Owen Matthews

Cold Turkey: why is Erdogan resisting Nato’s expansion?

Cold Turkey: why is Erdogan resisting Nato’s expansion?
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Driving a hard bargain is the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief survival skill – one that has kept him in power for nearly as long as his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. And the basic principles of bargaining are twofold: never give something away for nothing, and make your threats to walk away convincing.

No surprise, then, that Erdogan’s buzz-killing announcement last week that Turkey would oppose Swedish and Finnish membership of Nato was made in characteristically blunt terms. Speaking of a planned visit of Nordic diplomats to Ankara, Erdogan asked: ‘Are they coming to convince us? Excuse me, but they should not tire themselves.’ He directly contradicted his own diplomats, who a day before in Brussels had broadly signalled that Turkey’s approval of Nato’s latest expansion was a done deal. That good cop, bad cop routine is another classic from the Erdogan playbook of diplomacy.

Will Turkey actually block Finnish and Swedish accession to Nato – which requires unanimous approval by all members? A senior EU source with direct knowledge of the negotiations predicts that the deal will be done ‘soon… once [Erdogan] has extracted as much as he can’ in exchange for his blessing. ‘It is unlikely that Erdogan had one specific policy goal in mind,’ says Asli Aydıntaşbaş, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. ‘But he will no doubt be expecting to be cajoled, persuaded and eventually rewarded for his cooperation, as in the past.’

Ostensibly, Turkey’s sticking point is that both Sweden and Finland have offered asylum to Kurdish and religious opponents of Erdogan. But Turkey has a long list of other grievances against various Nato partners. Several Nato members – as well as Finland and Sweden – imposed sanctions on Turkey after its attacks on Kurds in 2019. The Swedes have long championed a human rights-based approach in relations with Turkey within the EU which has angered Ankara for years. Washington has dragged its feet on selling next--generation F-16 fighters and other equipment to Turkey. The US also recently lifted sanctions on Syria’s Kurdish--controlled autonomous regions, allowing the Kurds – long-standing enemies of Ankara – to trade with the outside world. And perhaps most importantly for the status--obsessed Erdogan, President Joe Biden has kept the Turkish leader at arm’s length. ‘We had good relations with Obama and Trump and had no problem talking. Have we achieved the same with Mr Biden? No, we haven’t. That wasn’t what we wanted,’ Erdogan recently complained. Like Putin, Erdogan habitually uses his international profile to demonstrate his global importance to Turkish voters.

Erdogan’s stubbornness is not based on pressure from Russia. Turkey is heavily dependent on Russian gas and Russian-built nuclear reactors currently under construction for its energy needs, and its economy is reliant on tourism and food exports to and from Russia. In theory, the Kremlin could have tried to squeeze Erdogan into vetoing Swedish--Finnish Nato membership through gas price hikes and shutdowns in the same way it has bullied Bulgaria and Poland. Instead, Putin has taken a different tack, suddenly walking away from his belligerent hostility to Nato expansion. ‘As to enlargement, Russia has no problem with these states [joining]. None,’ Putin told the leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation – a Russian-dominated alliance of former Soviet states – on Tuesday. ‘In this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion [of Nato] to include these countries.’

That climbdown is a significant show of weakness. Just minutes before Putin spoke, the Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that the West should have ‘no illusions that Moscow would simply put up with’ the Nordic expansion. And former president Dmitry Medvedev – one of Putin’s most loyal lieutenants – last month threatened that Russia would deploy nuclear weapons in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad if Finland and Sweden joined Nato.

Turkey was the only card the Kremlin had to play against Nato expansion – but Putin has clearly decided his relationship with Erdogan is too delicate to risk. Erdogan is the only western leader not to have declared himself a foe of Putin’s, and he has resisted imposing US or EU sanctions on the Kremlin. Erdogan has also been instrumental in brokering abortive peace talks with the Ukrainians in the past, and is likely to reprise that role in the future. Turkey’s strongman is also notoriously irascible – for instance when Russian warplanes bombed Turkish troops inside Syria last year, Erdogan blocked Turkish airspace to Russian jets. Any attempt to hike the price of gas would exacerbate a raging cost of living crisis, with potentially fatal results in upcoming elections – and would force Erdogan to lash out at Russia once more. Russia’s diplomatic isolation has given Erdogan the upper hand.

Last weekend, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin began to walk back the idea of a Turkish veto, assuring Nato that Ankara was not ‘closing the door’ on Nordic entry. Ankara has demanded the extradition of 33 exiled members of the Fetullah Gulen movement – whom Turkey accuses of organising a 2016 coup attempt – and sympathisers of the Kurdistan Workers’ party, or PKK, which Ankara views as a terrorist organisation. The chances that human rights-loving Sweden will hand the suspects over to Turkey’s notoriously draconian courts are zero. But, says the senior EU diplomat, ‘there are compromises that can be made… to save everyone’s face’. Some time with Biden and promises of a resumption in US arms sales will also help ease Erdogan towards a yes.

There was a time when Russia was economically and militarily powerful enough to play the role of serious rival to the EU and Nato for Turkey’s loyalty and affections. Military humiliation and international solidarity have put paid to that. Turkey has traditionally been a strong advocate of Nato expansion. Erdogan’s grandstanding is a tactic to boost his status and raise the price of his eventual acquiescence, while Putin stands by, impotent, with no choice but to pretend not to be bothered.

He became distracted

SPECTATOR.CO.UK/podcast Owen Matthews and Nicholas Farrell on the future of Nato in Europe.