When NATO leaders meet in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on Tuesday, they do so with two clouds hanging over a crucial summit for the alliance.
First, this is the week that NATO had hoped to welcome Sweden as its 32nd member, following the country’s joint application with Finland shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. Finland was approved earlier this year.
Second, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that a key aim of the summit was to strengthen the alliance’s security and political ties with Ukraine, while also committing to a smooth path into NATO for the country.
But attention has been diverted from both these key issues ahead of the meeting by comments from the presidents of two key alliance members.
On Monday morning, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that Sweden’s membership of NATO should be linked to Turkey’s membership of the European Union.
“First, let’s clear Turkey’s way in the European Union, then let’s clear the way for Sweden, just as we paved the way for Finland,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan also emphasized that “Turkey has been waiting at the gate of the European Union for over 50 years now,” and “almost all NATO member countries are European member countries.”
Turkey’s EU membership bid has been on hold since 2016, when an attempted coup failed to remove Erdogan from power. Erdogan has since tightened his grip on power through constitutional reforms that have prompted concerns from the EU on human rights and legal grounds. The official position in Brussels now is that Turkey would not meet the official criteria to join the bloc.
Stoltenberg later said Turkey had agreed to support Sweden’s membership bid. But few Western diplomats were surprised at Erdogan using this moment to kick up a stink.
Turkey has resisted Sweden’s bid to join NATO for a long time. Ankara has given multiple reasons, including accusations that Swedish officials have been complicit in Islamophobic demonstrations, including the burning of the Quran.
More importantly, Turkey claims that Sweden allows members of recognized Kurdish terror groups to operate, most notably the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Sweden changed its terrorism laws earlier this year, making it a crime to be part of these groups, though this has not yet been enough for Turkey.
The Turkish president has been on the West’s naughty step for a number of years. His relationship with Putin has been a problem for many Western allies, whether it be his cooperation with Russia in Syria or painting himself as the key negotiator between the West and the Kremlin on Ukraine.
He has been punished through sanctions and restrictions on military equipment that Turkey can buy from NATO allies, including the US. Both of these things have affected Turkey economically and geopolitically.
Sweden provides Erdogan with some rare leverage. And the Turkish president, officials are aware, is very good at using any leverage he has to extract things he wants from his Western allies.
The most often-cited example is how he struck a deal with the EU that saw it hand Turkey €6 billion ($6.58 billion), among other perks, in exchange for Turkey hosting Syrian refugees who were en route to Europe. Erdogan, European officials have repeatedly said, knew that he had Brussels over a barrel as he could effectively “flood” Europe with refugees at will.
It is therefore a headache, but not a huge shock, that Erdogan played his best and on the eve of a key international summit. Swedish officials remained confident the deal would be done – confidence that was well placed, it would appear given Stoltenberg’s later statement.
The second headache for NATO comes in US President Joe Biden’s comments to CNN this weekend that Ukraine should not join the alliance until the war is over.
Multiple NATO officials told CNN on Monday that these comments were regrettable as they have allowed the conversation to shift from all the good things the alliance has done and will do for Ukraine, to a largely irrelevant conversation about immediate membership.
“No one is seriously talking about Ukraine joining us right now. We are talking about laying out a clear path and also how best we can practically help them now. This isn’t a change in position from the US or NATO,” one official said.
Both of these issues might be distractions from the main parts of the summit, but Western officials know that distractions that can be spun to make the West look disunited will be welcomed in Russia at the moment.
And that is the real reason that officials heading to Vilnius are so annoyed.
NATO, remarkably, has remained united for most of the war and has gone beyond what most expected was possible.
Both dramas – created by Erdogan and Biden – have the potential to generate headlines out of the summit that set up a false premise and could ultimately make the meeting look in some respects like a failure. And that only helps the man observing from a distance in the Kremlin.
Source : CNN