Will Turkey disrupt NATO expansion? US officials seek clarification

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a welcoming ceremony for his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, May 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

PA

As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan takes an increasingly hard line against NATO membership bids from Finland and Sweden despite much less strident statements from some of his top aides, US officials are trying to to determine how serious the often mercurial ruler is and what it might take. to push him back.

Amid mixed signals from Ankara over expected nominations, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with his Turkish counterpart in New York on Wednesday in a fresh effort to clarify Ankara’s position after previous attempts appear to have failed. only darken the situation.

Underscoring the sensitivity of the delicate diplomacy needed to deal with a potentially recalcitrant ally, the Biden administration appears to have made a habit of ignoring Erdogan by saying he cannot allow the two nations to join NATO due to their alleged support for groups that Turkey views as security threats. Instead, the administration is focusing on remarks made in closed-door meetings by lower-ranking Turkish officials.

“It is not for us to speak on behalf of the Turkish government,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said repeatedly on Tuesday in response to multiple questions about what the United States understands. of Turkey’s position and whether Turkey had demanded anything from the United States in exchange for accepting the memberships of Finland and Sweden.

What is at stake for the United States and its NATO partners is an opportunity to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by strengthening and expanding the alliance – the complete opposite of what President Vladimir Putin hoped to achieve by starting the war.

But Erdogan’s suggestions that he could derail Sweden and Finland’s membership hopes also highlight a potential weakness that Putin has tried to exploit in the past – the heavy-handed nature of the consensual alliance. where a single member can block actions supported by the other 29.

Initially viewed in Washington and other NATO capitals as a minor, easily resolved distraction in the alliance’s enlargement process following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the verbal salvoes of There are growing concerns about Erdogan v Finland and Sweden as the two Nordic nations move ever closer to submitting formal bids in hopes of joining as soon as possible.

Even if overcome, objections from Turkey, which is the only one of NATO’s 30 members to have reservations about enlargement so far, could delay Finnish and Sweden to the alliance, especially if other countries follow suit seeking concessions. for their votes.

Erdogan, who has become increasingly authoritarian over the years, is known to be an unpredictable leader and there have been occasions when his words have clearly contradicted what Turkish diplomats or other senior officials his government said.

“I do not rule out a possible disconnect between Turkish diplomats and Erdogan. In the past, there have been examples of such a disconnect,” said Barcin Yinan, a journalist and Turkish foreign policy commentator. She said there was a “disconnect” between Erdogan and the Foreign Ministry last year, when the Turkish leader threatened to expel 10 Western diplomats, including the US ambassador, whom he accused interference in the Turkish judicial system.

For example, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Berlin on Sunday after talks with Turkish officials that “Turkey has made it clear that its intention is not to block membership.” Meanwhile, Blinken and other foreign ministers, including Germany’s top diplomat, Annalena Baerbock, expressed absolute confidence that all NATO members, including Turkey, would welcome the two new Venus.

Yet on Monday, Erdogan surprised many by doubling down on his criticism of Finland and Sweden, accusing them of supporting Kurdish activists and others whom Turkey considers terrorists and of imposing restrictions on military sales to Turkey.

“Neither country has an open and clear position against terrorist organizations,” Erdogan said. “We cannot say ‘yes’ to those who impose sanctions on Turkey, membership in NATO, which is a security organization.”

Asked about the disparity, Price, the State Department spokesman, simply said that Blinken, after meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavuoglu and others over the weekend, “left with the same feeling of confidence that there was a strong consensus to admit Finland and Sweden into the alliance if it chooses to join, and we are confident that we can preserve this consensus.

Gonul Tol, director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute, said that although Erdogan often speaks with a hard line, he tends to come back at the end and do the “rational” thing.

“Erdogan is unpredictable. But at the same time, he’s a very pragmatic player,” she said. Tol said Erdogan likes to negotiate and pushes for “maximalist demands” during negotiations. “He ends up settling for a lot less than that,” she said.

She noted that Erdogan’s grievances with Western countries over the Kurds are nothing new and tensions between Turkey and the United States over military supplies have been going on for a long time.

After being withdrawn from the F-35 advanced fighter development program after buying a Russian air defense system, Turkey pressured the United States to sell it new F-16 fighters or, at any rate the least, refurbish its existing fleet. Discussions on both issues are taking place in Washington this week and some officials believe that although they are unrelated to the question of NATO enlargement, resolutions on either could help persuade Erdogan to drop his objections.

Tol agreed and said, “This comes at a time when he is trying to reconnect with Washington, while Turkey is involved in negotiations to convince Congress to sell F-16s to Turkey. This is a time when Erdogan is trying to restore his image as a valuable ally. And this is a time when the invasion of Ukraine gave him the opportunity to reach out to Western capitals. So in this context, it would be a very dramatic step if Turkey actually vetoes the candidacy of Finland and Sweden.” ___

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

Sharon P. Juarez