The Prize: Why Trump’s Relationship with Russia is Dangerous
Turkish police picked up Abdel Malik Nabil Petitjean on his way to Syria, apparently to meet with his ISIS commanders June 10th. He was held for 15 days before being release. Petitjean was a French citizen, but Turkish authorities never informed France of the detention. Last week Petitjean and an accomplish took 6 hostages in a Normandy church, beheading the 85-year-old priest and wounding a parishioner. This at a time when Turkey faced a wave of terror attacks carried out by ISIS. Petitjean was released the same day ISIS affiliates were carrying out an attack on Istanbul’s international airport killing more than 40. Turkey has always held an uncomfortably and suspiciously close relationship with ISIS.
Last week there was an alleged coup against the growing Islamic extremism within the government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. The supposed coup was put down leading to the arrest of tens of thousands of professors, critics, journalists and police. Following the failed coup, which many observers believe was staged by Erdogan to consolidate power, Erdogan suspended the constitution, appointed himself president and is moving to place direct control of the armed forces under the office of the president. Against that bloody shadow comes rising tensions between NATO and NATO member nation Turkey, with some now openly calling for the expulsion of Turkey from NATO and perhaps even the European Union. Earlier this week officials suspected sabotage in a suspicious fire near a NATO base in Eastern Turkey that plays a part in the battle against ISIS.
On July 25th The Washington Free Beacon, in a piece by Molly McKew explored Russia’s apparent role in putting down the Turkish coup. Just days before the coup one Alexandr Dugin was in the Turkish capital Ankara, meeting with intellectuals and allies to Erdogan. McKew observed that “Dugin, as Georgia and Ukraine have learned, is rarely near a conflict by chance, often providing both the ideological foundations for modern Russian expansionism and a kind of advance team for local mobilization.” According to McKew, “President Putin has been using Dugin as an emissary to the Turkish elite since Dugin accompanied Putin on an official visit in 2004. His mission was to build Russia’s network of influence to pull Turkey away from the West. This was based on his core idea that a “new Eurasian empire will be constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, strategic control [over] the USA, and the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us.”
For more than a decade US and NATO officials have feared Russian interference aimed at driving a wedge between Turkey and NATO. A split would benefit the long term economic aspirations of a resurgent Russia. Now that the conflict in Ukraine has waned, at least for the time being, Russia is eager to consolidate the Black Sea and Crimea. The region maintains vast and mostly untapped oil and gas reserves, but critical to Russian military, economic and strategic interests is unrestricted, unencumbered access to the Bosphorus Straits, the only viable outlet from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and beyond.
The effort to build that wedge has a typically Russian, even Soviet-style signature of Cold War era cloak and dagger, carrot but mostly stick efforts by Putin and Moscow. Russia pressured Turkey by supplying arms to their traditional Kurdish enemy. NATO and the US have also supported the Kurds in the fight against ISIS. Russian FSB agents are suspected in a number of high profile assassinations across Turkey of former Chechen fighters and dissidents.
On June 16 Russian warplanes bombed a secret US and British base in Syria serving as a buffer to protect neighboring Jordan from ISIS incursions. British Special Forces withdrew from the base only a day before a Russian warplane dropped a cluster bomb. U.S. central command air operations center in Qatar alerted Russian authorities in Latakia, Syria, but Russian warplanes attacked once more 90 minutes later killing 4 rebels working alongside Americans special forces.
For Erdogan, while not willing to give his country away to a Russian strongman like Putin, Russia’s growing, and sometimes threatening pressure on Turkey and the region also offers opportunities not possible within the EU or NATO. Unlike NATO and the EU, Putin would look the other way on Turkish civil rights and civil liberties abuses, as well as the virtual or even literal suspension of a democratic government in favor of Erdogan’s consolidation of power. The EU and NATO have already protested the suspension of civil liberties, and attacks and arrests against teachers and journalists in the wake of the coup. Russia has remained silent, cozying quietly alongside Turkey as the strategically critical nation and NATO slide further apart.
Donald Trump praised Erdogan’s handling of the coup attempt, which evidence purports to show may have been staged to terrify the people of Istanbul and Ankara. His comments shocked NATO officials and human rights advocates. Trump’s comments encouraged Erdogan and mirrored Moscow’s strategic intentions in the region. This from a New York Times interview dated July 22nd:
“The coup never took place — the coup was not successful, and based on the fact, and I give great credit to him for being able to turn that around. .. I don’t know that we have a right to lecture. Just look about what’s happening with our country. How are we going to lecture when people are shooting our policemen in cold blood? How are we going to lecture when you see the riots and the horror going on in our own country? We have so many difficulties in our country right now that I don’t think we should be, and there may be a time when we can get much more aggressive on that subject, and it will be a wonderful thing to be more aggressive. We’re not in a position to be more aggressive. We have to fix our own mess. “
As for Trump’s accusation of paying far more than other NATO member countries, the US does indeed pay a higher portion in terms of raw dollars into NATO, but it also reaps a great many benefits from that expenditure, including extending its power through surrogate allies and in economic benefits. Proportionally, however, nations like France, Norway, Poland, Germany Greece and even Turkey provide greater per capita contributions to the NATO cause. The US, by that standard, isn’t even in the top ten.
And there are additional benefits to Turkey remaining part of NATO, though that ship might already have sailed. Losing Turkey would further isolate Israel in the region. American warplanes and ships would find themselves limited or shut out altogether from strategically sensitive regions, such as the Persian Gulf, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Red Sea to name a few. Influence, whether military, economic, human rights or political would almost certainly be extinguished throughout much of the Mideast. The effects even at home here could be catastrophic for labor and US companies doing business in the region? Further, could that precipitate a domino effect across Africa and Southern Asia and the Indian subcontinent, leading to a possible collapse of the US economy for a generation or longer?
The destabilizing effects for NATO and the European Union would be potentially devastating, playing directly into Russia’s strategic interests to the detriment of the US and her allies. Trump has already expressed a desire for closer ties with Russia, despite very different strategic desires. That means something has to give? By all indications, and given Trump’s very vocal praise for Putin, and nearly three decades of personal and business dealings between Trump and Russia the man who is on the cover of “The Art of the Deal,” may well make a deal by selling out the United States.