A smoldering Turkey-NATO crisis is about to erupt under our distracted noses

You may recall there’s been a fair amount in the news these last many months about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his minions seeking to meddle in U.S. affairs, mainly election politics.

The widely-accepted suggestion that cloaked writers in Saint Petersburg posting contentious fake news on Facebook could divide Americans any more than they already are these days may strike some as humorous.

But Putin and gang are involved in some far more immediately significant meddling in U.S. affairs in the Middle East, specifically with our NATO ally Turkey.

As we enter another of our seemingly endless election seasons, foreign affairs tend to fade into the background of America’s consciousness after one or two news cycles – absent a crisis, of course. Remember the attacks on two oil tankers transiting the Persian Gulf? That was last Thursday’s news.

But this rolling crisis over Turkey shouldn’t fall off our radar. In both Europe and the Middle East, Putin is attempting to rebuild the ambition of a grander Russia, a steady theme in his country’s history for generations.

Using his military to prop up Syria’s dictator in his civil war, Putin has insinuated Russia deep into that country’s life – and in payment, for the first time in Russian history, he won naval access to a warm water port.

Using arms sales and construction of nuclear reactors, Putin has infiltrated deep into the life of embattled Iran under the mullahs. Under General Abdel al-Sisi, longtime U.S. ally Egypt is a developing Putin target for arms sales and influence.

See a theme there? Putin likes dealing with strongmen. Here comes Turkey’s evolving strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s consolidating power and slowly sucking the democratic life from that ancient land.

The complication: Turkey is one of 29 members of NATO, the 70-year-old international alliance that successfully confronted Soviet expansion during the Cold War and lead to its dissolution in the early 1990s.

At the far eastern of the Mediterranean, Turkey is 2,000 miles from anything having to do with the North Atlantic. Here’s why we study history: Before his timely death in 1953, Joseph Stalin had designs to insert Soviet influence into the Middle East, specifically Turkey. To counter that, NATO hastily admitted Turkey, its first majority Muslim member. That worked for a long while.

Putin was a KGB lieutenant colonel when the Soviet Union crumbled, so he knows about underground and backdoor dealings. Now, the strongman heir to Stalin’s legacy is seeking to weaken that troublesome Western alliance. He’s holding military maneuvers along Baltic borders.

Putin has done a massive natural gas deal with Germany to give himself energy and political influence there, too. Russia is building a $20 billion nuclear power plant in Turkey, a la Iran. And, oh look: another one in Hungary, yet another NATO ally.

Putin has stolen Crimea from Ukraine, stalling its NATO membership ambitions, hacking its power grid and fueling an internal rebellion to destabilize Kiev, all of which spotlights the West’s unwillingness to act beyond ineffective sanctions.

As a sign of alleged solidarity in 2015, then-President Barack Obama sent field meals and other nonlethal support to Ukrainian troops. President Donald Trump countered that by selling actual arms to Ukraine. And he has imposed additional sanctions on Moscow. But Trump’s frequent complaints about NATO members’ inadequate defense spending, along with his old observation that NATO is outdated, create uncertainty that plays into Putin’s goal.

And despite Trump’s sometimes tough words, many perceive he remains averse to directly confront Putin.

That may be approaching an end. The Trump administration has informed Erdogan that it will not proceed with his planned purchase of up to 100 of Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 joint strike fighters if Turkey’s government goes through with its announced $2.5 billion purchase of Russia’s S-400 advanced surface-to-air missile system.

That makes urgent sense. Why give Russian anti-aircraft techs access to the internals of the world’s most advanced jet fighter? Last week, the military halted F-35 training of Turkish airmen in Arizona. “While we seek to maintain our valued relationship,” the Pentagon wrote, “Turkey will not receive the F-35 if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400.”

As if to underline what Erdogan stands to lose, Trump staged an unusual White House flyover last week for Poland’s president, whose F-35 purchases are proceeding.

Erdogan is not without leverage dealing with Trump. The U.S. has long operated the Incirlik Air Base in the Turkish city of Adana, which has been invaluable for allied forces to surveil Russia for decades, and more recently to fight ISIS and al-Qaeda.

The Pentagon has aspirationally set a July 31 deadline for Turkey to cancel its purchase of Russian missiles, which are due to begin delivery two weeks before.

Don’t hold your breath. Erdogan has said: “There is absolutely no question of taking a step back from the S-400s purchase. That is a done deal.”

It would seem Turkey has chosen a side incompatible with its membership in NATO, which must now make its own choice about dropping a member for the first time.

We now return you to normal domestic programming of 20 debating Democrats seeking to replace Trump in the 2020 election.