It takes a clinical case of solipsism to behave as irresponsibly as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan does. Then again, maybe he’s doing it on purpose. Erdogan faces an election in May or June — one that, despite his strongman machinations, he could theoretically lose. In the run-up, he’s apparently trying to energize his hardline and Islamist bases. To him that seems to mean acting like a geopolitical orc.
Officially, his country is one of the 30 members of NATO and, on paper, even a candidate to join the European Union one day. In reality, he’s more often undermining the Western alliance and the EU, as part of his anti-Western and neo-Ottoman shtick. That even includes threatening war against Greece, a NATO ally. But it mainly means blocking the accession to NATO of two formerly neutral EU countries, Finland and Sweden.
Eight months after the Nordic neighbors applied for entry into the alliance, only Hungary and Turkey have yet to ratify their accession, which was supposed to be finalized at the NATO summit in Vilnius this July. Hungary has now signaled that it won’t stand in the way. That leaves Turkey — which is to say, Erdogan.
Erdogan has been hinting that he might be fine with the Finns joining, but that he’s in no mood to stomach the Swedes. And that poses a new dilemma, both for the two Nordic countries and the alliance. Should the Finns go ahead and join without the Swedes?
Geographically, culturally, historically, politically and strategically, Sweden and Finland nowadays think of themselves not as a union, but as a pair. The Finns, who share an 800-mile border with Russia, are militarily strong on land, the Swedes at sea and in the air. Together, they could secure — for each other and NATO — the Baltic Sea against a Russian attack, and help defend Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. For all these reasons, the two countries applied to NATO jointly. In turn, most of the allies enthusiastically embraced them as the dynamic duo in the North.
Not Erdogan. He spotted an opportunity to blackmail the entire alliance. The Swedes, in his book, have been too lenient toward Kurdish groups he deems terrorists. And they haven’t been selling Turkey the weapons he’d like. So Ankara sent Stockholm a laundry list of demands.
The Swedes have complied with almost all of those requests. They’ve cracked down on Kurdish groups and indicated that they’ll relax restrictions on arms exports, so that Turkey can buy their kit. Shockingly, though, they still believe in the rule of law and freedom of speech. That’s why they can’t accommodate Erdogan on two particular points.
First, they can’t simply extradite to Turkey anybody Erdogan would like to jail. That includes Bulent Kenes, a journalist who has nothing whatsoever to do with Kurdish terrorists. Erdogan alleges that Kenes has links to Fetullah Gulen, an Islamic scholar whom Erdogan blames for an attempted coup in 2016. Kenes denies any involvement. Nor has he committed anything that amounts to a crime in Sweden. In effect, he’d be a political prisoner in Turkey. So the Swedish supreme court blocked the extradition. In a country with an independent judiciary, that’s the end of the story, as Turks might — wistfully — appreciate.
Then there’s a truly regrettable incident of wanton idiocy that nonetheless passes as legal in Sweden on grounds of freedom of speech. The other day, Rasmus Paludan, a far-right rabble-rouser with Danish and Swedish passports who’s been convicted in Denmark of racism and defamation, burned a copy of the Koran near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. This was stupid and offensive. But in a free country, being offensively stupid is allowed. The Swedes said sorry. Erdogan pretended not to understand the nuances, and declared their NATO bid dead.
What makes Erdogan’s antics so scandalous is the geopolitical context. Here’s the only thing that matters: Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging a genocidal war of imperialist aggression against Ukraine, and wastes no opportunity to tell Russians that he considers Ukraine a mere proxy for NATO and the West.
Instead of understanding this turn as a Zeitenwende and closing ranks with his allies, however, Erdogan keeps playing both sides, NATO and Moscow. He’s even using a Russian anti-missile system, the S-400, which subverts NATO’s defense infrastructure. Here’s a fair question: In the event that Putin attacked a NATO country, would Erdogan actually participate in defending that ally?
What, then, should the Finns, Swedes and NATO do about this mess? First, they should wait out Turkey’s elections in May. Erdogan could be defeated for the presidency, or his political bloc lose parliament, or both. A new Turkish leader or legislature may well be more sagacious. And even if Erdogan stays in power, he may rediscover reason once the campaign is over. Either way, there’s still a chance that NATO could formally welcome both Sweden and Finland at Vilnius in July.
If, on the other hand, Erdogan holds on to office and keeps breathing fire, Finland should go ahead on its own — with Sweden’s blessing — and become a NATO member. At the same time, Sweden, which already has deep logistical ties with NATO and bilateral accords with the US and other Western powers, should keep integrating into the alliance as though it were a member, with a view to formalizing its accession as soon as possible. What matters is that Putin is left in no doubt that an attack on either Sweden or Finland, or any NATO country, will be answered by the whole league. In short, Putin needs to know that he would lose.
Aside from all that, while gathering at Vilnius, the allies should also catch up on some long-overdue housekeeping. Like the EU but unlike almost any other club — from the United Nations to the Council of Europe — NATO has no mechanism for kicking out an errant member that turns into a saboteur. It’s high time to introduce such a clause. It wouldn’t be aimed at any member in particular. It would simply clarify that the alliance will defend itself, even when the foe is internal.
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