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Turkish planners understand geopolitics as well as any strategist in Washington, Brussels, or Beijing. During the Cold War, this led to Turkey joining NATO. Today, Turkey plays both sides in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the future, it may mean forming a buffer zone between NATO and China in Central Asia. One thing is certain: Turkey will continue pursuing its national interests at the expense of its allies because NATO membership gives it the ultimate leverage.

NATO is at the heart of Turkey's grand strategy. A marriage of convenience, NATO membership gives Turkey the freedom to pursue its national interests by being a bad partner to its allies instead of a direct opponent to the Alliance. In exchange for insulating Turkey from the spread of communism during the Cold War, Turkey has provided NATO with a foothold at the intersection of Europe and Asia since 1952. Turkey's strategic location at the crossroads of two continents enables NATO to project power into the Middle East and Central Asia and maintain a presence in the Black Sea region.

Turkey has been a swing player since Russia invaded Ukraine. On the one hand, Turkey has helped Russia evade Western sanctions and Turkish-Russian trade has flourished because of it. On the other hand, Turkey has armed Ukraine and arranged prisoner swaps between the belligerents. Turkey has also used its leverage with both parties to broker the historic Black Sea Grain Initiative that facilitates the safe export of grain and fertilizers from Ukrainian ports.

Turkey also threatens to block Sweden and Finland's application to join NATO. By making Swedish membership contingent on the extradition of Turkish nationals, like exiled newspaper editor Bülent Kenes, Turkey is using its leverage within NATO to blackmail both Sweden and Finland at the expense of its allies and partners. On the one hand, Turkey's blackmail undermines the rule of law in Sweden. On the other hand, it weakens Europe's collective security by preventing Finland, which shares a 830-mile-long border with Russia and has previously been the victim of a Russian invasion, from joining NATO.

While more than 40,000 Turkish soldiers occupy the northern third of Cyprus in contravention of United Nations resolutions since 1974, policymakers from Ankara threaten to invade NATO-partner and EU member state Greece every other day. Elsewhere in the East Mediterranean, Turkey exploits the Libyan Civil War to sign illegal maritime agreements and drilling deals with an illegitimate government that does not have the legal mandate to bind Libya for the long-term. Then, Turkey uses this fait accompli in Libya as a bargaining chip to restore diplomatic relations with Egypt, despite safeguarding terrorists that are associated to the Muslim Brotherhood and hostile to the Egyptian government.

In the Caucasus, Turkey enables Azerbaijan's violence against descendants of the Armenian genocide. Even worse, Turkey still denies the genocide it perpetrated against the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek people of Asia Minor. In the Middle East, Turkey launches air raids and artillery strikes that kill civilians and endanger U.S. personnel embedded with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who defeated ISIS. Despite calls for de-escalation from U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Turkey is on the verge of launching a ground offensive against the U.S.' most loyal ally in Syria. For all its strategic maneuvers, Turkey holds one of its most valuable cards close to its chest: Central Asia.

Turkey wields significant cultural capital in Central Asia thanks to shared language, religion, history and traditions. Moving forward, Turkey could play an important role in NATO strategy toward China through the Organization of Turkic States, a multilateral organization that includes Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. This Turkic-speaking bloc could serve as a buffer zone between NATO and China in Central Asia—and give Turkey even more leverage within NATO. In terms of risk-reward ratio and cost-benefit analysis, Central Asia presents Turkey with the best opportunity to expand its influence and increase its leverage.

Turkey's ambition for the 21st century is to be a global power at the intersection of Europe and Asia. To be clear, Turkey has threatened to attack, invaded, or occupied almost every country it shares a border with to accomplish this. If the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, then Turkey will continue pursuing its national interests at the expense of its allies because NATO membership gives it the leverage to do so.

Originally published by Newsweek on December 12, 2022.

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