If Turkey Blocks Sweden and Finland, Will NATO Boot Turkey?

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We have reached one of the most important moments in the seven-decade history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: just as Russia’s war on Ukraine approaches its first anniversary, Sweden and Finland are poised to join the alliance. Yet Turkey – the only one of all the members – cuts this important opportunity to bring Stockholm and Helsinki on board. It’s time to stop this exercise at an arbitrary hurdle and say “yes.” Turkey’s retreat under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a brutal war criminal, is a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In 2009, when I became NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, London was not the first capital I visited, even though the UK was a strong supporter of our collective efforts in Afghanistan, unlike the US. Despite my Greek-American heritage, I didn’t choose to go to Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid – not even Athens. The first place I went to was Ankara, Turkey. I want to recognize everything Turks did for NATO before and after the fall of the Soviet Union.

For years, the Turks have contributed troops, planes and ships to every NATO mission — Afghanistan, peacekeeping in the Balkans, counterpiracy, cybersecurity, etc. Under my leadership, they provided the combat capability for the 2011 intervention in Libya that other major allies chose to avoid. Whenever I asked for something, they stood up and delivered.

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I became good friends with Turkish Defense Chief Ilker Basbug and Foreign Minister (later Prime Minister) Ahmet Davutoglu. I met General Hulusi Akar, now Ankara’s defense minister, and toured several Turkish bases supporting NATO missions. I met the then Prime Minister Erdogan many times. He struck me as a very tough man, determined to pursue any course of action he thought was right for his country.

Turkey is taking this negative stance as the Nordic countries’ support for terrorist groups in Turkey’s Kurdish minority, especially as they refuse to hand over dozens of Kurds wanted by the government. I can understand that. The governments of the three countries should consult closely to ensure that nothing done by any member of the alliance is detrimental to the internal security of another member. But Sweden in particular has already made many concessions to Turkey in the process of enlargement.

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The biggest challenge for the alliance is not terrorism: it is Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Putin continues to shadowbox Estonia, a NATO-member with a significant ethnic-Russian population. He talks repeatedly about his “nuclear options”, wanting to intimidate Europe in general and NATO in particular.

This prompted two famously neutral countries to apply for NATO membership. Both fought against Russia for long centuries. The two stood side by side (at least technically) during the Cold War, when a brutal Soviet dictatorship threatened the free world. Now that they have chosen to abandon their neutrality, it should give some sense of how seriously they take Putin’s threat to the world order.

Sweden has a high-tech military and produces fifth-generation Saab Gripen fighters, which I am surprised to see include our operations over Libya. The Finns, a nation of only five million, could field hundreds of thousands of well-trained and fully equipped ground combat troops in a matter of weeks. We need them in our team.

At some point soon, some NATO members are going to start asking, “If it’s a choice between Sweden/Finland and Turkey, maybe we should look at our options.” That would be a mistake. Turkey has the second-largest army in NATO, important facilities including Incirlik Air Base, and NATO’s entire land-warfare command in Izmir.

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NATO needs Turkey to remain an active and positive member. To this should be added Finland and Sweden. No one likes to choose one of them. Erdoğan has a responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• NATO’s nuclear war games are a risk worth taking: James Stavridis

• Erdogan’s ego trip is undermining NATO: Andreas Kluth

• NATO should think twice before accepting Finland and Sweden: Emma Ashford

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg opinion columnist. A retired US Navy Admiral, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and Dean Emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is Vice Chairman of Global Affairs at The Carlyle Group. He is the recent author of “To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision.”

More similar articles are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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