Türkiye’s diplomatic activism and Vilnius summit
Türkiye gained the world’s attention yet again – this time, due to its diplomatic activism. Ten days before the grain deal’s expiry, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hosted his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in Istanbul. At the same time, diplomats and journalists continue to wonder whether Türkiye will approve Sweden’s NATO membership application ahead of the Vilnius Summit on July 11-12, 2023. Furthermore, Erdoğan is scheduled to visit the Gulf states on July 17-19 and host Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi on July 27.
One of the main reasons behind Türkiye’s diplomatic activism is certainly the Turkish leader’s emphasis on foreign policy after his election victory. It is no secret that the country emerged as a mediator in the Ukraine war by brokering the grain deal and a prisoner exchange – a major diplomatic achievement.
Nowadays, the relevant parties are looking for a way to extend the grain deal for the fourth time. Yet, Erdoğan’s meeting with Zelenskyy also reflected Türkiye’s efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine war. Having delivered new weapons to Kyiv, Washington does not mind weakening Moscow with a war of attrition. Meanwhile, European governments are in no position to launch any diplomatic initiatives within the context of the Ukraine crisis. Keeping in mind that Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive did not yield results, there is reason to believe that the Turkish president’s meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart focused on the future of the conflict – in addition to extending the grain deal and the situation in Zaporizhzhia.
NATO’s new defense plans and Swedish membership will be on the agenda of the Vilnius Summit. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has been working hard to get Ankara to sign off on Sweden’s admission. Judging by Erdoğan’s address at the National Defense University, where he asked Stockholm to keep the promises it made at the Madrid Summit, the diplomatic talks have not yielded results. Recalling that hardly any NATO ally had contributed to the alliance as much as Türkiye, Erdoğan reiterated his country’s commitment to NATO’s open-door policy with reference to Finland’s admission. He added that “terrorism cannot coexist with democracy and humanity” and argued that Sweden’s commitment to fighting terrorism, one of NATO’s core values, with the following questions: “How can we trust a country where terrorists roam the streets freely? How could a country, which doesn’t distance itself from terrorist organizations, contribute to NATO? How would anyone fight the alliance’s adversaries without cracking down on terrorism?”
Erdoğan’s remarks suggest that Ankara, dissatisfied with the legal amendments of the Swedish parliament, would like to see concrete action. To be clear, it is not possible to counter the Turkish president’s demands from Sweden as a potential ally by accusing him of blackmail in the Western media. Indeed, the Turkish people support their government in asking Sweden, which recently permitted PKK demonstrations and Quran burnings, to keep its promises vis-à-vis counterterrorism.
Today, Stoltenberg is holding a critical discussion with Erdoğan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. It remains unlikely – yet not impossible – that he will manage to persuade Ankara. Obviously, claiming that “Sweden has done everything in its power already” and arguing that “the sale of F-16 fighter jets would be impossible” without Sweden’s admission will not help anyone get there.
The Swedish government must prove that it wants to join NATO by addressing Ankara’s security concerns. It also needs to signal that it will continue to take relevant steps upon joining the alliance. NATO membership requires the termination of meaningless embargoes and addressing Türkiye’s defensive needs. Any positive steps on those fronts might end the crisis at the Vilnius Summit. Going forward, Türkiye’s diplomatic activism will also focus on completing the policy of normalization and promoting economic and defense partnerships regionally.