Erdogan will ensure Putin's fears of NATO expansion are unrealized - opinion

Turkey's Erdogan is blocking Finland and Sweden from joining NATO - something that Putin is glad of.

 FROM LEFT: Finland’s Ambassador to NATO Klaus Korhonen, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Sweden’s Ambassador to NATO Axel Wernhoff attend a ceremony to mark the applications for membership of Sweden and Finland, in Brussels, last month. (photo credit: JOHANNA GERON/REUTERS)
FROM LEFT: Finland’s Ambassador to NATO Klaus Korhonen, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Sweden’s Ambassador to NATO Axel Wernhoff attend a ceremony to mark the applications for membership of Sweden and Finland, in Brussels, last month.
(photo credit: JOHANNA GERON/REUTERS)

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, no less than 14 of its one-time satellite states in Eastern Europe have joined NATO. Russian 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 km.), 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 resistance led by Ukraine President Volodymyr 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 has been real enough, and it has taken time and political will for the European Union to change direction and find alternative sources, but the process is underway.

NATO, Turkish, Swedish and Finnish flags are seen in this illustration taken May 18, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION)NATO, Turkish, Swedish and Finnish flags are seen in this illustration taken May 18, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION)

However much Russian spokespeople may dissemble and wordplay, it is patently obvious that Putin’s plans have gone disastrously awry. On February 24, when he sent the troops he had been amassing on the border into Ukraine for nearly a year, he anticipated a 3-week campaign at 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 and licking his wounds.

Finland, Sweden and NATO

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

This potential expansion of the NATO alliance is far from a foregone conclusion. NATO rules state that any extension of its membership must have the unanimous approval of all existing members. From out of the shadows stepped Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a long-time NATO member, announcing that he did not favor accepting the Swedish and Finnish applications. They are both, he asserted, guesthouses for terrorist organizations.

Turkey has repeatedly criticized western European countries, including Sweden and Finland, for tolerating organizations it deems terrorists, such as 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 has accused the 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 to include extraditing alleged Kurdish terrorists and ending support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.

His accusations are 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 wants 12 people returned from Finland and 21 from Sweden.

Moreover, Turkish media has 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 Ocalan.

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.

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, Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto has 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.” He believes it would take no more than a few weeks for Finland and Turkey to resolve issues related to Finland’s NATO application.

Inevitably, there has been 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 have said that Finland would continue its application in lockstep with Sweden.

As long as Erdogan remains adamant in his demands, Putin‘s worst fears regarding NATO’s expansion to his very doorstep will remain unrealized.

The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. Follow him: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com