Is it time to boot Turkey from NATO?

Sprawled at the very eastern end of the Mediterranean, Turkey is the farthest from the Atlantic of any of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 29 member states.

Those 2,000 miles are also fast coming to symbolize a looming chasm between the crucial 69-year-old alliance and its leading partner, the United States, and that Middle Eastern land of 80 million as it slides into deeper authoritarianism under Tayyip Erdogan, and perhaps into the Russian orbit.

Both allies are now sanctioning each other, allegedly over Ankara’s imprisonment of an American pastor. And according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, “We have more that we’re planning to do if they don’t release him quickly.”

But much more is stake than the trumped-up arrest of a Christian missionary. What’s actually at risk now is the incremental crumbling of NATO under the deft diplomacy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the most serious threat to NATO cohesion in a long while.

As any ex-KGB colonel knows, the original 12 NATO nations blocked a further European advance of Soviet power during the Cold War. Now expanded to 29 nations, many of them former Soviet satellites, an uncertain NATO represents the only major obstacle to Putin’s restoration of a grander Russia.

Turkey is a golden opportunity for Putin, who likes to deal with strongmen. Ironically, as a newcomer to democratic rule, Turkey sought and received NATO membership and protection in 1952 when Stalin’s plan of expanding Russian influence to the Mediterranean targeted Turkey.

You know what they say about understanding history. Putin is doing the same thing. In return for propping up Syria’s dictator, he’s acquired oversized influence there and a warm-water port for his navy.

His forces are training about 100,000 Iranian troops there in real combat conditions, giving Tehran the potential capabilities of large army movements, instead of its current small-unit terrorist activities.

Remember Putin refused to reciprocate Obama’s naïve move canceling U.S. missile defenses in Poland? With the help of the West’s economic sanctions on Iran, the Russian president instead insinuated his influence deeper in Iran through multi-billion-dollar arms sales and building a nuclear power plant with the long-term supply and tech links that brings.

This spring, Erdogan and Putin broke ground in Turkey on – wait for it – a nuclear power reactor worth $20 billion. This summer, Putin launched another such project with Hungary’s tough-mined Viktor Orban, who’s apparently decided NATO’s security guarantees look so iffy he needs now to play both sides.

In a familiar pattern, Putin has also closed a massive arms deal with Erdogan for $2.5 billion-worth of sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons, which are incompatible with NATO weaponry. To use against whose air force exactly – Lebanon? Putin’s also made arms sales calls on Egypt’s general-turned-president Abdel al-Sisi.

As a NATO partner, Erdogan is negotiating to buy some U.S. F-35s, the world’s most advanced fighter jet. Uh, wait a minute. This would give him (and Russian techs) access to our most lethal plane and the Russians’ most advanced weapon to counter it.

Yes, it’s been helpful for the U.S. to use Turkey’s Incirlik air base for the battle against ISIS. So, that gives Erdogan leverage in getting those F-35s. And other NATO countries have hesitated to rile Erdogan for fear he’d open the Syrian refugee floodgates, creating more domestic political problems in Europe.

Add to that President Donald Trump’s complaints and at times seemingly wishy-washy commitments to NATO, and Putin’s biggest obstacle to expanded influence looks a little shaky.

Oh, did we mention Russian military maneuvers on the borders of the Baltic states, also NATO members, and its huge new undersea gas pipeline to Germany to tie European energy supplies even closer to Russia?

In Syria, Erdogan has already bombed Syrian Kurdish forces the U.S. is training. And not long ago, we saw a summit in Ankara of Erdogan, Putin and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. They had one of those jolly three-way, photo-op handshakes to show their new joint effort to end the Syrian fighting without those cumbersome Americans.

So, as you might gather by now, all the day-by-day news coverage you see about Pastor Andrew Brusson’s incarceration is really just the tip of a very dangerous sand dune.

Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.