Will Turkey Stop NATO Expansion? US officials seek clarity

With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan taking an increasingly stern stance against Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership requests, despite much less sharp statements from some of his top aides, US officials are trying to determine how serious the often fickle leader is and what needed to get it back down.

Amid conflicting signals from Ankara about the expected applications, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with his Turkish counterpart in New York on Wednesday in another attempt to clarify Ankara’s position after previous efforts have only clouded the situation. seem to have.

Underscoring the sensitivity of the delicate diplomacy required to deal with a potentially recalcitrant ally, the Biden administration appears to have ignored Erdogan, saying he cannot allow the two nations to join NATO because of their alleged support for groups that Turkey considers to be security risks. Instead, the government is focusing on comments made in closed-door meetings by senior Turkish officials.

“It is not up to 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 US understands by Turkey’s position and whether Turkey is anything like the United States. in return for agreeing to Finland’s and Sweden’s memberships.

At stake for the United States and its NATO partners is a chance to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by strengthening and expanding the alliance – the exact 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 point to a potential weakness Putin has tried to exploit in the past — the unwieldy nature of the consensus-led alliance where a single member can block actions supported by the other 29.

Initially seen in Washington and other NATO capitals as an easily resolved minor distraction from the alliance expansion process in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Erdogan’s verbal salvos at Finland and Sweden are raising concerns as the two Nordic nations are getting closer and closer together. submit formal applications 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 expressed reservations about enlargement so far, could delay Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to the alliance for months, especially if other countries follow suit in seeking concessions for their votes.

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

“I do not rule out a possible separation between Turkish diplomats and Erdogan. There have been examples of such separation in the past,” said Barcin Yinan, a journalist and commentator on Turkish foreign policy. 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 of interfering with the Turkish judiciary.

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 it is not their intention to block membership.” Meanwhile, Blinken and other foreign ministers, including top German diplomat Annalena Baerbock, expressed absolute confidence that all NATO members, including Turkey, would welcome the two newcomers.

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

“Neither country has an open, clear stance against terrorist organizations,” Erdogan said. “We cannot say ‘yes’ to those who impose sanctions on Turkey, if they join NATO, a security organization.”

Asked about the inequality, Price, the spokesman for the foreign ministry, said only that Blinken, after meeting Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavuoglu and others over the weekend, “came away with the same sense of confidence that there is a Strong consensus was to have Finland and Sweden in the alliance if they choose to join, and we are confident we will be able to maintain that consensus.”

Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program, said that while Erdogan often speaks a hard line, in the end he tends to come around and do the “rational” thing.

“Erdogan is unpredictable. But at the same time, he is a very pragmatic actor,” she said. Tol said Erdogan is happy to negotiate and push for “maximalist demands” during the 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 not new and that tensions between Turkey and the United States over military supplies have been around for a long time.

After Turkey was dropped from the F-35 advanced fighter jet development program following the purchase of a Russian air defense system, Turkey has urged the US to sell it new F-16 fighters or at least expand its existing fleet. snap. Discussions on both issues are taking place in Washington this week and some officials believe that, while unrelated to the issue of NATO enlargement, resolutions on either could help Erdogan drop his objections.

Tol agreed, saying: “This is happening at a time when he is trying to restore ties with Washington, when Turkey is involved in negotiations to convince Congress to sell F-16s to Turkey. This is a time when Erdogan is trying to polish his image as a valuable ally. And this is a time when the invasion of Ukraine has given him the opportunity to reach the western capitals. So against that background, it would be a very dramatic step for Turkey to actually veto the application of Finland and Sweden.” ___

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

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