WASHINGTON : As 31 leaders of NATO member states gathered in Lithuania this week, making the headlines was Türkiye and its nod to Sweden’s accession bid, clearing the way for the military bloc’s strategic objective of enlargement.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s engagements in Vilnius were also in the spotlight, particularly his talks with US counterpart Joe Biden, which Ankara has hailed as the start of a “new process” with Washington.
The meeting marked the culmination of a flurry of high-level diplomatic engagements between Türkiye and the US in the run-up to the Vilnius summit, including three phone calls between Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in five days, and Sunday’s phone call between Erdogan and Biden.
“I am cautiously optimistic that we can use the situation now to advance the US-Turkish bilateral relationship,” Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington, told Anadolu.
“I think we’re seeing some confidence-building measures in place, whether it’s Sweden joining the alliance or the US selling F-16s to Türkiye. I think these are positive developments.”
Coffey said Sweden had addressed the “legitimate grievances and concerns that the Turkish government had over the role of the PKK (terror group)” inside the country.
“I feel like this offers an opportunity for another new start,” he added.
Jeffrey Mankoff, senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes that President Erdogan “probably secured as much as he was going to be able to get.”
“President Erdogan held out until the last moment trying to remove as many concessions, both from Sweden when it comes to targeting activity of PKK and related groups in Sweden, and from the US and other members, around things like arms sales and sanctions and embargoes,” he told Anadolu.
A desire to improve relations with NATO and Western powers more broadly beyond the war in Ukraine have also played a role, he added.
Ukraine’s NATO dream
The communique released on the first day of the Vilnius meeting summarized Ukraine’s current status as it seeks to follow Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold.
The document asserted that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” but added the caveat that the alliance will only extend a formal invite when “allies agree and conditions are met.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy blasted NATO for the mixed signals, saying the lack of a definite timetable was “absurd” and indicates “there is no readiness either to invite Ukraine to NATO or to make it a member.”
According to Coffey, NATO members have “very little appetite … to bring in a country into the alliance that is already at war with another country.”
For Coffey, the most important aspect of the communique was “getting rid of the Membership Action Plan process.”
“This was a burdensome requirement that wasn’t relevant to Ukraine. And for so long, countries in NATO refused to get rid of this process. And it’s great that for Ukraine, it’s no longer applicable,” he said.
The US has also said that Kyiv is not ready to be a NATO member, with Biden conveying as much in an interview last weekend.
On the other hand, at a news conference with Zelenskyy in Istanbul last Friday, President Erdogan stressed that Ukraine “deserves NATO membership.”
This, according to Coffey, is “a continuation of Türkiye’s longstanding policy of supporting NATO enlargement.”
“Türkiye has been one of the most vocal supporters of NATO enlargement, whether it was (North) Macedonia, whether it’s for Georgia, for Ukraine, and it’s a great example of Türkiye’s leadership role inside the alliance,” he said.
In Mankoff’s view, NATO states have the “reasonable” belief that bringing in Ukraine would make the bloc and its members “parties to the current conflict.”
He also agreed about the significance of removing the Membership Action Plan process, but said the overall outcomes fell “short of what supporters of Ukraine’s NATO integration were hoping for.”
“I think the declaration reflects the fact that there’s not a consensus within NATO about either the timing or the mechanism for Ukraine’s membership,” he said.
“There is a consensus that Ukraine should be a member, which in principle has existed since 2008. But there hasn’t been consensus on how do you get there. And I think that that’s still true today.”
‘Terrible outcome for Russia’
Russian President Vladimir Putin has long complained about NATO expansion, even citing it as the reason for Moscow’s war on Ukraine.
As Finland became NATO’s 31st member in April and Sweden inches closer to its goal, many argue that Russia’s attempts to thwart the alliance’s expansion backfired.
In Mankoff’s assessment, the current situation shows that “Russia’s war in Ukraine was a huge strategic failure.”
He said the question of NATO expansion “lay under both this war and the broader hostility that’s emerged between Russia and the West over the last three decades.”
“However this war ends, Russia is going to be in a much more disadvantageous position vis-a-vis NATO.”
Coffey also pointed out that Ukraine was “nowhere close” to becoming a NATO member when the war began in February last year.
“So this has become a terrible outcome for Russia, if in fact they were serious about stopping NATO enlargement,” he said. — AA