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Putin, Erdogan and the expansion of NATO

Putin Erdogan and the expansion of NATO, Putin, Erdogan and the expansion of NATO, Middle East Politics & Culture Journal

   Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, no less than fourteen of its one-time satellite states in eastern Europe have joined NATO.  Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has watched the NATO boundary advance inexorably toward his western border with increasing concern.  In particular Latvia and Estonia now stand nose-to-nose with Russia, since each shares a land border with it.  As for Belarus and Ukraine, Putin has been determined that neither would ever enter the NATO camp, since that would bring NATO right into the heart of Mother Russia.  At least, Putin has consoled himself, up in the far north Finland, with its long land border with Russia (1,340 kilometers or 830 miles) is neutral and has always steered clear of NATO membership.

The failure of the West in general, and NATO in particular, to react decisively to Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 must have led him to regard the West as disunited and ineffective.  He had done his best, moreover, to ensure that Western Europe had grown very largely dependent on Russia for its energy needs, putting Putin in a dominant negotiating position.  A swift land grab of Ukraine, he must have calculated, would not only halt NATO’s advance in its tracks, but probably evoke as little adverse reaction as his Crimea adventure had done.

Putin has been proved wrong on each of these assumptions.  His invasion of Ukraine brought about an instant and universal adverse reaction.  The valiant fight-back led by its President Zelensky evoked admiration in the West, and a determination to support him.  Support may have been hesitant at first, but unlike in 2014 the West has finally demonstrated determination of purpose.  As for Europe’s overwhelming dependence on Russian energy, that had been real enough, and it has taken time and political will for the EU to change direction and find alternative sources, but the process is under way.

However much Russian spokespeople may dissemble and word play, it is patently obvious that Putin’s plans have gone disastrously awry.  When on February 24, 2022 he sent in the troops he had been amassing for nearly a year on the Ukrainian border, he anticipated a 3-week campaign at the most, and a swift and decisive victory.  He most certainly did not expect to find himself in June bogged down in the middle of a still-independent Ukraine, licking his wounds.

The most surprising of all Putin’s miscalculations, perhaps, concerns Finland and Sweden. Long unwilling to ally themselves to NATO, the raw aggression displayed by Putin in invading Ukraine proved a catalyst, leading them to agree jointly on May 15, 2022 to apply for membership.  The time had come to confront the ruthless and power-hungry dictator on their doorstep before it was too late.

This expansion of the NATO alliance is now a foregone conclusion, but it hung in the balance for a few critical weeks.  NATO rules state that any extension of its membership must have the unanimous approval of all existing members.  From out of the shadows stepped President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a long-time NATO member, announcing that he did not favor accepting the Swedish and Finnish applications. They were both, he asserted, “guesthouses for terrorist organizations”.

Turkey has repeatedly criticized western European countries, including Sweden and Finland, for tolerating organizations it deems “terrorists”, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as well as the followers of the US-based Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan accuses followers of Gulen of mounting a coup attempt against the Turkish government in 2016.

At a press conference on May 16 Erdogan made two demands: that Finland and Sweden end their support for the PKK, and that their ban on arms exports, imposed in October 2019 after the Turkish incursion into northern Syria, be lifted.  Two days later he extended his wish list, including extraditing alleged Kurdish terrorists and ending support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.

His accusations were not a new device, dreamed up for the occasion.  Lists of alleged PKK members and Gulen supporters were presented to Sweden and Finland as far back as 2017, with a demand for their extradition. Turkey wanted 12 people returned from Finland and 21 from Sweden. Moreover Turkish media revealed that the Syrian branch of the PKK held meetings in Stockholm, part-hosted by the Swedish foreign office. Turkey also says that Swedish security forces did nothing to prevent a PKK protest held in 2019 in support of the jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan.

On June 9 Erdogan said: “Sweden at the moment is a country that terror organizations like the PKK, PYD and YPG use as a playground. In fact, there are terrorists even in this country’s parliament.”

He was referring to the leading Swedish politician Amineh Kakabaveh, who grew up in a poor Kurdish home in western Iran.  She says she was just 13 in the late 1980s when she joined Peshmerga fighters rebelling against the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Putin Erdogan and the expansion of NATO, Putin, Erdogan and the expansion of NATO, Middle East Politics & Culture Journal

A strong advocate for Kurdish self-determination in the Middle East and a fierce critic of Erdogan, she is in an extraordinarily powerful position because the Swedish government depends on her vote for its one-seat majority in Parliament.  Kakabaveh’s backing allowed Social Democratic leader Magdalena Andersson to become Sweden’s first female prime minister last year.  In return, the center-left Social Democrats agreed to deepen cooperation with Kurdish authorities in northern Syria.  Erdogan makes no distinction between the Kurdish groups in Syria and the PKK.

As for Finland, its foreign minister Pekka Haavisto assured Turkey that the PKK connections in the country will be monitored more closely.  “We can certainly give such guarantees to Turkey, since the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization in Europe.”

Inevitably, there was speculation that Finland might disengage from its joint application with Sweden to join NATO.  Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, and its prime minister, Sanna Marin, hastened to quash it.  Both said that Finland would continue its application in lockstep with Sweden.

In face of such solidarity, and in light of the assurances given by both countries, Erdogan gave way.  On June 28 NATO announced the imminent accession to the organization of Sweden and Finland.