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  • Daniel Blake Martin

Making sense of Turkey’s NATO obstruction


NATO’s immediate response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine led many to believe that it was back in business. But as the conflict drags on and cracks within the alliance continue to deepen, it seems safe to say that the initial enthusiasm was overstated. Be it Germany’s hesitation to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, refusals from Turkey and Hungary to join Western sanctions against Russia or Viktor Orbán’s resistance to the EU’s Russian oil embargo, the alliance has not been unified in its reaction to the invasion.

The greatest blow to NATO unity, however, came last month, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his intentions to oppose Swedish and Finnish bids to join NATO. The decision has sent shockwaves throughout the alliance, and therefore merits some close attention.

Why is Turkey blocking NATO expansion?

Erdogan has invoked national security concerns for his decision. He accuses Sweden and Finland of providing sanctuary to members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a militant organisation currently fighting a protracted guerrilla insurgency against the Turkish state from the country’s south-eastern provinces. In its trademark belligerent fashion, Erdogan has labelled Sweden a “hatchery” for “terrorist” organisations.

While Ankara’s concerns about PKK terrorism are indeed well-founded, analysts have been quick to point out that this by itself does not fully explain the grandstanding.

Also playing into the obstruction is Turkey’s domestic situation. Erdogan is currently facing a slump in the polls due to the country’s recent economic downturn. With national elections scheduled to take place next year, he is no doubt looking for ways to play to his political base. A dramatic public showdown involving the PKK allows him to achieve precisely this.

Erdogan has also cited the ongoing issue of weapons embargoes as a reason for the obstruction. In 2019, Finland and Sweden both terminated weapons exports to Turkey. The decision was part of a larger reaction to Ankara’s unilateral incursion into Syria against another Kurdish group, the People’s Defense Unit (YPG), which happens to also be a U.S. ally.

Turkey’s defence industry also remains blacklisted by the United States following its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system in 2017. Although the Biden administration has expressed willingness to ease punitive measures and bring Turkey back into its F-35 fighter jet programme, Congress continues to oppose the transaction due to Turkey’s increasing authoritarianism under Erdogan. Ankara is likely using the roadblock as a tactical gambit to force Congress’ hand on the issue.

What will be the outcome?

As things currently stand, the impasse could conclude in three potential ways. In the first scenario, Turkey sticks to its convictions and blocks the plans for enlargement outright. If this were to happen, it would represent a devastating blow for NATO, and therefore an enormous victory for Vladimir Putin, who has already threatened the two Nordic candidates against joining the alliance.

In the second, the United States breaks the impasse by bending to Ankara’s demands and allowing it to purchase the desired F-16s and F-35s.

As for the third, Sweden and Finland satisfy Turkey’s security concerns in exchange for membership. Although this seems to be the most likely outcome as of late, the lack of progress at recent talks suggests that it’s unlikely to happen in time for NATO’s Madrid summit at the end of the month.

On some of Turkey’s demands, there is clearly room for compromise. A case in point, Swedish officials have already shown willingness to lift the arms embargoes. As for calls to revise their anti-terror legislation, Finland and Sweden can plausibly implement changes while incurring relatively little political cost in doing so. But it's very difficult to see these being resolved quickly on the more contentious issues, such as the extradition of KPP members to Turkey. Again, an agreement is not impossible, but it will require compromises from all sides. NATO shouldn’t expect this to happen any time soon.

What does this mean for NATO?

The situation raises several important questions regarding NATO’s cohesion and credibility moving forward. The first of which naturally is the role of Turkey within the alliance. Although it contributes important military muscle to NATO –- more than any other country in the organisation behind the United States — recent years have seen Ankara increasingly fall out of favour with the rest of the organisation. Between its campaign against U.S. allies in Syria and the purchase of Russian defence systems, Turkey has shown that it is clearly willing to drive wedges within the organisation for the sake of its own national interests. Even if the enlargement takes place, Turkey is leaving a bitter taste in NATO.

More broadly, the quandary brings into focus some of NATO’s gaping vulnerabilities. By operating on a misguided policy of unanimity, NATO gives opportunities for disruptive members –namely Turkey and Hungary— to incapacitate the organisation. Whenever this has happened in the past, NATO has been unable to find a response. In 2009, Ankara vetoed the appointment of NATO’s secretary-general over a political dispute involving a PKK radio station based in Denmark. Although Erdogan did eventually back down, he only did so once he secured a more prominent leadership role within the alliance.

Similarly, in 2018, Hungary successfully blocked meetings between NATO and Ukrainian officials to discuss the matter of Ukrainian accession. Although Hungary cited concerns about Ukraine’s discrimination against ethnic minorities at the time, many saw this as support for Russia by undermining NATO cohesion.

By blocking Nordic membership, Ankara is adding to this uncomfortable precedent. It shows that without total unanimity, NATO may indeed be the paper tiger we feared before the Russian invasion.

No doubt Russia will be pleased with Turkey’s actions, even if the enlargement does eventually go ahead. Recent years have seen Moscow begin to cultivate closer ties with Ankara as Erdogan seeks to pivot his country away from the West. If these warming bilateral relations continue, then it provides Moscow with a valuable foothold to create political disruption within NATO’s ranks. Although it’s true that Russia’s relations with Hungary have already achieved this, Turkey’s status as a heavyweight within the alliance gives it far more freedom to undermine NATO efforts.

The bottom line is this: if NATO wants to work effectively against Russia’s destabilising influence in Europe, then it must be unified and cohesive. Turkey’s current actions have reminded us that it is neither.

Image 1: Flickr /Frode Overland Andersen

Image 2: Flickr/ Manhhai



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