Turkey Blocks NATO Expansion, May Back Off (Analysis)

(CNN) — When Sweden and Finland expressed interest in joining NATO last May, many saw it as a poke in the eye to Russia and evidence of a shift in European thinking. Historically, both countries have pledged not to join NATO as a way to avoid provoking Moscow. The invasion of Ukraine changed that.

Both Finland and Sweden – along with the majority of NATO allies – want the countries to formally join the alliance at a NATO summit on July 11. However, there is one major obstacle to this becoming a reality: Turkey has yet to give the project its formal and official blessing.

Turkey isn’t the only country blocking the move: Hungary doesn’t approve of the Nordic countries’ annexation, further muddying the waters. At the moment, however, keeping Turkey out is considered the priority.

Unfortunately for the pro-NATO camp, Western officials are increasingly skeptical that Turkey will cave.

Officially, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opposes Sweden and Finland’s membership on security grounds. Turkey says both countries, particularly Sweden, host fighters from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group designated in Turkey, Sweden, the United States and Europe. Erdogan says he wants these people deported; Sweden has made it clear that this will not happen.

NATO diplomats are divided over whether Turkey will relent before the July summit. At the center of both schools of thought is this year’s Turkish election, which is seen as the biggest political threat Erdogan has faced in years.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will meet the Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers in July 2023. A NATO diplomat told CNN that Finland is likely to secede from Sweden and opt for membership only. (Credit: Yves Herman/Reuters)

“The image he created as a strong man who gets results for the Turkish people has been shattered,” explains Konul Dol of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey Program. “There is a lot of anti-Western and anti-Kurdish sentiment in Turkey right now. It’s a good way for him to bang on his drum, and a dramatic U-turn makes him look weak.

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Dole believes Erdogan has other reasons for not wanting to upset Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Russia has been an economic lifeline for Turkey after other countries imposed economic sanctions over its actions in Syria, its military cooperation with Russia and other hostile activities,” Dole explains. “Without Russian money, Erdogan cannot raise salaries or provide financial aid to students. Now he is pledging to rebuild after the earthquake. So Russia is an attractive partner for Erdogan.

Like many Western officials, Dole believes that Turkey’s claims that Sweden and Finland are terrorists provide a perfect cover for Erdogan to avoid meddling at a politically difficult time on the NATO issue.

Although no planned talks between the three parties have come to fruition this Thursday, there is ongoing talk of how much political capital Erdogan will have to spend after the election if he wins.

First, the believers.

This group includes Sweden, Finland, and some countries that border Russia or were under Soviet rule. They believe that Turkey, which would benefit greatly from being part of NATO, will eventually do what is in its best interests and drop its objections.

To make this happen, officials are preparing realistic demands for Turkey, such as lifting sanctions or allowing the U.S. to buy the fighter jets the country needs to keep its air force up-to-date rather than handing over people it considers terrorists. .

“Go Members Only”

In the end, optimists believe there is a compromise that will greatly benefit NATO. The alliance, Sweden and Finland, have made their case and have an open door policy for any country that wants to join NATO. Sweden and Finland have more than met the conditions, so not joining makes a mockery of the alliance, which benefits from Turkey being a member. A NATO official told CNN they assumed Erdogan would wait for the summit before relenting so he could enjoy “praise from all his Western allies.”

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The largest group of officials who spoke to CNN were pessimists. They think Erdogan has little chance of changing his position before July 11 and are already thinking beyond that summit.

“I think it’s more likely that Finland will secede from Sweden and choose to remain a member only,” a NATO diplomat told CNN.

Other alliance members still see the real possibility that both countries will be deterred and are considering how NATO can best handle such a situation.

Several NATO officials and diplomats told CNN that the danger here is that Turkey’s blockade will fuel the Kremlin’s narrative that the West and NATO are divided. The alliance’s job at the time was to make it clear that Finland and Sweden were now effectively working with NATO, even though they were not members. They may not be members, but they are close partners and no longer neutral.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is considered the closest EU leader to Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Sputnik/Getty Images)

While Turkey can be played, Hungary’s problem is different, if less so.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has publicly indicated that he is not opposed to the Nordic countries joining together, but continues to find ways to stop official decision-making.

There are a few reasons to avoid the orphan situation. Finland and Sweden have criticized Hungary’s rule of law. He addressed this in a recent interview, asking, “How can anyone want to be our ally in a military organization while spreading blatant lies about Hungary?”

Orban is considered the closest EU leader to Putin. Katalin Cseh, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament, described Orban’s blocking of the Swedish and Finnish concessions as “another favor for Vladimir Putin”. Cseh believes that Orban, who has been accused of moving towards authoritarian leadership, has “created a Putinist model by copying his policies for more than a decade” and that a NATO victory against Putin “puts all his norms at risk”.

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Orbán may be waiting for concessions from other EU member states, where Hungary has been accused of breaking all kinds of laws. As a result, EU funds were stopped and the camp was in contempt. Although NATO and the European Union are separate institutions, they share many members, and bilateral diplomacy sees some give-and-take between Hungary and its fellow EU countries.

Yet for all of Orbán’s delays, it is widely assumed that Hungary will stop opposing Finland and Sweden joining NATO if Turkey can be confronted.

Not many miss the joke that one of Putin’s main reasons for invading Ukraine was to end what he said was NATO expansion. That his aggression may have pushed the historically non-NATO country is still seen by much of the West as the Kremlin’s main domestic goal.

Until an agreement is reached, however, the alliance’s future is somewhat up in the air. Finland and Sweden have effectively chosen sides since the start of the Ukraine conflict. It seems unlikely that they would return to neutrality if the war suddenly ended.

NATO and the Western alliance in general are at risk if they don’t join the alliance and the Kremlin could use it for propaganda purposes. If that happens, even if the war ends abruptly, the story of a divided West will continue to be a drum beat by NATO’s enemies.

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