Sprawled at the very eastern end of the Mediterranean, Turkey is the farthest from the Atlantic Ocean of any of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 29 member states.
Those 2,000 miles are also fast coming to symbolize a looming chasm between the crucial 69-year-old alliance and its leading partner, the United States, and that Middle Eastern land of 80 million as it slides into deeper authoritarianism under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and perhaps into the Russian orbit.
Both allies are now sanctioning each other, allegedly over Ankara’s imprisonment of an American pastor. And according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, “We have more that we’re planning to do if they don’t release him quickly.”
But much more is at stake than the trumped-up arrest of a Christian missionary. What’s actually at risk now is the incremental crumbling of NATO under the deft diplomacy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the most serious threat to NATO cohesion in a long while.
As any ex-KGB colonel knows, the original 12 NATO nations blocked a further European advance of Soviet power during the Cold War. Now expanded to 29 nations, many of them former Soviet satellites, an uncertain NATO represents the only major obstacle to Putin’s restoration of a grander Russia.
Turkey is a golden opportunity for Putin, who likes to deal with strongmen. Ironically, as a newcomer to democratic rule, Turkey sought and received NATO membership and protection in 1952 when Stalin’s plan of expanding Russian influence to the Mediterranean targeted Turkey.
You know what they say about understanding history. Putin is doing the same thing. In return for propping up Syria’s dictator, he’s acquired oversized influence there and a warm-water port for his navy.