EDITORIAL | Don’t let Turkey stop NATO expansion


Review Editor’s Note: Editorials represent the views of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently of the newsroom.

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NATO’s renewed unity in response to Ukraine’s struggle to repel Russia’s invasion is a remarkable achievement for Western leaders. And the alliance is poised to strategically build on its revitalization by adding two Nordic nations, Sweden and Finland, which are already capable military partners. This would significantly extend NATO’s direct border with Russia and thwart one of the justifications Russian President Vladimir Putin uses for his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine – halting NATO expansion.

But a capital now stands in the way of the candidacy of Sweden and Finland. And it’s not Moscow, but Ankara, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hardened his stance against welcoming these two vital nations into the alliance.

All the other NATO countries seem keen on this diplomatic and military upgrade. But the alliance works by consensus, so Turkey actually has a veto power that could deprive NATO of such a powerful addition.

Erdogan’s main reason is his perception of Stockholm and Helsinki’s lax attitude towards Kurdish activists belonging to the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Turkey, the European Union and the United States all consider the PKK a terrorist organization. “Turkey wants candidate countries to curb the activities of all terrorist organizations and extradite members of these organizations,” Erdogan wrote in a commentary for The Economist.

Erdogan has also long called for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen and some of his supporters. Gulen is a Turkish cleric who Erdogan said was behind a failed coup attempt in 2016. Other persistent demands include an end to arms embargoes put in place after the incursion of the Turkey in northern Syria. Turkey invaded in part to fight another Kurdish organization, the YPG or People’s Protection Units, which was aiding the United States in the fight against ISIS. (On Monday, Erdogan announced a new military operation in Syria to try to complete a 20-mile “safe zone” along its border.)

Turkey “has a policy of being very assertive as a regional leader,” Marc Pierini, visiting fellow at Carnegie Europe, told an editorial writer. Speaking from Brussels, Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey, said Erdogan “considers this geographical position of the country, Turkey’s military strength, its economic progress at least until recently – all this justifies greater influence on the international stage.”

But as is so often the case, domestic dynamics also guide Turkey’s foreign policy. Erdogan faces an election next year and is trailing by double digits in public opinion polls.

One of the main reasons for this is Turkey’s chaotic economy, partly due to Erdogan’s unorthodox – and reckless – economic policies. So, as often happens in the countryside, Erdogan pivoted to a perceived strength: security. “If you choose to fight terrorism, you cut off the opposition coalition, because who is going to say, ‘No, Kurdish terrorism is not important’?” said Pierini.

All in all, Turkey’s stonewalling, which has happened before on NATO issues, is something “that could have been dealt with behind the scenes, as most NATO issues are.” , said Pierini. But Erdogan made it more public, especially with his economist commentary, and therefore more difficult to approach diplomatically. “It didn’t require this massive strike, blocking what is in fact perhaps the single most important response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO expansion. So, seen from From a Western point of view, it’s hard to understand. But if you take into account the Turkish interior politics, it becomes easier to understand.”

It is difficult to understand why Turkey would not see and grasp what would be a decisive setback for Putin. But given the internal problems in Turkey, the United States must intervene more directly. Even though the direct dispute concerns Finland and Sweden, the “real problem” concerns the United States and its association with the YPG, said Pierini.

The Biden administration does not have the luxury of adopting the position announced by Julianne Smith, the American ambassador to NATO, who told the New York Times that “this seems to be an issue that [Turkey] has with Sweden and Finland, so we’ll leave that in their hands.”

Turkey also has problems with the West and the free world, so its de facto leader, President Joe Biden, needs to step in – and soon.

Turkey already spurred Putin on in 2019 by buying a Russian missile system, and it would be tragic to let Russia win again just as NATO strengthens with new resolve.


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