimate expectations from both candidate countries in the fight against terrorism began. At that time, the issue centred on whether the demands from Sweden and Finland should be made through such overt means or through channels more in line with diplomatic traditions.
In April 2023, after the Parliament approved Finland’s accession protocol to NATO, Turkey’s stance on Sweden’s membership was scrutinised both internally and externally ahead of the Vilnius Summit. With the effect of the election atmosphere in Turkey, the issue of Sweden’s membership was again put under the spotlight with high-pitched statements, and NATO was again put under the spotlight, not only on the European side, but also due to the ongoing series of challenges in Turkish-American relations (such as the procurement of F-16s, the S 400 crisis, the fate of the F 35 project for Turkey). As was the case last year, in the run-up to the Vilnius Summit, political party leaders suggested that Turkey’s exit from NATO should be put on the agenda. Since the beginning of this year, the Swedish authorities, unlike Finland, have not taken the necessary precautions against the provocative actions, which would have clearly inflamed the Turkish public opinion, which naturally led to reactions and uncertainty in the public opinion.
While certain sections of the Turkish public and media were preparing for tense scenes between Turkey and its NATO allies in Vilnius, they did not get what they expected. Turkey and Sweden announced in a press release that they had reached an agreement at the trilateral meeting organised before the Summit with the participation of the NATO Secretary General.
Unless the current domestic conditions change, Turkey’s EU accession process will once again be a long, thin and painful road. The main condition for shortening this bumpy road depends on Turkey’s internal steps in the areas of democracy, freedoms and rule of law, and the EU’s development of a renewed vision for Turkey.
It is observed that a significant part of the paragraphs in the press release consist of a reiteration of the points in last year’s Trilateral Memorandum of Understanding. On the other hand, this year’s agreement on a bilateral Security Compact between Turkey and Sweden in the fight against terrorism is a plus point.
In this context, when Sweden becomes a NATO member, multilateral obligations within NATO will be added to the bilateral counter-terrorism commitments it undertook before becoming a member. In this respect, Turkey will have additional leverage to use against Sweden when necessary. There are no analyses that examine this aspect of the issue arising from the NATO acquis.
The announcement that the Secretary-General will appoint a Counter-Terrorism Coordinator for the first time to ensure coordination within the Alliance can also be considered a positive development, provided that its meaning is not exaggerated. Past experience and examples have shown that coordinators reporting to the Secretary-General have limited influence within the Alliance. It is to be hoped that this time, realism notwithstanding, this appointment will bring about a different picture.
Some observers in Turkey point to the fifth article of the statement, which stresses the commitment to the principle of removing restrictions, barriers and sanctions on defence trade and investment between the allies. It should be recalled that this principle was included in the NATO 2030 Report, approved by NATO leaders in 2021, and in subsequent declarations.
Therefore, although it is open to question to what extent it is reflected in practice from Turkey’s perspective, it is not the first time that the principle of removing such restrictions and sanctions between allies has come to NATO’s agenda through the Vilnius Press Release.
It is possible to see Sweden’s undertaking to actively support Turkey’s EU accession process on the occasion of the Vilnius Summit as a positive element. Sweden can of course provide this support within its own power and scope. On the other hand, it should be recognised that the way forward for Turkey’s EU candidacy will not pass through NATO, and that the EU is an organisation of a different nature, whose structure and decision-making processes are based on different foundations.
Unless the current domestic conditions change, Turkey’s EU accession process will once again be a long, thin and painful road. The main condition for shortening this bumpy road depends on Turkey’s internal steps in the areas of democracy, freedoms and rule of law, and the EU’s development of a renewed vision for Turkey. From this point of view, instead of using Sweden’s incomplete NATO membership as an opportunity to prioritise its own EU membership, Turkey should move towards an approach that prioritises Turkey’s participation in the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects in line with its own securitydefence interests and priorities, which is essentially included in the Trilateral Memorandum of Understanding signed last year.
From this point of view, in the first stage, official circles, public opinion leaders, think tanks and academia in Turkey should put forward concrete proposals focusing on this specific area and follow up on this at all levels, rather than following a high-pitched line with the cry of ‘we have won a victory in Vilnius’ at a time when the economy is going downhill day by day and therefore in search of hot money and foreign direct investment.