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Turkish objections to NATO expansion find Hill skepticism

Rachel Oswald, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers in both parties are signaling that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should not expect them to sweeten the pot as he seeks concessions in return for dropping his objections to Sweden and Finland joining NATO.

Erdogan’s objections to the Nordic countries joining the Western military alliance have injected some high-stakes drama in the lead-up to this week’s NATO summit in Madrid, which President Joe Biden will attend. Erdogan’s grievance is ostensibly over the two wealthy democracies’ ties to a Kurdish group that Turkey contends is linked to terrorists.

Decisions to expand NATO require the unanimous signoff of all 30 member states, so Ankara’s decision to withhold its approval has the potential to drag out the accession process for some months — though it is widely expected Turkey will eventually relent and lift its objection. Meantime, Sweden and Finland are in a bit of a perilous gray area security-wise. They have given up their long-standing neutrality in order to join NATO while not yet receiving the critical benefit that comes with official treaty membership: Article 5 guarantees that member countries will defend each other.

“I don’t know what Turkey’s trying to extract from them, but at the end of the day that’s what this is about. And maybe if we get in the game, they’ll want to extract from us too, which I will be vehemently opposed to,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said at a June 22 committee hearing on NATO enlargement. “We don’t need for any extraction to take place or any concessions to take place to have two great democracies join NATO.”

The longer Ankara withholds its consent, the more uncomfortable the Swedes and Finns may become with their security position in Europe vis-a-vis Russia.

Moscow has been surprisingly muted over their collective decision to pursue NATO membership — perhaps in order to save face by not acknowledging how much its February invasion of Ukraine has backfired against its own strategic interests, spurring the Western alliance to become more united and, soon, more militarily capable. Swedish and Finish membership also would give NATO much greater proximity to Russian territory. Still, that doesn’t mean Sweden and Finland are safe from Russian threats or surprise actions.

 

“We’re confident that they’re going to be able to get there, that they’re going to be able to work out the differences that they’ve had,” John Kirby, a top communications official for the White House National Security Council, told reporters on June 23 about the status of trilateral talks between Turkey, Sweden and Finland. “When exactly, I couldn’t tell you that.”

There are likely multiple reasons for Erdogan’s objections to Sweden and Finland joining NATO.

One is the illiberal longtime Turkish leader’s genuine opposition to the close working relationship the U.S. military has developed with the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia, in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group. Another is a desire to see the lifting of certain European and U.S. sanctions on Turkey’s ability to purchase their weapons. And a third is likely a wish to project an image of a tough and strong leader on the international stage amid a tanking domestic economy with an inflation rate of 74 percent, which has greatly complicated Erdogan’s reelection hopes.

At any rate, Erdogan has a long history inside NATO of playing hardball, particularly when it comes to other member states’ dealings with the Kurds. This has caused a certain amount of jaundice around Capitol Hill when lawmakers are asked for their thoughts on the latest Turkey-NATO dustup.

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