Erdoğan’s move in NATO is not at all about blocking Sweden and Finland

That Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would throw another spanner in the works of NATO was, for his hard-boiled observers, clearly expected.

So, one could only be surprised that Turkey’s NATO allies and Nordic countries were actually surprised by Erdoğan’s statements on Friday that his government could not support the NATO applications of Sweden and Finland, given that they -- particularly the former -- were “harbouring PKK terrorists”.

It is also not surprising that Erdoğan’s chief advisor, İbrahim Kalın, had to intervene and water down his boss’s statement, saying that Turkey had not shut the door, meaning the stage was set for what Ankara wants to see as “grand bargaining”. Kalın has been following an ordinary pattern: Whenever Erdoğan, whose way of expressing himself in blunt terms is well-known, goes “too far”, he rushes in with a fire extinguisher at hand.

Later, the picture became slightly clearer, when Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu spoke after a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Berlin on Sunday. Sweden and Finland must stop supporting terrorist groups in their countries, provide clear security guarantees and lift all export bans on Turkey if they were to join NATO, said Çavuşuoğlu.

“This is clearly about two potential member states' support for terrorism, and our solid observations about it. This is what we shared,” he said of the discussions at NATO.

Ann Linde, Çavuşuoğlu’s Swedish counterpart, underlined that there was no agreement on the matter with Turkey and that both sides had decided to leave discussions to their diplomats. She said that Çavuşoğlu insisted that all the Kurdish organisations in Syria should also be seen as part of the PKK. “Although we regard the PKK as a terrorist organisation, neither we nor the U.S.A. see it as they do,” she added.

So, what’s at play here? How to decode the latest move by Ankara?

First and foremost, neither Sweden nor Finland have anything to do with the moves triggered rather suddenly by Erdoğan. Turkey’s troubled president feels growing political pressure at home due to a massive systemic crisis, topped by a steep economic decline.

Challenges for Erdoğan to survive politically are piling up ahead of elections that must be held by June next year. His constantly erratic foreign policy moves over the past decade have already forced him into a series of U-turns in the Middle East. He needs money, and he feels he needs to straighten out his relations with the White House and -- especially -- Congress. His government has extended olive branches to the UAE and Saudis, but they did not respond with the sort of financial support he was expecting. The bleeding issue of S-400 missile systems purchased from Russia in 2019 have also built a wall between his administration and almost the whole of Washington D.C.

Erdoğan is known for creating havoc so long as he sees an opportunity to come out with a winning hand. But his efforts do not always bring success. Lately, his luck seems to be running out: The immense exodus of Ukrainians into the EU is preventing him from using the threat of “sending Syrian refugees to Europe” as a political card and he is feeling huge pressure from his opponents in Turkey to send Syrians back home. 

The U.S. Congress, which has already united in opposition to his purchase of Russian missiles and democratic backsliding, is also not blinking as he tries unsuccessfully to mount an indirect charm offensive by presenting Turkey as the useful intermediary between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian opposite number Volodymyr Zelensky. For reasons of realpolitik, NATO has mainly ignored an ally playing a fence-sitter.

Using Sweden and Finland as pretexts to create a crisis within NATO has one target: the Biden Administration. First, Erdoğan badly needs a boost to his marred political image and therefore more direct contact with Biden, who for a long time has kept him at a distance. The former wants to be taken seriously, thus, to be heard, and escalates.

Secondly, Erdoğan needs to convince Washington to allow him to buy a large number of upgraded F-16 fighter jets, having realised that he has blown his chances of participation in the F-35 program through a mistaken tactic of pushing ahead with his purchase of Russian S-400s.

Sweden’s Linde rather smartly pointed out a weakness in Turkeys argument against her country’s membership of NATO. By insisting that Sweden stopped their contacts with Syrian Kurdish armed groups, she implied, Turkey is accusing the United States, which has allied with the Kurds against Islamic State (ISIS), of doing the same. It is definitely a non-starter for Turkey to try to block Sweden and Finland from joining NATO. But it means that Erdoğan will focus on softening Biden.

Thirdly, Erdoğan is frustrated that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been invited to meet with Biden on Monday and then address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday. In that rare gathering, there is no doubt that Mitsotakis will go to lengths to inform and warn American lawmakers about the serious threats to Greece’s territorial integrity that he sees from eastern neighbour and NATO ally Turkey. The seemingly irrelevant issue of the conversion of Istanbul’s former Greek church Haghia Sophia into a mosque could also be part of his speech. Erdoğan knows that as U.S-Greek relations improve to historic levels, Turkey’s status in the U.S. and NATO context risks remaining at an all-time low.

So, clearly, in a nutshell, Sweden and Finland may choose to remain in the background, shrugging their shoulders, as the real confrontation takes place between Biden and Erdoğan.

It is not impossible that Biden may take a step-by-step approach, convincing Congress, or sidelining it (as Trump did with the F-35 program to UAE), to please Ankara. Later this week, after the Mitsotakis speech in Washington and a meeting the day after between Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, we may see a clearer picture.

Regardless of the outcome, one point remains, as it may haunt Biden. The U.S. president had pledged a strengthening of democracies globally and he sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the ultimate test of democracy versus autocracy. His dilemma is how to deal with a NATO ally keeping around 50,000 political prisoners, 12,000 of the Kurds, behind bars, and shifting to a full-blown autocracy, while he battles Putin. Erdoğan’s move to block the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland exposes this paradox even more.

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