The United States struggled Wednesday to get clarity from Turkey over the severity of its opposition to Finland and Sweden joining NATO, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took an increasingly tough line against their membership bids.
In a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the United Nations, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu offered mixed signals. He affirmed his country's support for NATO's “open-door” policy and its understanding of Finland and Sweden's desire to join the alliance following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But he also repeated Erdogan's demands that Turkey's security concerns about the candidate nations should be addressed.
“Turkey has been supporting the open-door policy of NATO even before this war," he said. "But with regard to these candidate countries, we have also legitimate security concerns that they have been supporting terrorist organisations and there are also export restrictions on defence products,” he said.
“We understand their security concerns but Turkey's security concerns should be also met and this is one issue that we should continue discussing with friends and allies, including the United States,” Cavusoglu said.
Later, speaking to Turkish journalists, Cavusoglu stepped up his criticism, accusing Sweden of not just backing groups linked to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, but also providing arms to Syrian Kurdish fighters, whom Turkey views as an extension of the militant group.
“Everyone says that Turkey's concerns must be met, but this must not just be with words, it must be implemented,” he said.
His remarks came as US officials try to determine how serious the often mercurial Erdogan is about the matter and what it might take to get him to back down. In the meantime, US officials have been essentially ignoring Erdogan's comments in their public statements.
Without acknowledging Erdogan's complaints about Finland and Sweden, Blinken stressed that Washington would work to ensure the NATO expansion process is successful.
“Today we had Finland and Sweden submit their applications and this, of course, is a process and we will work through that process as allies and partners,” Blinken said.
Underscoring the sensitivity of the delicate diplomacy required to deal with a recalcitrant ally within a 30-member alliance that depends on consensus, US officials have refused to comment on Turkey's position.
A joint statement released after Wednesday's meeting did not mention Finland or Sweden at all and made only a passing reference to NATO.
The six-sentence statement said the two men met “to reaffirm their strong cooperation as partners and NATO allies” and committed “to deepen bilateral cooperation through constructive and open dialogue.”
On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said repeatedly that "it is not for us to speak for the Turkish government” when asked about Turkey's stance.
At stake for the United States and its NATO partners is an opportunity to respond to Russia's invasion of Ukraine by strengthening and expanding the alliance — the very opposite of what President Vladimir Putin hoped to achieve in starting the war.
But Erdogan's suggestions that he could derail Sweden's and Finland's membership hopes also highlight a potential weakness that Putin has tried to exploit in the past — the unwieldy nature of the consensus-run alliance where a single member can block actions supported by the other 29.
Initially seen in Washington and other NATO capitals as an easily resolved minor distraction to the process of enlarging the alliance in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Erdogan's verbal volleys toward Finland and Sweden are attracting more concern as the two Nordic nations submitted formal applications Wednesday with the hope of joining as quickly as possible.
Even if they are overcome, objections from Turkey, which is the only one of NATO's 30 members to have raised reservations about the expansion so far, could delay Finland's and Sweden's accession to the alliance for months, particularly if other nations follow suit in seeking concessions for their votes.
Erdogan, who has grown increasingly authoritarian over the years, is known to be an unpredictable leader and there have been occasions when his words have been at clear odds with what Turkish diplomats or other senior officials in his government have said.
“I don't exclude a possible disconnect between Turkish diplomats and Erdogan. In the past there have been examples of such disconnect,” said Barcin Yinanc, a journalist and commentator on Turkish foreign policy.
For instance, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Berlin on Sunday after discussions with Turkish officials that “Turkey has made it clear that their intention is not to block membership.” Meanwhile, Blinken and other foreign ministers, including Germany's top diplomat, Annalena Baerbock, expressed absolute confidence that all NATO members, including Turkey, would welcome the two newcomers.
Yet on Monday and again on Wednesday, Erdogan surprised many by doubling down on his criticism of Finland and Sweden, accusing them of supporting Kurdish militants and others whom Turkey considers to be terrorists and of imposing restrictions on military sales to Turkey.
Gonul Tol, director of the Turkey programme at the Middle East Institute, said that while Erdogan often talks a tough line, he tends to come around in the end and do the “rational” thing.