WASHINGTON — With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan taking an increasingly tough line against the NATO membership bids of Finland and Sweden despite far less strident statements from some of his top aides, U.S. officials are trying to determine how serious the often mercurial leader is and what it might take to get him to back down.
Amid the contradictory signals from Ankara over the expected applications, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet his Turkish counterpart on Wednesday in New York in a new effort to clarify Ankara's position after previous attempts appear to have only clouded the situation.
Underscoring the sensitivity of the delicate diplomacy required to deal with a potentially recalcitrant ally, the Biden administration seems to have taken to ignoring Erdogan saying he cannot allow the two nations to join NATO due to their alleged support for groups Turkey sees as security threats. Instead, the administration is focusing on remarks made in closed-door meetings by lower-ranking Turkish officials.
"It is not for us to speak for the Turkish government," State Department spokesman Ned Price said repeatedly on Tuesday in response to multiple questions about what the U.S. understands Turkey's position to be and whether Turkey had demanded anything from the United States in return for agreeing to Finland's and Sweden's memberships.
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 move ever closer to submitting formal applications 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 Yinan, a journalist and commentator on Turkish foreign policy. She said there was a "disconnect" between Erdogan and the Foreign Ministry last year, when the Turkish leader threatened to expel 10 Western diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador, whom he accused of meddling in Turkey's judiciary.
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, 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.
"Neither country has an open, clear stance against terrorist organizations," Erdogan said. "We cannot say 'yes' to those who impose sanctions on Turkey, on joining NATO, which is a security organization."
Asked about the disparity, Price, the State Department spokesman, would say only that Blinken, after meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavuoglu and others over the weekend, "came away with the same sense of confidence that there was strong consensus for admitting Finland and Sweden into the alliance if they choose to join, and we're confident we'll be able to preserve that consensus."
Gonul Tol, director of the Turkey program 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.
"Erdogan is unpredictable. But at the same time, he's a very pragmatic actor," she said. Tol said Erdogan likes to negotiate and pushes for "maximalist demands" during the negotiations. "He ends up settling for much less than that," she said.
She noted that Erdogan's grievances with Western countries over the Kurds are not new and that strains between Turkey and the United States over military supplies are long-standing.
Having been dropped from the F-35 advanced fighter jet development program after buying a Russian air defense system, Turkey has been pressing the U.S. to sell it new F-16 fighters or at the very least refurbish its existing fleet. Discussions on both issues are taking place in Washington this week and some officials believe that while they are unrelated to the NATO enlargement question, resolutions to either could help persuade Erdogan to drop his objections.
Tol agreed and said: "This is happening at a time when he's trying to mend ties with Washington, when Turkey is involved in negotiations to convince Congress to sell F-16s to Turkey. This is a time when Erdogan is trying to burnish his image as a valuable ally. And this is a time when the invasion of Ukraine has given him an opportunity to reach out to Western capitals. So against that background it would be a very dramatic step if Turkey in fact vetoes the application of Finland and Sweden."