Almost all of NATO’s 30 member countries agree that Russia under President Vladimir Putin is the alliance’s main adversary. The word “almost” is only necessary because one member, Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, refuses to unequivocally align itself with the West and Ukraine against Moscow. Erdogan, too, is keeping his options open, often playing Putin’s enemies. Sometimes that produces good results, like when the two reached an agreement to allow Ukraine to export grain. Other times it just raises eyebrows.
Erdogan is behaving even more irresponsibly when it comes to Sweden and Finland, two non-NATO countries that want to join the alliance. Their memberships would be good for everyone involved. The Nordic countries would be safer under NATO’s Article 5, the one that says an attack on one is an attack on all. And NATO would be stronger for the military prowess and strategic geography of the Nordic countries.
But Turkey and Hungary are slow to ratify the two memberships. Erdogan is the main problem. Indeed, he is blackmailing the Swedes into adopting his vision of Middle East politics. For Erdogan, all Kurdish organizations, whether based in Turkey, Syria or elsewhere, are terrorists who must be banned and fought against. And he wants other countries, especially Sweden, to follow the same line.
Erdogan is not entirely wrong about terrorism, or about the Kurds. A bomb in Istanbul on Sunday killed at least 6 people and injured dozens – a woman was arrested, although it is unclear if she has links to Kurdish organizations, as the Turkish minister claims inside.
The United States and the European Union have also banned the PKK, a Kurdish group in Turkey. But they did not blacklist the YPG, a Kurdish militia in Syria that has ambiguous ties to the PKK and has been an ally in the fight against Islamic State. Similarly, Sweden, which has a large Kurdish diaspora and several MPs of Kurdish origin, has also taken a nuanced approach so far. Erdogan wants to end it.
The Swedes now seem ready to respond as best they can to Erdogan’s demands. And they are right to do so. For Sweden, membership in NATO and security against Russia are far more important than policy towards the Kurds.
Where Erdogan is completely irrelevant is the Aegean Sea. NATO’s worst internal tension has for decades been the enmity between two nominal allies, Turkey and Greece, who truly see each other as enemies. Since emerging from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the two states have been bickering, daggers drawn, over the islands of the Mediterranean, the rights to explore its seabed for natural gas, and more.
Lately, their sparring has become more than verbal again. The Greeks complain that the Turks are constantly violating Greek territorial waters and airspace. The Turks accuse the Greeks of harassing Turkish jets during a joint NATO mission, and even of locking an anti-aircraft system on Turkish F-16s near Crete.
With such allies, who needs enemies? “The islands you occupy do not bind us,” Erdogan told the Greeks the other day. “We will do what is necessary when the time comes. As they say, you can suddenly arrive one evening. You read that right: Erdogan is actually threatening to wage war on another NATO country.
All alliances, like most families, have their tensions. And Erdogan has already been playing the role of pet peeve for years – much to the chagrin of other allies, he even bought an air defense system from Putin that could compromise American-made fighter jet technology.
But unlike, say, Hungary, Turkey is also strategically indispensable. It has the second largest army in NATO, after the United States. And thanks to its geography, it can project energy into the Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean seas, as well as southeastern Europe, North Africa, the Caucasus, and the Middle East.
Trying to figure out what Erdogan really wants has therefore become an obsession in NATO capitals right after the analysis of Putin’s mind. Is Erdogan just bragging ahead of the election? Is he looking for military agreements with the United States? Does he really want to rebuild Turkey in the image of the Ottomans, a bit like Putin fantasizes about restoring the empire of the czars? Above all, would Erdogan be a reliable ally in the event of war?
The times we live in are far too serious for such distractions. The West must remain united and strong. For that, we must close ranks with the Nordics and put aside old but meaningless quarrels like that between Greeks and Turks. One objective must take precedence over all others: to deter Putin from intensifying and widening his war. As the Turks should remind their president, this is as much in Turkey’s interest as it is in NATO’s.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Turkey and NATO prove the principle of Anna Karenina’s alliances: Andreas Kluth
NATO must bring Finland, Sweden and Turkey closer together: James Stavridis
NATO should think twice before accepting Finland and Sweden: Emma Ashford
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
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