Turkey, Hungary Threaten NATO Unity in Russia Standoff
As leaders from NATO nations gather in Lithuania this week, President Biden and his allies aim to send a resolute message to Russia, denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. However, their show of cohesion is undermined by the refusal of some leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, to support Sweden’s bid to join the 31-nation bloc. This discord highlights the potential for divisions within NATO that could weaken its deterrent power in the face of the standoff with Moscow. Despite the importance of these leaders as NATO allies, their objections to Sweden’s membership pose a challenge to the alliance’s shared priorities.
Navigating Internal Differences: The “Cost of Doing Business” for NATO
The issue of Sweden’s accession, pending approval from Turkish and Hungarian lawmakers, not only poses a threat to President Biden’s vision of a strong NATO but also serves as a reminder of other divisions within the alliance. These divisions include disagreements over military spending levels, the path for Ukraine’s membership, and the recent decision by the White House to provide cluster munitions to Ukraine. Alexander Vershbow, a former NATO deputy secretary general, acknowledges that managing internal differences is an inherent aspect of operating a consensus-based body like NATO. He emphasizes that the alliance has historically remained united in matters of vital importance, highlighting its resilience.
Urgency Amidst Russian Aggression: Ukraine’s Pleas for Western Support
The summit takes place against the backdrop of urgent appeals from Ukrainian leaders for additional Western weaponry, such as fighter aircraft, to counter Russian aggression and regain control of Russian-held territory. Ukraine also seeks a clearer path to NATO membership. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has reignited NATO’s sense of urgency, as member states reinforce their defenses against what they perceive as a renewed threat. While NATO itself has not directly provided arms to Ukraine, it has facilitated coordinated Western support for Kyiv.
Sweden’s Response to Russian Aggression: Abandoning Military Nonalignment
In response to Russia’s invasion, Sweden, like Finland, has abandoned its long-standing policy of military nonalignment. Sweden’s advanced military capabilities would enhance NATO’s combat power, making its membership strategically important. Turkish objections to Sweden’s membership relate to issues such as the refusal to extradite individuals considered terrorists by Ankara and concerns about protests and Quran burnings in Sweden. Although Sweden has taken steps to address Turkey’s security concerns, Turkish President Erdogan has refused to submit Sweden’s accession protocol to Turkish lawmakers. Experts suggest that Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s NATO candidacy may hinge on a potential $20 billion deal for American F-16 fighter jets, a move that has faced opposition in the United States.
The Complexity of Turkish-Russian Relations and Hungary’s Obstruction
Turkey’s relationship with Russia adds further complexity to the issue. Despite occasional conflicts, Turkey and Russia share economic ties and a history of cooperation and rivalry. Turkey’s acquisition of an advanced Russian air defense system strained its ties with the United States and resulted in sanctions. Hungary’s obstruction of Sweden’s accession is more closely tied to Prime Minister Orban’s affinity with Erdogan and Hungary’s reliance on Russia to bolster its economy. Orban’s government has also clashed with the European Union over migration policies and the rule of law. The Hungarian Foreign Minister has indicated that Hungary will not stand in the way of Sweden’s membership if Turkey’s stance changes.
Navigating Internal Challenges: A Test for NATO’s Resilience
While internal challenges and divisions over issues such as leadership transitions have surfaced in the lead-up to the Vilnius summit, diplomats and experts emphasize that NATO has overcome significant hurdles in the past. They note that France, a key NATO member, withdrew from the alliance’s military command in the 1960s, only returning in 2009. They express confidence in NATO’s ability to weather current challenges and maintain its unity.
As President Biden and NATO leaders convene in Lithuania, their efforts to project unity in the face of Russian aggression are overshadowed by disagreements over Sweden’s membership bid. The objections raised by Turkish President Erdogan and Hungarian Prime Minister Orban underscore the potential for divisions within NATO, impacting the alliance’s deterrent power. However, history has shown that NATO is capable of navigating internal challenges, and experts remain hopeful that the alliance will endure and uphold its collective goals.