What - or who - is behind the rot in NATO? And is the EU far behind?
“F-- the EU!” the waiter told me over my hünkar beğendi, a lamb dish served over mashed and seasoned eggplant. All of us, the waiter, myself and the eggplant were on a rooftop café overlooking Istanbul’s Old City. The ezan, the Muslim call to prayer, was being sung out beautifully in a round between three nearby mosques that sounding like an ecclesiastical Row, Row, Row Your Boat. It put the waiter in a reflective mood. “Although, it would be good for both of us.”
Turkey – a member of NATO since 1952 –has been trying to get a bid into the European fraternity since the club was still drawing up by-laws. It has access to the common market, but any beleaguered hope Turkey had for joining as a full member has evaporated. They haven’t taken the snub well. The waiter went on to explain that the black-ball was pure bigotry. Maybe, but earlier that morning I’d been in Paris and had gotten an earful from that crew. Everyone has an opinion, and in today’s multi-polar world, they have three.
France’s opposition wasn’t the pure racism advertised; although a country of 80mm Turks without border controls between it and the Loire Valley is pretty startling to Gallic sensibilities. In their defense, most of the country is in Asia and, more pressingly, Europe has already had its Wars of Religion – a whole century of them in fact. And most Europeans think that general idea behind the Treaty of Westphalia still hold. What does not work is the European Union unless religious politics – all of it – is bleached completely out of the government. And in Turkey, religion has gotten very political.
NATO, on the other hand, is a different kind of club. It’s strictly a military alliance designed to keep a hairy USSR from eating the rest of Europe. Which should simplify things, but there’s no telling its members that. France might be a founding member, but withdrew from the Integrated Military Command Structure in 1966 – because no one tell France who to surrender to but France – and didn’t rejoin until 2009. The alliance was a good fit for Turkey, the old Ottoman and Russian Empires had been squaring off for centuries. Even so, with a United States retreating from the global stage, a fussy Turkey, with it’s vision of a new Ottoman Empire, looks intent on bring the alliance down. So, what happens to a military alliance when its members find themselves consistently on the opposite sides in conflicts in both Europe, North Africa and the Middle East?
It’s hard to say, but Vladimir Putin can’t wait to find out.
France has recently unveiled a plan to spend billions to upgrade its conventional forces as well as stay ahead of the curve in cyber-warfare. In the published plan, hardware like tanks – that the US and British are largely ignoring - are needed to fight in “degraded conditions”: read when the internet goes out. They aren’t wrong. The impetus for the upgrade is two-fold. One is a resurgent and increasingly desperate Russia and the other (file this under “be careful what you ask for”) is an increasingly insular United States. Unlike China’s big new shiny military, the French military has gained experience in North Africa where they’ve arguably achieved more, with a smaller budget and less collateral damage, than the US in the War on Terror.
They’re going to need it. the Kremlin is rattling cages by accusing NATO of trying to overthrow Vladimir Putin, and that his main opposition, Alexei Navalry is an American “agent.” Putin has described the EU as being an “unreliable partner.” Although, since most of Europe is a part of an organization with the single aim of containing Russian aggression – this might not be too wide the mark.
Meanwhile, the mood lighting between Moscow and Ankara is decidedly more mellow. The two authoritarian leaders have some sort of Big Man simpatico that seems to exist beyond the mere killing of each other’s citizens where, it helps not to get too worked up about these things. In 2015, Turkish military shot down a Russian warplane that flew into Turkish airspace from the war in Syria – where each is backing a different side. Russia didn’t protest and shortly after the failed coup to unseat Erdogan, Putin was the first to call and express condolences over tediously uppity masses. Then Russia, if not switching sides in the Syrian conflict, changed tack to partner closer with Turkey.
Then there is that international tar-baby of Libya: The UN recognized Government of National Accord (GNA)in Tripoli is backed by Turkey - with drones, material and mercenaries from Syria - and it’s ally Qatar. Ankara claims it is supporting the West by supporting the UN backed government. To the east, out of Benghazi, the rebel forces (calling themselves the Libyan National Army) under General Khalifa Haftar were backed by Russia, UAE, Egypt and… France, which has skin in the game because Haftar had sold himself as a bulwark against Islamist extremism. Then again, so had Turkey. Even Italy waded in with mild support for the GNA in a very Italian way: read not very much. Italian war aims seem to be merely annoying the French.
Last summer, during the growing coziness between Putin and Ergoden, however, mercenaries from the Wagner Group – contracted through Moscow, abandoned Haftar’s rebel forces on its approach to Tripoli. This, as much as anything else, brought an end to the rebel army. The two Big Men act like old law-school buddies who find themselves on opposing council in a testy divorce case. They’ll fight each other while in court, but later at the bar, they get pretty chummy about working the fight to their benefit.
All of which puts Paris in a strange position. The French military is gearing up its army for a high-intensity war triggered by a land invasion by the same Russia with which it sided in Libya. It is also gearing up for a navel contest in the eastern Mediterranean fueled in part by Turkey - the same belligerent NATO ally whose interests it fought in Libya. Then there are the Italians who see the theater as mare nostrum “our sea.” They likely aren’t winning any military battles, but they do have a diplomatic knack for playing actors off each other.
Confused? Orgies generally are. So are divorces.
Still, none of this geopolitical bed-hopping is as random as it sounds. Putin spent his career with the KGB in East Germany where the local secret police, the STAZI, were the undisputed masters of a type of phycological warfare called Zersetzung – it translates into English as “decomposition.” Within the STAZI, the idiom means a decomposition by external forces. In this case, Putin would like NATO to rot, and he’d like to be said external force. And if he has his way, NATO might become the largest collateral damage of the Libyan and Syrian Civil wars.
The knock on affect to the EU just can’t be good.