Turkey reportedly used its veto power within NATO on Wednesday to water down an official condemnation of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko for forcing down a passenger plane to arrest Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist on board. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s move to protect Russia’s Belarusian ally is the latest case of collusion between Ankara and Moscow to undermine NATO.
On Sunday, a Belarusian MiG-29 jet intercepted a Ryanair plane carrying 126 passengers from Greece to Lithuania and forced it to land in Minsk, with Belarus claiming there was a bomb from Hamas onboard. Hamas denied the claim. Investigative journalists later found that Belarusian authorities informed the flight crew about the purported explosive 24 minutes before receiving the apparently fabricated bomb threat from Hamas.
Lukashenko’s ploy to arrest Protasevich has drawn vocal criticism worldwide, prompting The Economist magazine to label him “Europe’s terrorist head of state.” Since then, the European Union has agreed to introduce sanctions in response to the “hijacking of the plane.”
On the day of the incident, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted that the development is a “serious & dangerous incident which requires international investigation,” and called on Belarus to ensure the safe return of the crew and all passengers. On Wednesday, NATO issued a statement condemning the “forced diversion” and declared its support for “measures taken by Allies individually and collectively in response to this incident.”
According to Reuters, Turkey blocked punitive steps for which Baltic allies and Poland had pressed. Ankara also prevented calls for additional Western sanctions on Belarus and the release of political prisoners there.
This is not the first time that Erdogan has rushed to Lukashenko’s aid. In August 2020, when the European Council called Belarus’ disputed presidential election “neither free nor fair” and refused to recognize the results, Erdogan was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Lukashenko, joining other authoritarian leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Three years earlier, when the world was criticizing Erdogan’s power grab through a referendum, Lukashenko was one of the first to congratulate his Turkish counterpart, claiming that the referendum would “contribute to further strengthening the sovereignty and independence of Turkey.” The following year, when Erdogan won Turkey’s presidential election, Lukashenko claimed that Minsk and Ankara have established “truly unique brotherly relations.” The Belarusian president also highlighted the potential for “strategic bilateral cooperation.”
Collusion between Ankara and Moscow to undermine NATO is nothing new. When Turkey signed a missile deal with Russia in 2017, it became the first NATO member to purchase big-ticket military hardware from Moscow. Since then, Turkey also became the first NATO member that the United States has sanctioned pursuant to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which targets significant transactions with the Russian defense or intelligence sectors.
Similarly, Turkey’s cross-border military operations in Syria have drawn criticism for strengthening Russia’s political and military footprint in the war-torn country at the expense of the United States and its Syrian-Kurdish-led partners in the fight against the Islamic State.
Turkey was once a pro-Western bulwark on NATO’s southeastern flank. But under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey continues to drift away from, and play a spoiler role within, the transatlantic alliance. Erdogan’s latest rush to save Putin’s ally Lukashenko shows how far the Turkish president will go to express solidarity with his fellow strongmen in Russia and Belarus. President Joe Biden should use his in-person meeting with Erdogan on the sidelines of the June 14 NATO Leaders’ Summit in Brussels as an opportunity to remind him of the basic tenets and values of the transatlantic alliance.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Aykan, the Turkey Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.