(CNN) — Hopes of Sweden’s imminent accession to the NATO security alliance began to fade on Monday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised a last-minute hurdle by attaching his approval to the Nordic country’s candidacy for Turkey’s long-awaited accession to the European Union.
But hours later, he withdrew his opposition and took a surprise turn, paving the way for NATO to expand its stronghold against a belligerent Russia as Moscow waged war in Ukraine.
The move, which drew praise from the West and criticism from Moscow, marked a turning point in the Ukraine war for Turkey’s role on the international stage. Erdogan remains relevant by being close to Russia, emphasizing his commitment to NATO, and seeking maximum concessions from each side.
Its delicate balancing act has given Turkey the unique position of being the only NATO country to have relations with Russia.
But in his third and final decade in power, analysts say the Turkish strongman may be on a more conciliatory path with the West.
“By supporting Sweden’s NATO initiative, Ankara is signaling a realignment of relations with the West, which have been strained for some time,” said Memet Celik, editorial coordinator of the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper. “In a sense, this is a balancing act for Turkey’s position between the West and Russia.”
The apparent turnaround is already reaping its rewards.
In Vilnius, Lithuania, where a NATO summit began on Monday, US President Joe Biden and other members of the intergovernmental military alliance hailed the alliance’s unprecedented unity in the face of Russian aggression and praised Erdogan for his decision.
Hours after the announcement, Washington said it wanted to go ahead with the replacement of F-16 fighter jets that Turkey has been demanding for years, ending months of behind-the-scenes diplomacy to push Ankara toward Sweden’s NATO membership. .
During a meeting in Vilnius on Tuesday, Erdogan called Biden a “dear friend.” He said it was “time” for the leaders of Turkey and the US to “meet for further consultations”, adding that Tuesday’s meeting was a “first step” and previous ones were “just warm-ups”.
Erdogan has yet to visit the White House under a Biden presidency.
Rich Outzen, a nonresident research fellow at the Atlantic Council, told CNN that the F-16 deal is a “huge advantage” for Turkey.
“In a broader sense, Russia’s unjustified war against Ukraine reminded the West of the importance of geography, military power and alliance obligations, and therefore the value of Turkey,” he said.
He added that there was little doubt that Turkey would eventually accept the Swedish initiative. The hard part is knowing how far Erdogan’s demands will go.
“Ankara has long supported NATO expansion…to strengthen its own position,” he said. “Veto power over the affairs of the world’s largest security alliance, which is now expanding further, is a win for Ankara.”
Russia’s reaction was blunt. A Russian defense official said Turkey was becoming an “unfriendly country” after a series of “provocative” decisions.
“Such behavior cannot be described as anything other than backstabbing,” said Viktor Bondarev, head of the Russian Federation Council’s Security and Defense Committee, adding that the “unfriendly move” was the result of NATO pressure.
He said such “provocative” decisions included returning Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russia to Turkey, despite Moscow’s assurances that it would not do so until after the war. The commanders, who were handed over to Turkey by Russia in September, returned with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after a meeting with Erdogan earlier this month. They have said that they are planning to return to the protest field.
Russia’s “military reputation tarnished”
Just weeks after Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, tried to stage a coup in Russia, cracks have appeared in Moscow’s military leadership and Putin’s grip on power.
Outzen says Russia’s “low military reputation” is good for Turkey, adding that the rebellion may have affected Ankara’s perception of Putin as a leader who is in full control of his country’s political and military elites.
Since Erdogan was re-elected for another five years, there has been a change in the way Turkey calibrates its balancing act, and has turned openly “pro-Ukraine,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and head of the reflexive EDAM group, based in Istanbul.
“Turkey now feels more secure and believes there is more room for maneuver because Russia is isolated and needs Turkey to be the only NATO country that does not impose sanctions on it,” he added.
Analysts say the calculation may reflect Erdogan’s pragmatic style rather than a change in policy.
“Relations with Russia are a good example. They disagree on many things, but when their interests align, they can move forward,” Selig said. “The West doesn’t have that relationship with Turkey, and I think it’s a missed opportunity.”
“Turkey is close to the Western axis, but the West is unwilling to accept an equal partnership with Turkey, which raises the bar for Ankara to protect its interests,” he added.
Despite Erdogan’s overhaul, relations with Russia are unlikely to be significantly affected, analysts say. However, Turkey will be relevant to Russia and the West.
“Due to its proximity, power and ties to Kyiv and Moscow, Turkey will be an important partner in resolving the conflict and in any peace agreement that eventually emerges,” Outzen said.
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