‘Nato is surrounding Turkey,’ reads a banner flying in Istanbul’s Kadiköy district, on the Eastern side of the water that divides Europe from Asia. ‘Let’s get out of it.’
The sign, featuring American flags scattered across Europe and the Middle East, from Greece to Syria, has appeared across the country’s second city in the run-up to next year’s presidential and parliamentary votes. Paid for and promoted by the Patriotic party, a fringe left-wing nationalist group founded by several former Turkish army generals, it looks more like Russian propaganda than election literature, even recognising the independence of Abkhazia, a Moscow-backed breakaway region of Georgia.
But even if the campaigners behind it can’t expect to win by a landslide, those in power seem to share at least some of their concerns. Turkey’s veteran president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his populist Justice and Development party are locked into an increasingly tense standoff with Nato. It is about to come to a head this week as the bloc’s members meet in Madrid to discuss their response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
When Ankara joined the alliance in 1952, it was hailed as a Cold War victory, enabling Nato to control access to the Black Sea, and to the southern coast of the Soviet Union. The move was also seen as a milestone in Turkey’s long-standing ambition to fully take its place in the European Community.
Now though, it seems Erdoğan is increasingly deviating from that course, having refused to sanction Russia in the wake of the war in Ukraine and blocking Finland and Sweden from joining up. The two Scandinavian nations, he claims, have harboured Kurdish separatist ‘terrorists’, as well as high-profile opponents of the government, rejecting repeated requests to extradite them. Given all existing members have to back new applications, this has become a major hurdle for the two previously neutral countries – and, analysts point out, a gift to Vladimir Putin.
Ahead of Tuesday’s talks, ‘unity’ is the word defining the agenda – and it is Turkey Nato are hoping will not break ranks. Up for discussion is how European nations can step up their response to Russian aggression, while also pivoting to address China’s increasing influence. On both issues, Erdoğan clearly has different ideas, and has pursued closer relations with Moscow and Beijing in recent years.
Back home, the Turkish president’s opponents accuse him of undermining their country's liberal and secular foundations, cosying up with authoritarian regimes. His supporters, though, say he is simply distancing the nation from a declining West, carving out a unique role at the crossroads with the East. Either way, his increasing antipathy with Nato hasn’t gone unnoticed, and its commanders were forced to apologise when they used Erdoğan’s name as an enemy target in a battlefield simulation in 2017.
On Monday, on the eve of the summit, Ankara prepared a file of 45 individuals it is demanding be extradited from Sweden and Finland in what amounts to a transparent offer of quid pro quo. The vast majority are members of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who have previously been defended by Stockholm and Helsinki. Seven of those branded ‘terrorists’ and sought by Turkish authorities have even reportedly been given Swedish citizenship in recent years, joining a large and vocal minority community of more than 100,000 Kurds.
Many EU leaders have had reservations about Turkey’s clampdown on Kurdish independence groups and other political opponents of Erdoğan. They have offered them safe harbour instead and condemned Ankara for domestic human rights violations. Meanwhile, Finland imposed an arms embargo on Turkey in the wake of its 2019 offensive in Syria. While it has had little impact given Turkey’s own advanced military industry, it has served as a pretext for Turkish diplomats to block its accession.
And yet, while Turkey could easily be a thorn in the side of the bloc’s plans to strengthen its northern flank, the Western leaders are clearly prepared to make concessions to get what they want. Earlier this month, Nato General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, said that Erdoğan had ‘legitimate concerns’ about membership for the two Nordic nations. ‘No other Nato ally has suffered more terrorist attacks than Turkey,’ he argued. ‘This is about terrorism.’
Sweden is yet to take action over the extradition requests, but any progress on the issue will be a major win for the Turkish president, who is up for re-election within the year. Finland has also refused to rule out lifting its arms embargo, with defence minister Antti Kaikkonen refusing to comment on whether Helsinki is prepared to reverse its decision to get access to the alliance.
Turkey may have rapidly become one of Nato’s most challenging members, but it has also cemented its status as one of its most valuable. Even if it has stopped short of sanctioning Moscow for its brutal invasion, it has laid on exports of its advanced Bayraktar TB-2 attack drones to Ukraine, invaluable in helping Kyiv’s forces take out long columns of Russian armour.
Likewise, its friendlier stance towards the Kremlin have enabled it to play a mediating role, hosting peace talks between the two. With traditionally neutral nations increasingly choosing sides, Turkey has stepped up as an important backchannel between East and West.
Here too, though, Erdoğan is looking out for his own country’s interests alone – protecting sizeable Turkish investments in Ukraine, while refusing to take the economic hit of cutting off lucrative ties to Russia. Ankara has led the negotiations on unblocking blockaded Ukrainian ports and freeing up agricultural imports but, with food prices rising rapidly at home, has also been accused of buying in grain stolen from the country and sold by Russia.
Despite what hardliners might say, given Turkey has so much to gain from taking a tough line inside Nato, it seems unlikely to leave any time soon. And with little to lose by holding the West’s feet to the fire, it won’t be surprising if Erdoğan once again gets what he wants.