WASHINGTON. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to block Finnish and Swedish NATO membership this month, Western officials were outraged but not shocked.
In an alliance that operates on the basis of consensus, the Turkish leader has come to be seen as a kind of robber. In 2009, he blocked the appointment of a new NATO head from Denmark, lamenting that the country was too tolerant of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and too sympathetic to “Kurdish terrorists” based in Turkey. It took hours of persuasion from Western leaders and President Barack Obama’s personal promise that NATO would appoint a Turk to a senior position to please Mr. Erdogan.
After Turkey and Israel broke off relations the following year, Mr. Erdogan kept the alliance from working with the Jewish state for six years. A few years later, Mr. Erdogan delayed for several months NATO’s plan to shore up Eastern European countries against Russia, again citing Kurdish fighters and demanding that the alliance declare those operating in Syria terrorists. In 2019, Mr. Erdogan sent a fighter-supported gas exploration vessel close to Greek waters, prompting France to send ships to support Greece, which is also a member of NATO.
Now the Turkish leader is once again acting as an obstructionist and again referring to the Kurds, accusing Sweden and Finland of sympathizing with the Kurdish militants, whom he has made his main enemy.
“These countries have almost become a haven for terrorist organizations,” he said this month. “We can’t be for it.”
Erdogan’s stance is reminiscent of a longstanding problem with NATO, which currently has 30 members. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have given the alliance a new sense of mission, but NATO still has to contend with an authoritarian leader who wants to use his leverage to score political points at home by blocking consensus – at least for the time being. .
This situation plays into the hands of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who has become more friendly with Mr. Erdogan in recent years. For the Russian leader, the refusal of Sweden and Finland to join NATO would be a significant victory.
The predicament would be easier if not for Turkey’s importance to the alliance. The country joined NATO in 1952 after allied with the West against the Soviet Union; Turkey gives the alliance an important strategic position at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, on both sides of the Middle East and the Black Sea. There is a major US air base here, where American nuclear weapons are stored, and Mr. Erdogan has blocked Russian warships heading towards Ukraine.
But under Mr. Erdogan, Turkey is increasingly a problem to be solved. As prime minister and then president, he alienated his country from Europe by practicing an authoritarian and populist brand of Islamist politics, especially after the failed coup attempt in 2016.
He purchased a sophisticated missile system from Russia that NATO officials describe as a threat to their integrated defense systems, and in 2019 he launched a military invasion to fight the Kurds in northern Syria, who were helping to fight the Islamic State with US support.
“In my four years there, it was quite often 27 to one,” said Ivo H. Daalder, the US ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration when the alliance had 28 members.
Erdogan’s objections to Sweden and Finland’s membership have even raised questions about whether NATO could be better off without Turkey.
An author’s essay This month, co-authored with Joseph I. Lieberman, a former independent US senator from Connecticut, it was argued that Erdogan’s Turkey would fail the alliance’s standards for democratic governance in potential new member states. An essay published by The Wall Street Journal warns that Ankara’s policies, including flirting with Mr Putin, have undermined NATO interests and that the alliance should explore ways to expel Turkey.
“Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Mr. Erdogan, it no longer shares the values that underlie this grand alliance,” wrote Mr. Lieberman and Mark D. Wallace, executive director of the Turkish Democracy Project, a group critical of Mr. Erdogan.
Some members of Congress are talking about it. “Turkey under Erdogan should not and cannot be seen as an ally,” said New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after Turkey’s 2019 invasion of Syria.
But NATO is a military alliance, and Turkey, with the organization’s second largest army, advanced defense industry and decisive geographic location, plays a vital role.
Western officials say Turkey will only cause more problems as a resentful NATO outsider – and one who can move closer to Russia.
“Turkey has damaged its own image,” said Alper Koskun, a former Turkish diplomat and now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But, he added, “it is still an important member of the alliance.”
Again, the question is what will appease Mr. Erdogan and secure his support for the admission of Sweden and Finland.
President Biden underscored US support for the move when he hosted the two leaders at the White House this month and praised NATO expansion as a check on Russian power. “Biden has taken an extremely open and attractive position in inviting them to Washington,” said James F. Jeffrey, the US ambassador to Turkey during the Obama administration.
Most analysts believe Mr. Erdogan will not ultimately block Sweden and Finland from joining, but that he wants to highlight Turkey’s own security concerns and make domestic political gains ahead of his country’s elections next year.
Mr. Erdogan is mainly concerned about Sweden’s longstanding support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is seeking an independent Kurdish state in territory partly within Turkey’s borders.
The PKK, which has been targeting non-military targets and killing civilians in Turkey, is outlawed in that country and designated as a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union, although some governments, including Sweden, view it with great sympathy as to the Kurdish nationalist movement.
The United States also supported its affiliated fighters in Syria, the YPG or YPG, who helped fight the Islamic State and were attacked by Mr. Erdogan during his 2019 invasion of the country.
The Turkish President wants the YPG also to be recognized as a terrorist group.
Mr. Erdogan accuses both Finland and Sweden of harboring followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in the US whom he blames for the 2016 coup. Turkey is seeking the extradition of about 35 people it says are linked to Kurdish separatists or Mr Gülen.
Mr. Erdogan also objects to the Swedish and Finnish arms embargoes on his country, which were imposed after the 2019 invasion of Syria. Sweden is already discussing the lifting of the embargo, taking into account current events in Ukraine.
Some analysts say Mr. Erdogan’s government treats the PKK in much the same way that Washington treated al-Qaeda 20 years ago, and that the West cannot ignore those concerns if it hopes to do business with Turkey.
Biden administration officials are downplaying the confrontation and expect Mr. Erdogan to reach a compromise with Finland and Sweden. Last week, Turkish officials met in Ankara with their Finnish and Swedish counterparts for several hours.
Julianne Smith, the US ambassador to NATO, said in an interview that “this seems to be a problem they have with Sweden and Finland, so we will leave it in their hands.” She added that the United States will provide assistance if necessary.
Speaking Friday to Finland’s foreign minister in Washington, Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken said he was “confident that we will get through this process quickly and that things will move forward with both countries.”
Emre Peker, London-based Europe director for private consultancy Eurasia Group, said he did not believe Erdogan was seeking concessions from Washington. He expressed confidence that Turkey would be able to work out an agreement with Sweden and Finland through the mediation of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Mr. Erdogan’s top priorities are communicating his country’s concerns about the safety of Kurdish separatists and lifting the arms embargo, Peker said.
Some American analysts are skeptical. Eric S. Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Finland, warned that Mr. Erdogan may be trying to curry favor with Mr. Putin, or at least ease anger in Moscow over the sale of deadly drones by a Ukrainian military private. Turkish company.
“He has a very complicated relationship with Putin that he has to maintain,” Mr. Edelman said. “It’s a good way to throw Putin a little ‘I’m still useful to you’ bone.”
Others believe that the Turkish leader wants a ransom from Washington. Mr. Erdogan is outraged that the United States denied Turkey access to an F-35 stealth fighter after he bought Russia’s S-400 missile system in 2017. Instead, Turkey is now lobbying for the purchase of upgraded F-16 fighter jets, but has met stiff opposition in Congress from people like Mr. Menendez.
Mr. Erdogan can also seek the president’s attention. He had a friendly relationship with President Donald J. Trump, but Mr. Biden kept his distance.
“This man should be the center of attention,” said Mr. Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m still here. You must pay attention to my problems.”
Mr. Peker believes an agreement could be concluded between Turkey and the Nordic countries before the NATO summit in Madrid next month, allowing the accession protocols to be signed there.
Some analysts say it’s more likely that Mr. Biden will have to nod to Mr. Erdogan in Madrid to seal his agreement, as Mr. Obama did at the 2009 NATO summit to secure the appointment of Anders Fogh Rasmussen. secretary. General.
AT speech hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations Last week, Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, suggested that the membership stakes for Sweden and Finland are high enough to justify direct US involvement.
“We need to sit down and make a deal,” Mr. Smith said. “And we need to act aggressively, like now.”
Michael Crowley reported from Washington and Stephen Erlanger from Brussels. Eric Schmitt provided a report from Washington.