Putin infiltrating NATO with leverage over Turkey

Erdogan ‘pretty unhappy’ being humiliated by Putin says Hodges

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The deadlock over NATO’s hope to include European allies Sweden and Finland in its military alliance was again pushed back by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with more talks set for later in the year. Negotiations between Ankara, Stockholm, and Helsinki in Brusells did bring progress, Sweden’s negotiator Oscar Stenstrom said, adding the “most important thing is that we have gathered”. But some experts argue that Mr Erdogan’s strict decision not to back NATO’s wishes has played into Russia’s hands, allowing it to take a firmer grip on the interests of Europe.

Turkey and Hungary are the only two NATO allies to ratify the membership bids of Sweden and Finland, the former issuing concerns of “arms exports and terrorism” as factors behind their indecision.

The two Nordic countries pushed their membership application after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in 2022, fearing for the security of their own borders.

Yet, despite shifts in policy from both Sweden and Finland, their membership attempts are still being blocked by Mr Erdogan.

For Paul Levin, the Director of Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies, Putin is “the person who stands to gain most from Ankara’s veto on NATO enlargement”.

Writing for Foreign Policy Research Institute this week, Dr Levin noted that though Turkey and Russia’s relationship is “complex and involves a great deal of tension,” Putin “has leverage over Ankara”.

He continued: “Turkey has advertised another military incursion into Kurdish-led areas in northern Syria, but since the areas in question are patrolled by Russian or Russian-allied Syrian troops, this de facto requires Russian approval.

“Russia also provides Turkey with energy and is building a nuclear reactor in Akkuyu, for which it recently provided Turkey with much-needed new financing, and the two countries are in discussion over a possible deferral of Turkish loan payments.

“Erdogan has been pursuing an increasingly transactional foreign policy in recent years, and by halting NATO enlargement he is giving Putin what he wants, by design or coincidence.”

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The process for Sweden and Finland to join NATO sped up last year and was backed by the likes of Britain and the US. Sweden, in particular, has a globally renowned military, which it argues would help the organisation move forward.

According to Politico, the nation’s foreign minister, Ann Linde, said that Sweden was “convinced our membership will strengthen NATO and add to the stability in the Euro-Atlantic area”.

In July, when progress was being made with their applications, she added: “We will do our part in contributing to NATO’s collective defence shoulder-to-shoulder with the other allies.”

Though Turkey and Hungary’s stance has yet to thaw, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was hopeful Ankara could soon sign off on a deal once the country’s parliamentary and presidential elections are held in May.

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After Thursday’s talks, Mr Stoltenberg added: “It is now time for all allies to conclude the ratification process and welcome Finland and Sweden as full members of the alliance ahead of the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius.”

Tobias Billstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister, expressed his desire for talks to move forward, as Stockholm had “fulfilled all of what we said that we are going to do”.

He added: “We bring well-equipped and well-trained forces into NATO, and we will be adding to the security — and to the security of northern Europe — in a way which is unprecedented.

“It wasn’t an easy decision for Sweden to give up 200 years of being a non-military aligned state. The brutality of Russia’s onslaught in Ukraine was the reason why we did so. I think we have grounds for being hopeful.”

Turkey remains in crisis, with Mr Erdogan facing a huge test for reelection later this year. As well as political tension, Turkey, and its neighbour Syria, experienced devastation when more than 47,000 people died as a result of a string of earthquakes in February.

NATO is next set to discuss Sweden and Finland’s membership in July, once the election in Ankara has been concluded, sparking fresh hope the deadlock can be broken.

Gonul Tol, of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program, discussed how Mr Erdogan’s “image he has created of a strongman who gets results for the Turkish people has been shattered”.

Speaking to CNN this week, he said: “There is a lot of anti-West and anti-Kurd sentiment in Turkey at the moment. This is a good topic for him to bang his drum and a dramatic U-turn would only make him look weaker.”

The author of ‘Erdogan’s War: A Strongman’s Struggle at Home and in Syria’ told of how Russia has been a “lifeline economically for Turkey”, particularly at a time when “other nations imposed sanctions for their activities in Syria, their cooperation militarily with Russia and other hostile activity”.

This meant the Turkish President was apprehensive to carry out any shifts in policy that could infuriate Russia, because “without [Moscow’s] money, Erdogan would not have been able to raise wages or provide financial support to students”.

She added: “He is now promising mass rebuilding, post-earthquake. So Russia is still an attractive partner for Erdogan.”

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