Turkey, a NATO member for 70 years, is blocking the admission of Norway and Sweden. It is not the first time that the country has irritated its allies by going it alone.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains firm and refuses to give his yes to Finland and Sweden joining NATO. However, the two Scandinavian countries cannot be accepted into the military alliance without his approval; the principle of unanimity applies. Whether Erdogan can still change his mind and if so, at what price: uncertain. “Turkey is and will remain NATO’s Achilles’ heel. In the past, it has endangered the reputation and capabilities of the entire organization through political unilateralism and fatal decisions,” FDP General Secretary Bijan Djir-Sarai complained.

In 1974, NATO member Turkey invaded Cyprus

The liberal is not entirely wrong in his tirade. For several years now, the autocratically ruling Turkish head of state has repeatedly irritated his allies – both militarily and politically. Strictly speaking, as early as 1974 the government in Ankara had abandoned the maxim of no longer using force to move borders. At that time, Turkey occupied northern Cyprus and installed a compliant government there. Greece, which joined NATO together with Turkey in 1952, left the military alliance in protest against the invasion. In 1981 the country returned, but the island of Cyprus is still divided today.

A particularly delicate situation arose in 2019: At that time, Turkish troops invaded northern Syria – and occupied the Kurdish areas, which Ankara regards as a hotbed of terrorists. The blow was aimed at the Kurdish YPG fighters, who had recently helped drive out the Islamic State. The betrayal of the allies caused outrage, but from a NATO perspective there was another problem: what if the Turkish army were attacked by Syrians and one of their allies like Russia? Would that trigger the alliance case? In any case, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu publicly demanded a “clear and unequivocal” commitment to solidarity from NATO. Most member states condemned the invasion.

NATO state buys Russian weapons

In December 2019, a NATO meeting was held in London and Recep Tayyip Erdogan had traveled to the British capital in a bad mood: At that time there was a plan to increase troop levels in the Baltic States, but the Turkish President hesitated with his approval. Before he says yes, the alliance must recognize that the Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia and the Turkish-Kurdish guerrilla PKK are terrorist organizations. Ultimately, Erdogan gave in and the “London Declaration” no longer spoke of any Kurdish areas. Shortly before the summit, French President Emmanuel Maron described NATO as “brain dead” because of the increasing number of solo attempts by the Turks.

Turkey has also made controversial decisions in terms of equipment. As a NATO member, she had bought an air defense system from Russia of all places. For the military alliance, however, the device called the S-400 is the devil’s stuff par excellence. The government in Ankara actually wanted the European Samp/T air defense system or American Patriot missiles, but Washington made conditions that Turkey could not accept, Erdogan’s government said. The US, however, contradicts the claim. Then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper said with concern Turkey could “drift out of NATO orbit.” Because of the dispute over the S-400, the United States has excluded Turkey from the development program for the F-35 fighter jet.

When Turkey joined NATO in 1952, the Korean War was raging in the Far East. The North had invaded the South and the United Nations sent in US-led troops to repel the invasion. Turkey also fought in the proxy war against the troops from the communist states. Since then, Turkish soldiers have been involved in almost all UN and NATO operations: from the Yugoslav wars to Iraq and Afghanistan. But despite the long connection, many Turks are critical of the western alliance. Because both NATO and the EU are associated with double standards and idle words. According to a recent survey, every third respondent believes that Russia did not attack Ukraine without reason. There is also understanding for Putin’s assessment that NATO is a threat to Russia.

In other areas, too, Erdogan repeatedly offends with his in-between-all-chairs course: stricken domestically, he acts increasingly autocratically, he asks China for billions in loans right before a meeting with US President Joe Biden, slows down NATO defense measures Black Sea, often infringing on Greek and Cypriot territorial waters. Recently, even Greece’s sovereignty over the large east Aegean islands like Rhodes has been called into question.

What to do with the problem child Turkey?

So how can the Nato problem child be brought back to the table? While the United States is optimistic that the Turkish president will ultimately approve Finland and Sweden’s accession, Ankara continues to reject it: “We have told those responsible in NATO that we will say no to Finland and Sweden’s accession. And We will continue to do so,” Erdogan said on Thursday on state broadcaster TRT. He added: “Sweden is a real hotbed of terror.”

Experts suspect various motives behind the Turkish actions. Arms deals could also play a role. Ankara wants to buy fighter jets in the USA – but a possible deal was recently politically controversial in Washington. Others suspect domestic political motives behind Erdogan’s statements. Its poll numbers are falling. Demands for tougher action against the PKK have traditionally resonated with nationalist constituencies.

Sources: DPA and AFP news agencies, “DMKN”; “Die Zeit”, NZZ.ch, Deutsche Welle