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bne IntelliNews – ISTANBUL BLOG: Erdogan speeds up NATO membership talks with Sweden and Finland

What will be the price of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to lift Turkey’s blockage on Sweden and Finland joining NATO? That was the question plaguing Western diplomats on May 18 when, on instructions from the Turkish leader, the Turkish NATO ambassador forced the 30-member defense alliance to postpone its decision to pursue demands for accession of the Nordic countries to the bloc.

Erdogan is not one to shy away from an opportunity when it arises and the president – on the ropes at home given a debilitating economic crisis widely seen as his own initiative and expected to worsen at the approach of Turkish nationality elections due by June next year – will seek to gain political capital by taking a principled stance against Stockholm and Helsinki’s early NATO membership.

But how principled can this be? Erdogan’s beef is that Sweden and Finland are serving as ‘incubators’ for predominantly Kurdish terrorist militant groups that for decades have been waging an insurgency in Turkey, and between them have refused to extradite dozens of accused people of terrorism by the Turkish authorities. Yet during Erdogan’s two decades in charge of Turkey, his regime has been repeatedly accused of allowing Islamic State funding networks to operate in Turkey under his nose and work with various terrorist groups in Syria whenever it served its interests.

“You won’t deliver the terrorists but you want to join NATO,” Erdogan said in a speech to the Turkish parliament on May 18. “We cannot say yes to a security organization that lacks security.”

Knowing that diplomats across Europe will have scoffed at such ‘purer-than-you’ portrayals, while US President Joe Biden never really had much time for Erdogan, having described him as an ‘autocrat’ early in his campaign when he ran for the White House. However, Erdogan’s threat to halt NATO’s planned expansion in the face of Russia’s attempt to brutally dismember Ukraine cannot be ruled out – acceptance of a new member into the alliance must be approved by all existing members – so the question of Erdogan’s “price” will have to be dealt with.

Ankara had indeed enjoyed improved relations with some Western capitals since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, winning plaudits for trying to make real progress with kyiv and Moscow at the negotiating table and for supplying Ukraine with Bayraktar combat drones which scored a few points. notable battlefield successes against the Russians. However, Turkey has been in hot water with the United States and NATO for several years over its acquisition of advanced S-400 missile defense systems from the Kremlin. The US Congress has launched an unofficial boycott of major arms supplies to Turkey, while various embargoes on the sale of arms and defense equipment components to Turks have been enforced by many European countries.

Is this where progress with Erdogan can be made? Biden has had a transactional relationship with his Turkish counterpart since entering the Oval Office in January 2021. Possibly in response to Erdogan’s efforts in Ukraine and aware of the need for NATO to show unity in times of war in Europe, Biden formally requested last week that Congress approve the sale of upgraded weapon systems, radars and other technical equipment to significantly improve the capabilities of Turkey’s fleet of F-16 fighter jets. . Perhaps to Erdogan’s irritation, however, he remained silent on Ankara’s request for 40 new F-16s.

Turkey only asked for the F-16s at first because, as part of Washington’s response to its acquisition of the Russian S-400s, it was forbidden to receive dozens of the world’s most advanced stealth fighters, the F-35. The situation is a big problem for Erdogan. Across the Aegean, regional rival Greece is trying to accelerate plans to modernize its own air force with F-35s, having already received Rafale jets from France, and if Erdogan fails not to follow the Greeks, so that’s hardly what Turkish voters expect from a “strong leader” within NATO who is seeking re-election.

Will some kind of Swedish and Finnish crackdown on members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) armed militia combined with the United States (provided Biden can get his proposals past Capitol Hill ) and European states dropping their arms bans on Ankara would be enough to persuade Erdogan to give Sweden and Finland the NATO green light?

Europe seems to think in terms of price. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told German radio station Deutschlandfunk on May 17 that Erdogan was “raising the price” of NATO membership for the Nordic countries. But others think this approach might be too simplistic.

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, told the FinancialTimes that Western officials had consistently underestimated the seriousness of the threats made by the Turkish president.

“I think the basic assumption that there [Erdogan] going to give in is laughable,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I can argue that it will take something [as a peace offering]…And I can also see him saying, fuck you all.