Russian President Vladimir Putin seemingly cannot believe his luck as he watches NATO cause near irreparable harm to itself from the sidelines.
NATO has been a major force in reigning in Putin’s revanchist vision for Russia, with the alliance holding a series of military exercises and basing troops in vulnerable nations throughout Eastern Europe and the Baltics as a check on Russian aggression following the annexation of Crimea.
Now, however, that sense of unity across Europe and North America against Russian aggression is flailing, as NATO does drastic amounts of self-harm.
“Putin has the luck of the devil,” Mark Galeotti, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Bloomberg about the fraying nature of NATO. “He can just sit back and watch this richer, more powerful and legitimate values-based bloc tear itself apart.”
At the heart of NATO’s declining stature is the candidacy of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and the failed coup in Turkey. Trump suggested recently that he would not necessarily extend the security guarantee inherent in NATO’s Article 5 to all 28 members of the alliance. Given a hypothetical of Russia attacking a Baltic State, Trump said that he would provide aid contingent upon whether the state had “fulfilled their obligations to us.”
This lack of commitment to upholding NATO’s cornerstone of collective defense from a US presidential candidate undermines the alliance as a whole, experts said, and could cause considerable anxiety among NATO allies — particularly in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe.
The failed coup in Turkey has also deeply shaken the military alliance. Turkey has the second-largest military in NATO and provides vital security to the alliance’s eastern and southern flanks. However, since the failed putsch, Turkey is rapidly moving away from NATO, the US, and the West as a whole.
“Anti-American sentiment is rising in the Turkish government and on the Turkish street,” Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Bloomberg. “The Obama administration is at its wit’s end about the Turkey issue.”
Although not named specifically, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused the US general in charge of Central Command of “siding with coup plotters” on Thursday. And Turkey has formally requested the extradition of a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania that it holds responsible for executing the coup attempt.
These mounting divisions between NATO and Turkey will only likely increase as Putin grasps and the opportunity and uses it to further pry Ankara out of the alliance’s orbit, according to Alexander Shumilin, the head of the Middle East Conflicts Center at the Institute for US and Canada Studies in Moscow.
“Putin’s policy is to provoke a divide between Turkey and NATO and reap the benefits,” Shumilin told Bloomberg.
Ultimately, the goal would be to have Turkey no longer function as an effective NATO buffer against Russian expansion to the south and into the Mediterranean.
Turkey and Russia are only likely to further cement their relationship in the coming weeks. Erdogan has already blamed the coup plotters for the downing of a Russian jet in November 2015, which caused a precipitous decline the relations between the two countries.
And on August 9, Putin and Erdogan are set to meet in St. Petersburg, Russia, to discuss a wide range of bilateral topics. For NATO, this could not look worse.