As NATO officials gathered last week in the Turkish beach city of Antalya, Turkish officials used the occasion to make unusually strong commitments affirming their support of the alliance in its growing conflict with Russia.
Turkey announced that it would head the alliance's new Spearhead Force in 2021. Plans for the Spearhead Force, a rapid reaction unit staffed from NATO member militaries, were drawn up last year explicitly to combat potential Russian attempts to destabilize NATO countries.
In remarks at the meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Cavusoglu explicitly criticized Russian policy in the region. AFP reported that Cavusoglu said "Ankara was prepared to play a 'constructive role' in the disputes between Russia and the West over Ukraine. But he said: 'Nothing can justify what Russia has been doing in its neighbourhood.... Ukraine. Crimea. Georgia.'"
And Cavusoglu also called for the next NATO summit in Warsaw in 2016 to accept new members. "We favour NATO expansion. Currently we have four candidate countries – Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Georgia. And we would like to see the 2016 Summit aimed at expansion,” he said.
Cavusoglu's remarks left unclear exactly which of those four countries Turkey supported gaining membership in 2016, but the most controversial would be Georgia. Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli welcomed Cavusoglu's support: "I am especially grateful to him for making this statement. Similar initiatives from NATO member countries and our partners are very important for us. This naturally gives us a cause for optimism,” she said.
Responding to Cavusoglu's remarks, Russia's envoy to NATO Aleksandr Grushko focused only on the possibility of Georgian membership. But he downplayed the possibility, noting that NATO has been increasingly cooperating with Georgia.
"But there are many realistic people in NATO and many understand the risks of the thoughtless ‘open door policy’," he said.
"Such development of events could result in serious consequences for the European security," the diplomat said. "In case with Ukraine and Georgia, division lines may be created inside the countries," he said.
"I believe that common sense will prevail and such thoughtless attempts will be abandoned," Grushko said.
Turkey's strong support for NATO enlargement is unusual, wrote Jorge Benitez, an analyst at the Washington think tank Atlantic Council. "While NATO routinely restates that it has an open door policy for new members, the pace of enlargement has been controversial and slow, particularly since the Bucharest summit in 2008 when Georgia and Ukraine were denied Membership Action Plans (MAPs), an essential step for joining the Alliance," Benitez wrote. "Çavuşoğlu's call to make enlargement a priority at the Warsaw summit is an unusual step for Turkey, which normally does not treat enlargement as one of its main objectives for the Alliance."
Turkey's ties with NATO have been a bit strained recently, including over Ankara's plans to buy a Chinese air defense system instead of an American or European option. Turkey looks more and more like it's walking back those plans and opening up the competition again. A Russian official even suggested earlier this month that Turkey might want to buy a Russian system instead, though that's likely wishful thinking; the most likely Plan B would be the offering of the European conglomerate Eurosam.
Russian ties with Turkey have been boosted by discussions on building a gas pipeline, known as Turkish Stream, from Russia across the Black Sea to Turkey and onward to Greece and the rest of Europe. But if Moscow had any hopes that Ankara was seeking to distance itself from NATO, they might now be thinking again.