Türkiye and the Russian military threat to NATO

A wounded bear still has claws

Russia’s military troubles in the initial stages of its expanded war against Ukraine in 2022 prompted a wave of military analysis describing the Russian military as far weaker than had been previously thought, and asking how the West got it so wrong. Two years into the war, though, Western analysts have again been surprised by how quickly Russia was able to overcome massive losses and rebuild and retool its forces—again raising the specter of outright Russian military victory. By dramatically increasing defense budgets, adapting to the lessons of the battlefield, and drawing on a defense-industrial alliance with China and Iran, Russia reconstituted its forces in a manner that threatens to destabilize Ukrainian defenses—and might have recovered enough capability to cause real concern about NATO defenses elsewhere.

This should prompt leaders in NATO capitals to ask whether the Alliance is currently capable of deterring or defeating Russia on the battlefield. It is no simple question. War is a matter not just of aggregate economic output, but also of national will, alliance cohesion, geography, and combat readiness. Over the past two years, Russia has learned important lessons from the war and has managed to partially transform its armed forces to meet the operational requirements of the digital age. Through the invasion, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have developed a strong—though costly—conventional warfighting capability and an established command structure. When critical capabilities—such as mobilization, medical evacuation and treatment, and the development of the defense industry—are factored in, the experience the Kremlin has gained from the Ukrainian battlefield could have critical implications for NATO’s collective defense.

De facto alliances that have emerged alongside the war also carry important warning signs. Russia’s collaboration with Iran and the contributions of China and North Korea to the Russian war effort are important harbingers of a new global security landscape. Compared to the World War II Axis or the former Warsaw Pact of Soviet times, this axis could pose a more effective and powerful threat to the West in relative terms. The resources and global power of the coalition in question are much greater than those of the former Soviet Union. It will be no simple matter to establish a balance of power with such a grouping or deterrence against it. Among other things, it will require Alliance members to do more to leverage the growing strength of one of the Alliance’s heavy hitters in economic and military affairs—Türkiye*—than has been done to date.

Global echoes of conflict

Although the Russian war against Ukraine is being waged in Eastern Europe, important developments in other areas of the world, such as Africa and the Middle East, can be linked to it. Military coups on the African continent bear Russian fingerprints and have led to a reduction in US and French access and military cooperation. The war in Gaza, in addition to being a humanitarian disaster, has led to a rise in anti-Israel and anti-Western sentiment, especially in the Global South, taking pressure off of Russia and benefiting China.

The defense of Ukraine has revealed significant gaps in the defense-industrial capabilities of the NATO Alliance, raising questions about its ability to mobilize for extended conventional conflicts. Crises such as China-Taiwan tensions and North Korea’s missile tests cast a gloomy shadow over such conversations. Considering that some of the former security mechanisms, such as strategic arms-control agreements and the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), are no longer in effect, the global threat environment for NATO is worsening at an alarming pace. NATO has noticed the shifting environment, and has taken steps toward strengthening deterrence and a reliable global security architecture. War planners understand what might not always be obvious to the broader public in NATO nations—that to be effective, NATO’s strategic and operational framework needs to fully integrate the evolving technical and military capabilities of all NATO members, including Türkiye. However, steps by NATO members that are also European Union (EU) members to keep non-EU members of the Alliance outside the EU Military and Defense Industry Structure indicates there might be a problem.

Reforging and refocusing NATO

NATO, which during the Cold War focused on defense against in-area threats, has increasingly taken on a broader, and more global, mission set. This stance manifested itself regionally first, with intervention in the Balkans, then globally with interventions in Afghanistan and Libya. However, NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has created doubt about the organization’s effectiveness and its global credibility. It is critical that NATO learn important lessons from these past crises, and especially from Russia’s current war, and adapt its structure properly.

Following the strategic concept published in 2022, NATO is expected to review its command and force structures and defense planning system to adapt to the contemporary security situation. In this context, one of the most important issues NATO is working on is the effective use of digital-age technologies for defense purposes.

NATO’s permanent and internationally manned command structure is an important force multiplier. Reviewing the NATO command structure in the coming period, with an approach based on the space-land battle concept as well as the multidomain operation concept, will enable it to respond effectively to the needs of the age. In this digital era, big data (BD) and artificial intelligence (AI) have a significant impact on command-and-control (C2) activities. A C2 system based on the OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop approach and utilizing BD and AI has become an imminent necessity. Such a system will have significant impacts on software, hardware, and, more importantly, on the working procedures at headquarters. Staff officers and commanders should get used to working in a data-centric manner. Such an approach will have significant implications for NATO’s command structure, both physically and in terms of working procedures. Naturally, accelerating the military decision-making cycle will be an important force multiplier.

NATO gained an important capability by establishing high-readiness, corps-level headquarters in its force structure. NATO may also review these headquarters and come up with new doctrines to meet contemporary requirements. Combined with AI-augmented C2 capabilities, manned and unmanned units could increase the effectiveness of these headquarters. The realization of commonly funded unmanned units may increase the effectiveness of the NATO force structure.

Defense planning should be another area of focus for future posturing. In NATO defense planning, especially in determining operational requirements, shifting from a capability-based approach to a threat- and technology-based approach would be appropriate and useful in guiding allied countries in preparing their forces. Because of the Cold War era, NATO is no stranger to a threat-based approach, and a similar approach can be tailored to today’s security landscape. Additionally, more emphasis should be placed on harnessing technological resources to build military capabilities, integrating off-the-shelf products in this structure, and encouraging the design of future concepts and systems using digital engineering approaches. The defense planning system should also contribute to the establishment and maintenance of a decent Alliance-wide defense-technological industrial base (DTIB). NATO has taken important measures to enhance deterrence and increase combat readiness on its eastern border. These measures could be reconsidered to include critical regions such as Africa. Naturally, the measures taken will not be the same as those on the eastern border. The modifications should account for the conditions and security needs of the particular regions.

Türkiye’s past and potential contributions

In its seventy-two years of membership, Türkiye has duly fulfilled all its obligations to NATO. Türkiye was a cornerstone of Western deterrence of Soviet aggression throughout the decades of the Cold War, and provided robust military and political contributions to NATO operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. In Afghanistan, Türkiye agreed to operate the airport in Kabul, which was crucial to the Alliance’s mission. During the most critical period, it successfully assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and fulfilled its responsibilities as a framework nation. More recently, Ankara successfully evacuated NATO personnel, as well as political and military staff, from the airport under highly challenging conditions and in coordination with allies. On several occasions, Türkiye responded immediately to NATO’s requests for airborne warning, despite its own needs. Also, Türkiye’s important contributions to missile defense are well known within the Alliance.

The Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) of the 2020s are an experienced and successful warfighting organization. The TAF has conducted operations in various parts of the world, particularly in Syria and Iraq. These operations cover a wide spectrum, from classical operations to peacekeeping, and include specialized missions in mountainous regions. The planning and conduct of operations in Libya, Syria, and the Caucasus all required considerable capacity and professionalism. Almost all of the missions conducted have been at the large-scale, strategic, or operational levels. The planning, preparation, execution, and replanning of these operations within the framework of subsequent operations require considerable professionalism. These operations faced different types of adversaries, geographical conditions, logistical challenges, and casualty risks, further demonstrating the TAF’s flexibility and combat readiness.

The TAF is among the world’s leading armies in the use of unmanned systems, especially unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The Turkish defense industry and military services have reached an important level in the preparation of combat concepts, and the design, production, and use of unmanned systems. The experience gained in the field of UAVs has also led to important developments for unmanned sea vehicles (USVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). The Turkish Armed Forces continue their transition into the digital age. With a high level of combat readiness and significant defense-industry support, Ankara’s improving military capabilities will continue to make important contributions to global security and NATO. Turkish defense-technological advances—combined with recent combat experience, strategically valuable geography, and militarily-relevant resources (especially industrial capabilities and manpower)—mean that Türkiye’s potential future contributions to the Alliance are even more critical than those it has made in the past.

Stumbling blocks

Unfortunately, for several reasons, NATO has not been able to utilize Türkiye’s capacity sufficiently. One reason is the marginalization of Turkish threat perceptions by a number of Alliance members. This includes the attitude of certain members toward the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian branch known as the PYD. Naturally, Turks see the PKK as an existential threat, and Ankara expects its allies to stand on its side—but a number of allies support the group tacitly or, more directly, via its Syrian affiliate. Secondly, Ankara’s stance on the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), which is blamed for the 2016 coup attempt against the Turkish government, is similarly met with a mixture of skepticism and disregard by some Alliance members. Even accounting for the fact that domestic views on the PKK and FETO in member countries vary significantly, the simple fact is that failing to respect an ally’s threat perceptions—or, in some cases, actually strengthening the hand of those threats—undermines one of the pillars of Alliance cohesion.

Domestic political sentiment in NATO member countries sometimes creates resistance to supporting the Alliance, and Turkish public opinion is frequently targeted, and easily inflamed, through provocations involving religion. For example, burnings of the Quran in Sweden and Finland, two countries in the process of becoming new NATO members, crossed the line of unacceptability for Türkiye’s predominantly Muslim population. From a military point of view, these incidents hold important lessons and deeply impact NATO’s cohesion and unity. They could cause significant damage to NATO’s center of gravity—cohesion—which, in turn, could hurt the Alliance’s overall operational readiness. It goes without saying that such events could cause much more significant results and leave NATO open to exploitation by an adversary during a crisis. Lastly, defense-industrial restrictions and bans by some allies have also negatively affected Turkish, and thus NATO, combat readiness. Most recently, the denial of Ankara’s desired F-35 fighter jets and difficulties over the procurement of air-defense systems have had both positive and negative consequences. While the F-16V deal recently went through, the continued denial of systems such as F-35 fighter jets and the imposition of embargoes caused the Turkish defense industry to stand more firmly on its own feet, and these denials continue to hurt NATO’s combat readiness level.


The Russian war on Ukraine and other unfolding developments in global security point to the need for NATO to take important measures for the future that make it capable of responding to the security threats of the digital age. In this sense, it is important to both solidify the cohesion of NATO and make modifications that will facilitate sufficient use of the combat experience of the Turkish Armed Forces. Under this effort, a review of the TAF’s role in NATO’s victorious emergence from the Cold War would give useful insights for NATO’s future posturing, combat readiness, and defense planning. It will not be enough for the Alliance’s military and civilian officials to recognize the need for a better “Türkiye strategy” moving forward—the national governments in member states need to review past restrictions and actions in light of this need.

Yavuz Türkgenci is a recently retired three-star general in the Turkish Armed Forces whose career spanned several offices, including western European Union and NATO posts and as the commandant of the Turkish Third Field Army. He holds a doctorate in security strategy design and management.

*This article refers to “Türkiye,” the country name that the Turkish government and United Nations officially adopted in 2022.

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The Atlantic Council in Turkey, which is in charge of the Turkey program, aims to promote and strengthen transatlantic engagement with the region by providing a high-level forum and pursuing programming to address the most important issues on energy, economics, security, and defense.

Image: A fighter jet flies through a cloudy blue sky in Malta on September 24, 2021. Photo sourced from David Hili on Unsplash