When the leaders of NATO nations gather in Lithuania this week, President Biden and his closest allies will endeavor to send Russia a forceful message: that the West is united against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have cited differing objections to the entry of Sweden, whose advanced military will boost NATO’s combat power, their shared status as holdouts highlights the ability of any member state to disrupt widely supported alliance priorities.
The strongmen are problematic, if important, NATO allies: Erdogan, fresh from an electoral victory cementing more than two decades in power, and Orban, who has maintained warm ties with Putin and rejected some European aid to Ukraine, have faced criticism for anti-democratic practices but also acknowledgment of their military and other contributions to the alliance.
The dispute over Sweden’s accession, which requires the approval of Turkish and Hungarian lawmakers to be finalized, not only represents a threat to Biden’s goal of brandishing his stewardship of a strong NATO but also serves as a reminder of other differences dogging the alliance, including fissures over military spending levels, Kyiv’s path to membership and, most recently, a White House decision to provide cluster munitions to Ukraine.
Alexander Vershbow, a veteran U.S. diplomat who served as NATO deputy secretary general, said that navigating internal differences was “the cost of doing business” for a consensus-based body such as NATO, whose allies, crucially, must also commit to sending their troops to protect one another if needed.
“At the end of the day, NATO has never been paralyzed when something of absolutely vital importance is on the line,” said Vershbow, who is now a fellow at the Atlantic Council. “That’s the important thing.”
The July 11-12 summit comes as Ukrainian leaders make urgent appeals for additional weaponry from the West, including fighter aircraft, they say is needed to prevail in a hard-fought operation to reclaim Russian-held territory. They are also pushing for a clearer path to join NATO.
Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has injected NATO, created in 1949 as the battle lines of the Cold War were being drawn, with renewed urgency as allies harden defenses against what most see as a renewed threat from Russia. While NATO itself has not provided arms to Ukraine, it has served as a forum to coordinate the massive surge in Western support to Kyiv.
Like Finland, which finalized its entry process in April, Sweden abandoned decades of military nonalignment in response to Putin’s invasion. Despite Erdogan’s decision to drop his government’s objections to Finnish membership in March, he has declined to approve Sweden’s entry, citing additional complaints.
Diplomats are now scrambling — after months of voicing confidence that the summit in Vilnius would provide a chance to celebrate Sweden’s accession — to persuade Hungary and especially Turkey to send a signal that they will allow Stockholm’s entry to move forward.
Turkey’s reasons for opposing Sweden’s membership include what Ankara says is a refusal to extradite individuals it sees as terrorists, including members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a movement accused of trying to overthrow the Turkish government in 2016. Turkey also has complained about anti-Erdogan protests held in Sweden and demonstrations at which Qurans were burned.
Those complaints have dovetailed with populist rhetoric Erdogan has used at home, including during the presidential election in May, when he portrayed his opponents as sympathetic to Kurdish militants and as enemies of traditional Muslim family values, themes that resonated with nationalist voters and Erdogan’s base of supporters.
Erdogan reiterated those themes last week, calling a Quran burning in Stockholm during last month’s Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday “a heinous act” that was not an “isolated incident.”
While senior U.S. and NATO officials insist that Stockholm has met the terms outlined last year to allay Ankara’s security concerns — including amending its constitution and approving tougher anti-terrorism laws — Erdogan has refused to send Sweden’s accession protocol to Turkish lawmakers.
Sinan Ulgen, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, said that while there was a “domestic angle” to Turkey’s posture on Sweden, which Erdogan used to earn political support, his opposition was “never just an election tool.” Rather, Ulgen said, it is a bargaining chip to extract a key concession from the United States.
A swift resolution seemed more unlikely after a call Sunday in which Erdogan, according to a readout from the Turkish presidency, told Biden that while Sweden had taken some positive steps, the fact that protests in Sweden by supporters of groups Ankara labels Kurdish extremists had been permitted to continue “nullifies” those actions. A White House statement said Biden expressed his desire to see Sweden’s entry “as soon as possible.”
Officials and analysts say the cost of Turkey’s acquiescence appears to be a $20 billion deal for American F-16 fighter jets, an agreement that the Biden administration has backed on grounds it would strengthen NATO’s eastern defenses but that has long faced opposition on Capitol Hill.
At this stage, Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s NATO candidacy “has more to do with what the U.S. will end up doing, and not doing, than what Sweden has done,” Ulgen said.
While Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has long objected to the F-16 sale over Turkey’s rights record and its antagonistic stance toward fellow NATO member Greece, opponents to the deal have multiplied as the delay in Sweden’s accession has drawn out. Lawmakers including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) now say they won’t support the fighter jet sale until Turkey relents.
Underlying Erdogan’s dance on Sweden is his country’s complex relationship with Russia, with which Turkey shares deep economic ties and a history of dealmaking and rivalry. While both Erdogan and Putin see themselves as counterweights to U.S. power, their countries have found themselves on the opposite side of conflicts, including in Libya and Syria.
After Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in 2015, Russia suspended a lucrative flow of tourists to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and its import of Turkish farm products.
Turkey’s ties with Russia have been a frequent point of contention with Washington. When Ankara acquired an advanced Russian air defense system, Washington responded with sanctions and removed Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet program, giving Putin a double win: The incident created a wedge within NATO and precluded the deployment of advanced aircraft close to Russian troops in Syria.
Other times those links have benefited the West, for instance when Turkey helped broker a deal between Moscow and Kyiv to resume Ukrainian grain exports via the Black Sea or helped arrange an exchange of high-profile prisoners of war.
“It’s a complicated, nuanced relationship,” David Satterfield, who served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey and is now director of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said of Turkey’s ties with Russia. “But ultimately it is one which we as a NATO member find of value to the alliance.”
Diplomats point out that Ankara, which commands NATO’s second-largest ground force and has sent troops to partake in alliance missions including Afghanistan, remains a valuable contributor. Turkey has also been a reliable supporter of Ukraine, selling armed drones to Kyiv even before Putin’s 2022 invasion.
Officials in Hungary have meanwhile cited a variety of reasons for their country’s refusal to ratify Sweden’s accession, from what a government spokesman said was Stockholm’s eagerness to “bash Hungary” to the Nordic country’s “crumbling throne of moral superiority.”
But Hungary’s obstruction is less about Sweden than Orban’s strong affinity with Erdogan, said Peter Kreko, director of Budapest-based think tank Political Capital. “Turkey is a role model, on the one hand,” he said. “Secondly, it’s an ideological source of inspiration. Third, [Turkey is] a very important partner in trade, not just on a national level, but also business circles close to the Erdogan family and the Orban family.”
Hungary is a NATO outlier because of Orban’s warm ties with Putin, the country’s skepticism about Ukraine’s wartime goals and its refusal to allow arms to be shipped to Ukraine across its territory. Orban faces criticism over his governing practices, clashing repeatedly with the European Union over his approach to migration and the rule of law. And like Turkey, Hungary has looked to Russia to help keep its economy afloat.
Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said that Budapest would not obstruct Sweden’s bid alone. If there is a shift in Turkey’s stance, “then of course we will keep the promise that Hungary will not hold up any country in terms of membership,” he told reporters last week.
Sen. James E. Risch (Idaho), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Republican, said Turkey’s efforts to secure concessions unrelated to Sweden’s NATO entry had led him to question whether countries that pose obstacles to the alliance’s larger mission should still be members at all.
“Look, when you have an alliance like this with … 31 countries, it’s important that every country resolve issues in the best interest of the alliance, as opposed to as something that’s in their own best interest, particularly if it’s irrelevant to the foundation or purpose of the alliance,” he told reporters.
Such internal challenges were visible in the lead-up to the Vilnius summit as regional and factional divisions over who would best replace Jens Stoltenberg as NATO’s next secretary general ahead of his expected departure this summer led to his extension for another year.
But diplomats say that NATO has navigated serious internal challenges over decades, noting that France, one of the alliance’s most influential members, withdrew from NATO’s military command in protest during the 1960s. Paris returned to the military command only in 2009.
“NATO has weathered this in the past,” Satterfield said. “And it will weather this one.”
Ryan and Hauslohner reported from Washington, Rauhala reported from Brussels, Fahim reported from Istanbul, and Morris reported from Berlin.
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