WASHINGTON — When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey threatened this month to dam NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, Western officers had been exasperated — however not shocked.
Within an alliance that operates by consensus, the Turkish strongman has come to be seen as one thing of a stickup artist. In 2009, he blocked the appointment of a new NATO chief from Denmark, complaining that the nation was too tolerant of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and too sympathetic to “Kurdish terrorists” based mostly in Turkey. It took hours of cajoling by Western leaders, and a face-to-face promise from President Barack Obama that NATO would appoint a Turk to a management place, to fulfill Mr. Erdogan.
After a rupture in relations between Turkey and Israel the following 12 months, Mr. Erdogan prevented the alliance from working with the Jewish state for six years. Just a few years later, Mr. Erdogan delayed for months a NATO plan to fortify Eastern European nations in opposition to Russia, once more citing Kurdish militants and demanding that the alliance declare ones working in Syria to be terrorists. In 2019, Mr. Erdogan despatched a gas-exploration ship backed by fighter jets near Greek waters, inflicting France to ship ships in help of Greece, additionally a NATO member.
Now the Turkish chief is again within the position of obstructionist, and is as soon as once more invoking the Kurds, as he costs that Sweden and Finland sympathize with the Kurdish militants he has made his major enemy.
“These countries have almost become guesthouses for terrorist organizations,” he mentioned this month. “It is not possible for us to be in favor.”
Mr. Erdogan’s stance is a reminder of a long-festering drawback for NATO, which at present has 30 members. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have given the alliance a new sense of mission, however NATO should nonetheless deal with an authoritarian chief keen to make use of his leverage to achieve political factors at dwelling by blocking consensus — no less than for a time.
It is a scenario that performs to the benefit of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has grown friendlier with Mr. Erdogan lately. For the Russian chief, the rejection of Swedish and Finnish admission into NATO can be a vital victory.
The quandary can be easier had been it not for Turkey’s significance to the alliance. The nation joined NATO in 1952 after aligning with the West in opposition to the Soviet Union; Turkey offers the alliance a essential strategic place on the intersection of Europe and Asia, astride each the Middle East and the Black Sea. It hosts a main U.S. air base the place American nuclear weapons are saved, and Mr. Erdogan has blocked Russian warships headed towards Ukraine.
But beneath Mr. Erdogan, Turkey has more and more turn into a drawback to be managed. As prime minister after which as president, he has tilted his nation away from Europe whereas training an authoritarian and populist model of Islamist politics, particularly since a failed coup try in 2016.
He has bought a sophisticated missile system from Russia that NATO officers name a menace to their built-in protection techniques, and in 2019 he mounted a army incursion to battle Kurds in northern Syria who had been aiding the battle in opposition to the Islamic State with U.S. help.
“In my four years there, it was quite often 27 against one,” mentioned Ivo H. Daalder, a U.S. ambassador to NATO through the Obama administration, when the alliance had 28 members.
Mr. Erdogan’s objections to the membership of Sweden and Finland have even renewed questions on whether or not NATO is likely to be higher off with out Turkey.
An opinion essay this month that was co-written by Joseph I. Lieberman, a former unbiased U.S. senator from Connecticut, argued that Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey would flunk the alliance’s requirements for democratic governance in potential new member states. The essay, printed by The Wall Street Journal, warned that Ankara’s insurance policies, together with a coziness with Mr. Putin, had undermined NATO’s pursuits and that the alliance ought to discover methods of ejecting Turkey.
“Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Mr. Erdogan it no longer subscribes to the values that underpin this great alliance,” wrote Mr. Lieberman and Mark D. Wallace, the chief govt of the Turkish Democracy Project, a group crucial of Mr. Erdogan.
Some members of Congress have mentioned as a lot. “Turkey under Erdogan should not and cannot be seen as an ally,” Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the highest Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, mentioned after Turkey’s 2019 incursion into Syria.
But NATO is a army alliance, and Turkey, with the second-largest military within the group, a sophisticated protection business and its essential geographic place, performs a important position.
Western officers say that Turkey would solely trigger extra issues as a resentful NATO outsider — and one that might align itself extra intently with Russia.
“Turkey has undermined its own image,” mentioned Alper Coskun, a former Turkish diplomat who’s now a senior fellow on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But, he added, “it is still a critical member of the alliance.”
Once once more, the query is what’s going to mollify Mr. Erdogan and guarantee his help for admitting Sweden and Finland.
President Biden underscored U.S. help for the transfer when he hosted the 2 nations’ leaders on the White House this month and praised a bigger NATO as a examine in opposition to Russian energy. “Biden took an extremely exposed, high-visibility position by inviting them to Washington,” mentioned James F. Jeffrey, a U.S. ambassador to Turkey through the Obama administration.
Most analysts consider that Mr. Erdogan won’t in the end block the accession of Sweden and Finland, however that he needs to spotlight Turkey’s personal safety issues and make home political positive factors earlier than elections in his nation subsequent 12 months.
Mr. Erdogan is principally involved with Sweden’s longtime help for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.Okay.Okay., which seeks an unbiased Kurdish state on territory partly inside Turkey’s borders.
The P.Okay.Okay., which has attacked nonmilitary targets and killed civilians in Turkey, is outlawed in that nation and is designated by each the United States and the European Union as a terrorist group, though some governments, together with Sweden, view it extra sympathetically as a Kurdish nationalist motion.
The United States has additionally backed its affiliated fighters in Syria, the Y.P.G., or People’s Protection Units, who helped to battle the Islamic State and whom Mr. Erdogan attacked in his 2019 incursion into the nation.
The Turkish president needs the Y.P.G. to be designated as a terrorist group as properly.
Mr. Erdogan accuses each Finland and Sweden of harboring followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric dwelling in U.S. exile, whom he blames for the 2016 coup. Turkey is requesting the extradition of roughly 35 individuals it says are concerned with Kurdish separatists or Mr. Gulen.
Mr. Erdogan additionally objects to Swedish and Finnish arms embargoes in opposition to his nation, which had been imposed after the 2019 incursion into Syria. Sweden is already discussing lifting the embargo given present occasions in Ukraine.
Some analysts say that Mr. Erdogan’s authorities views the P.Okay.Okay. a lot the way in which Washington noticed Al Qaeda 20 years in the past, and that the West can not dismiss the issues if it hopes to do enterprise with Turkey.
Biden administration officers downplay the standoff and count on Mr. Erdogan to achieve a compromise with Finland and Sweden. Turkish officers met in Ankara with Finnish and Swedish counterparts for a number of hours final week.
Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, mentioned in an interview that “this appears to be an issue that they have with Sweden and Finland, so we’ll leave it in their hands.” She added that the United States would offer help if wanted.
Appearing with Finland’s overseas minister in Washington on Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken mentioned he was “confident that we will work through this process swiftly, and that things will move forward with both countries.”
Emre Peker, a London-based director for Europe on the Eurasia Group, a non-public consulting agency, mentioned that he didn’t consider that Mr. Erdogan was in search of concessions from Washington. He expressed confidence that Turkey may work out an settlement with Sweden and Finland with the mediation of the NATO secretary normal, Jens Stoltenberg.
Mr. Erdogan’s major priorities are getting his nation’s safety issues about Kurdish separatists heard and getting the arms embargoes lifted, Mr. Peker mentioned.
Some American analysts are skeptical. Eric S. Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Finland, warned that Mr. Erdogan may very well be in search of to curry favor with Mr. Putin — or no less than ease the anger in Moscow over the sale of deadly drones to Ukraine’s army by a non-public Turkish firm.
“He has this very complicated relationship with Putin that he has to maintain,” Mr. Edelman mentioned. “This is a good way of throwing a little bone to Putin — ‘I’m still useful to you.’”
Others consider the Turkish chief needs a payoff from Washington. Mr. Erdogan is offended that the United States denied Turkey entry to the F-35 stealth fighter after his 2017 buy of the Russian S-400 missile system. Turkey is now lobbying as an alternative to purchase enhanced F-16 fighters however has met stiff resistance in Congress from the likes of Mr. Menendez.
Mr. Erdogan may additionally be in search of presidential consideration. He had a pleasant rapport with President Donald J. Trump, however Mr. Biden has stored his distance.
“This is a man who needs to be at center stage,” mentioned Mr. Daalder, the previous U.S. ambassador to NATO. “This is a way to say: ‘Hey, I’m still here. You need to pay attention to my issues.’”
Mr. Peker believes that an settlement could be negotiated between Turkey and the Nordic nations earlier than a NATO summit in Madrid subsequent month, which might permit for the accession protocols to be signed there.
More doubtless, some analysts say, Mr. Biden should make a nod towards Mr. Erdogan in Madrid to clinch his assent, as Mr. Obama needed to do at a NATO summit in 2009 to safe the appointment of Anders Fogh Rasmussen as secretary normal.
At a speak hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations final week, Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, prompt that the stakes of Swedish and Finnish membership had been nice sufficient to warrant direct U.S. involvement.
“We need to sit down and we need to cut a deal,” Mr. Smith mentioned. “And we need to get aggressive about it, like now.”
Michael Crowley reported from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from Brussels. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.