What is Erdogan's role in NATO?

Even before the two Scandinavian countries applied for NATO membership, the Turkish president threatened to veto it.

Erdogan accuses the Swedish authorities of supporting the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and of providing weapons to the so-called People’s Self-Defense Forces (YPG), a Kurdish militia linked to the PKK in northern Syria.

Blocking collective decisions within international organizations has proved to be a favorite foreign policy approach of countries in our latitudes. Turkey has experienced it more than once. For example, in the late 1990s, when Greece had long stopped granting EU funding to Ankara under the Customs Union agreement.

Or the veto imposed by Cyprus on certain chapters in Turkey’s EU accession talks – virtually frozen to date. And Turkey has used its right to block NATO decisions to put pressure on other countries. For example, through the so-called. security cooperation between the Atlantic Pact and the EU.

What does Erdogan want from Sweden and Finland?

Historical experience shows that sometimes such tactics work. Other times, however, the result is either nil or even negative in the interests of the vetoed country. For 16 years, Cyprus has failed to force Turkey to open its ports and airports to Cypriot-flagged ships and aircraft. In this case, the pressure from Nicosia is counterproductive, although it is based on legal arguments and commitments made by Ankara.

What exactly the Turkish side wants from Sweden and Finland is still unclear. The requests are not specified, at least not publicly. However, certainly, Sweden will not please Erdogan just like that. For example, Turkish authorities appear to want the extradition of Kurdish activists accused of the PKK.

Such a decision is not within the competence of the Swedish government, but of the judiciary. In countries where the rule of law operates, there is simply no way to circumvent constitutional and legal norms. Sweden has a relatively large diaspora of Kurds from Turkey, among whom the PKK enjoys support. But this does not mean that the authorities will start closing down their fellowships and organizations without concrete evidence of complicity.

It has also not been established at all that Sweden has armed the Syrian Kurds (a major ally on US soil since the campaign against the so-called Islamic State in 2014-15) and hence the PKK. The captured grenade launchers, which are being used as evidence in Turkey, may have been resold or manufactured by third countries under a SAAB license.

Discount bargain

The question many analysts are asking is whether Turkey is pursuing a different goal – to trade the veto for concessions of another kind. It is mostly about arms supplies from the West.

In 2019, Sweden, as well as some other Western countries, imposed an embargo on the Turkish side. The decision was in response to the so-called Operation Source of Peace, launched by Ankara against the YPG. On May 20, Britain lifted all restrictions on arms exports to Turkey. Will Sweden not follow suit?

Some observers speculate that Erdogan is targeting the United States. Ankara expects a positive decision from Washington on the modernization of F-16 fighters, which are at the heart of its air force. But there is no official statement to date, as the US Congress does not look favorably on Turkey.

Erdogan’s ties with Vladimir Putin remain strong, despite Turkish military supplies to Ukraine. Erdogan has openly stated that he is ready to import additional S-400 ground-to-air installations from Russia, which is anathema to the Americans.

The purchase of these missile systems in 2019 led to the imposition of sanctions against Turkey, as well as its exclusion from the consortium of countries involved in the project to develop and purchase new generation F-35 fighters, which we have already seen in Bulgarian airspace thanks to the Netherlands. Given the accumulated mistrust between the United States and Turkey, a political package deal on all these issues will be difficult to achieve.

There are options for compromise – in the presence of goodwill. Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s security adviser, said the controversy over Sweden’s NATO membership could be resolved. But Turkey should not overestimate its geopolitical assets.

Sweden has options other than the Alliance. These include bilateral guarantees for its security provided by the United States and other leading Western powers. Stockholm has already received a similar commitment from Britain for the period until its future accession to NATO. Last but not least, the probability that Russia will start a war with Sweden is not very high anyway.

This does not mean that Erdogan will personally lose out on the show of strength. On the contrary, his foreign policy gestures will win applause and provoke passion in Turkey itself. And at a time when his rating is at a record low, and a year later key presidential and parliamentary elections. The war in Ukraine brought Turkey and the West closer together, but the rift has not been bridged. Erdogan will exploit nationalism and mistrust of America and Europe in Turkish society. At the same time, he will conduct diplomatic bargaining, as only he can.

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