30.05.2022 Author: Vladimir Platov

Can the Conflict with Turkey over NATO Enlargement be Resolved?

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The conflict between the “collective West” and Turkey, due to Washington’s active desire to enlarge NATO by adding Sweden and Finland to the alliance, has not subsided in recent days and makes further action on this track by Ankara increasingly problematic.

Furthermore, not everyone in NATO countries is enthusiastic about the enlargement of the alliance, especially at a time when there is fighting in Ukraine and its approach to Russia’s borders against such a backdrop only means an increase in the potential for conflict between NATO and Russia. In addition, such a move by the Nordic countries is of increasing concern to some member states of the Alliance since a shift in Western relations with Russia could be reflected in NATO’s strategic concept and lead to a serious escalation of tensions in Europe and the world as a whole. This concern is explained in particular by the fact that, according to Bloomberg sources, the new version of the document could designate Russia as a “direct threat” to the alliance, while the current 2010 NATO Strategic Concept refers to the need for a “strategic partnership” with Russia. As Bloomberg points out, the new NATO strategic concept could be approved as early as the NATO summit in Madrid on June 28-30 and, according to a statement made recently by Jens Stoltenberg, it will determine the Alliance’s position for the “era of strategic competition.”

Ankara persistently explains its objections to the accelerated admission of Finland and Sweden into the North Atlantic alliance by the special relationship those Nordic countries have with several Kurdistani political movements, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a political wing of terrorist organizations. Ankara’s position is also due to the fact that Sweden and Finland support the FETO movement of preacher Fethullah Gülen, which is in opposition to the current government in Turkey. Moreover, back in the day both Finland and Sweden imposed some restrictions on arms deliveries to Turkey, reproaching the Turkish leadership for its unwillingness to solve the Kurdish problem.

Turkey’s opposition to Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in the alliance is driving NATO into a trap that will weaken the military bloc for decades, The National Interest notes. While senior officials in Washington and Brussels try to present the expansion to Scandinavia as a resounding success that will supposedly strengthen the coalition amid growing tensions in Europe, they have in fact started a dangerous long-term process with potentially serious consequences for long-term Western unity, the publication stresses.

Against the backdrop of Washington’s failed policy in Afghanistan and the Russophobic rallying of countries in the sanctions policy against Moscow, there has recently been a widespread decline in US credibility. In this context, the White House is actively trying to use this NATO enlargement as a supposed demonstration of its power and influence, both over the alliance itself and over Europe in general. At the same time, if this action is successful, it is hoped to boost Joe Biden’s plummeting rating and prevent the defeat of the Democratic Party in the forthcoming mid-term elections to the US Congress in the autumn.  After all, it is precisely this kind of mid-term election that is regarded in the US as a kind of referendum on the performance of the incumbent president and/or the incumbent party.

Meanwhile, both Washington and NATO have to reckon with the special importance of Turkey, thanks to which, and in particular to the Incirlik military base located there, the very important task of the West’s presence in the Near and Middle East region, with the continued control over Russia, is being realized. Moreover, Turkey remains a very important player for NATO in the Black Sea basin, in the Western-inspired confrontation between Kiev and Moscow.

Therefore, in response to Ankara’s objections to Sweden and Finland joining the alliance because of their export bans on Turkey and demands that they stop supporting Kurdish groups considered terrorist by the Turkish authorities, the US is trying to demonstrate its activism in smoothing over the resulting contradictions. Although it is clear to everyone, including Turkey, that apart from verbal demagogic declarations of support for Ankara, this “activism” will not end in anything more concrete.

Therefore, there is now a lot of political pressure on Erdoğan to change his stance on blocking the Stockholm and Helsinki bid from the many alliance capitals that have supported Sweden and Finland’s NATO aspirations and are trying to demonstrate Western unity at the behest of Washington. At the same time, given the very high stakes involved, similar work is being done with these two Scandinavian countries, while reinforcing their aspirations to join NATO. In order to find an acceptable solution, the first phase of talks between the Swedish and Finnish delegations and Turkey, which, according to media reports, took place in the presidential palace and lasted about five hours, ended in Ankara the other day.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson described her talks with the Turkish president on May 23 as “positive” and indicated that Stockholm was looking forward to further discussions with Ankara. “Sweden and Finland will continue their bilateral and trilateral negotiations with Turkey in the near future, negotiations will take some time,” the prime minister added.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, said Ankara was ready to promote Scandinavian accession to NATO, but only if the contradictions over a number of Ankara’s previous claims could be resolved. Turkish MP Devlet Bahçeli, close to Erdoğan, said on May 24 that the North Atlantic alliance must meet Turkey’s demands regarding Swedish and Finnish membership, because otherwise Ankara will raise the issue of withdrawal from the military bloc. At the same time, the politician said that NATO has no respect for Turkey and suggested that an alternative to the North Atlantic alliance should be created for Turkic and Islamic countries.

Thus, it is a crucial moment for Erdoğan when, given Washington’s repeatedly demonstrated disregard for even international agreements, he will have to determine his country’s place in Washington’s further political games. And the Biden administration’s attitude towards the highly sensitive aspects of Ankara’s fight against external terrorism has already been demonstrated recently by its sharp criticism of Turkey’s new military operation in Syria. In particular, Spokesperson for the US Department of State Ned Price said on May 24 that Washington believes Turkey’s plans to conduct a military operation in Syria threaten the security of the US military. In addition, Ankara is well aware that not only Sweden and Finland, but the US itself is actively supporting the PKK’s Syrian “ally”, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Vladimir Platov, expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.