WASHINGTON — When Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this month threatened to block NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, Western officials were annoyed — but not shocked.
Within an alliance that works on the basis of consensus, the Turkish strongman is seen as something of a robber. In 2009, he blocked the appointment of a new NATO chief from Denmark, complaining that the country was too tolerant of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed and too sympathetic to “Kurdish terrorists” in Turkey. It took hours of flattery by Western leaders, and a personal promise from President Barack Obama that NATO would appoint a Turk to a leadership position to satisfy Mr. Erdogan.
After a rift in relations between Turkey and Israel the following year, Mr. Erdogan prevented the alliance from cooperating with the Jewish state for six years. A few years later, Mr Erdogan postponed for months a NATO plan to strengthen Eastern European countries against Russia, again citing Kurdish militants and demanding that the alliance declare those operating in Syria as terrorists. In 2019, Mr Erdogan sent a gas exploration vessel, backed by fighter jets, close to Greek waters, prompting France to send ships in support of Greece, also a NATO member.
Now the Turkish leader is back in the role of an obstructionist, once again calling on the Kurds, accusing Sweden and Finland of sympathizing with the Kurdish militants he has made his main enemy.
“These countries have almost become boarding houses for terrorist organizations,” he said this month. “It is not possible for us to be ahead of it.”
Mr Erdogan’s attitude is a reminder of a long-standing problem for NATO, which currently has 30 members. The Russian invasion of Ukraine may have given the alliance a new sense of mission, but NATO still has to contend with an authoritarian leader willing to use his influence to make political points domestically by blocking consensus – at least for a while.
It is a situation that favors President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has become friendlier with Mr Erdogan in recent years. For the Russian leader, the rejection of Swedish and Finnish admission to NATO would be a major victory.
The dilemma would be simpler were it not for Turkey’s importance to the alliance. The country joined NATO in 1952 after joining the West against the Soviet Union; Turkey gives the alliance a crucial strategic position at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, on both sides of both the Middle East and the Black Sea. It houses a major US air base where US nuclear weapons are stored, and Mr Erdogan has blocked Russian warships en route to Ukraine.
But under Mr Erdogan, Turkey has increasingly become a problem to be managed. As prime minister and then president, he has tilted his country away from Europe while pursuing an authoritarian and populist form of Islamist politics, especially since a failed coup attempt in 2016.
He has purchased an advanced missile system from Russia that NATO officials call a threat to their integrated defense systems, and in 2019 mounted a military raid to fight the Kurds in northern Syria who, with US support, were helping the fight against Islamic State.
“In my four years there, it was often 27 to one,” said Ivo H. Daalder, a US ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration, when the alliance had 28 members.
Mr Erdogan’s objections to Sweden and Finland’s membership have even raised new questions about whether NATO might be better off without Turkey.
An op-ed this month co-written by Joseph I. Lieberman, a former independent US senator from Connecticut, argued that Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey would lower the Alliance’s standards for democratic governance in future new member states. The essay, published by The Wall Street Journal, warned that Ankara’s policies, including socializing with Mr Putin, had undermined NATO’s interests and that the alliance needed to explore ways to evict Turkey.
“Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Erdogan it no longer subscribes to the values underpinning this great alliance,” wrote Mr Lieberman and Mark D. Wallace, the chief executive of the Turkish Democracy Project, a group that is critical of faces Mr Erdogan.
Some members of Congress have said the same thing. “Turkey under Erdogan cannot and should not 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 second largest army in the organization, an advanced defense industry and its critical geographic position, plays a vital role.
Western officials say Turkey would only cause more trouble as a hateful NATO outsider — and one that could align more closely with Russia.
“Turkey has undermined its own image,” said Alper Coskun, a former Turkish diplomat who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But, he added, “it is still a crucial member of the alliance.”
Again, the question is what will ease Mr Erdogan and ensure his support for the admission of Sweden and Finland.
President Biden underlined US support for the move when he hosted the leaders of the two nations in the White House this month and praised a larger NATO as a check against Russian power. “Biden took an extremely high-profile position by inviting them to Washington,” said James F. Jeffrey, a US ambassador to Turkey during the Obama administration.
Most analysts believe that Erdogan will ultimately not block Sweden and Finland’s accession, but rather wants to highlight Turkey’s own security concerns and make domestic political gains ahead of his country’s elections next year.
Mr Erdogan is particularly concerned about Sweden’s longstanding support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which seeks an independent Kurdish state in territory partly within Turkey’s borders.
The PKK, which has attacked non-military targets and killed civilians in Turkey, is banned in that country and is classified as a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union, although some governments, including Sweden, consider it more sympathetic as a Kurdish organization. nationalist movement.
The United States has also supported its affiliated fighters in Syria, the YPG, or People’s Protection Units, who helped fight the Islamic State and were attacked by Erdogan during his 2019 raid on the country.
The Turkish president also wants the YPG to be classified 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 asking for the extradition of about 35 people who say they are involved with Kurdish separatists or Gülen.
Mr Erdogan also objects to the Swedish and Finnish arms embargoes imposed on his country after the Syria invasion in 2019. Sweden is already in the process of lifting the embargo given the current events in Ukraine.
Some analysts say Erdogan’s government sees the PKK as Washington saw Al Qaeda 20 years ago, and that the West cannot allay its concerns if it wants to do business with Turkey.
Biden’s government officials are downplaying the deadlock and expect Erdogan to reach a compromise with Finland and Sweden. Turkish officials met for several hours in Ankara last week with Finnish and Swedish colleagues.
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’re leaving it in their hands.” She added that the United States would provide assistance if needed.
State Secretary Antony J. Blinken, who appeared before Finland’s foreign minister in Washington on Friday, said he was “confident that we will move through this process quickly and that things will move forward with both countries.”
Emre Peker, a London-based director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a private consultancy, said he did not believe Mr Erdogan wanted to make concessions to Washington. He expressed his confidence that Turkey could reach an agreement with Sweden and Finland through the mediation of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Erdogan’s top priorities are to hear his country’s security concerns about Kurdish separatists and lift arms embargoes, Peker said.
Some US analysts are skeptical. Eric S. Edelman, a former US ambassador to Turkey and Finland, warned that Mr. Erdogan could try to win favor with Mr. Putin — or at least assuage the anger in Moscow over the sale of deadly drones to the Ukrainian army by a private Turkish company.
“He has a very complicated relationship with Putin that he has to maintain,” said Mr Edelman. “This is a good way to pat Putin on the back a little – ‘I’m still useful to you’.”
Others believe the Turkish leader wants a payout from Washington. Erdogan is angry that the United States has barred Turkey access to the F-35 stealth fighter after its 2017 purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system. Turkey is now lobbying instead to buy upgraded F-16 fighters, but has met stiff resistance in Congress from the likes of Menendez.
Mr Erdogan may also be seeking presidential attention. He was on friendly terms with President Donald J. Trump, but Mr. Biden kept his distance.
“This is a man who needs to take center stage,” said Mr Daalder, the former US ambassador to NATO. “This is one way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m still here. You have to pay attention to my problems.’”
Mr Peker believes an agreement could be reached between Turkey and the Scandinavian countries ahead of a NATO summit in Madrid next month, allowing the signing of the accession protocols there.
It is more likely, some analysts say, that Mr. Biden will have to wink at Mr. Erdogan in Madrid to confirm his agreement, as Mr. Obama had to do at a 2009 NATO summit to nominate Anders Fogh Rasmussen as Secretary to secure. general.
At a talk last week hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington Democrat Representative Adam Smith and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee suggested that the stakes of Swedish and Finnish membership were great enough to warrant direct U.S. involvement. to justify.
“We have to sit down and we have to make a deal,” said Mr Smith. “And we have to get aggressive about it, like now.”
Michael Crowley reported from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from Brussels. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.