The incident with Russia is worrisome. Fortunately, Vladimir Putin’s government has responded thus far only with economic sanctions. But Putin also has made it clear that a repetition of an attack on Russian planes operating out of Syria could lead to far more serious consequences. That possibility is not merely a matter of academic interest to other NATO countries. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty obligates its signatories to regard an attack on one member as an attack on all. Sorting out whether a future incident is a case of Russian aggression or a Turkish provocation and overreaction could be more than a little difficult—and entail potentially dire consequences.
The reality is that Turkey is an irresponsible loose cannon. NATO is supposed to be an alliance of peaceful democracies. Yet evidence continues to mount that Turkey fails to meet either standard. At best, the country is now what analyst Fareed Zakaria termed an “illiberal democracy”—a state that has periodic elections but where reliable protections for dissent are lacking and the political process is rigged in favor of the incumbent regime. That term accurately describes Turkey. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has increasingly harassed and imprisoned journalists and other critics. Just in the week leading up to the country’s national elections in November, authorities seized three television stations operated by opponents of the regime. Ownership was then transferred to Erdogan allies, who spent the final days before the election inundating the airwaves with “news” stories and editorials praising the president and his political party.