(CNN) — When NATO leaders meet in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on Tuesday, they will do so with two question marks hanging over a crucial summit for the alliance.
First, this is the week NATO expected to welcome Sweden as its 32nd member, following the country’s joint request with Finland shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. Finland’s application was approved earlier this year.
Secondly, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that one of the main aims of the summit was to strengthen the Alliance’s political and security ties with Ukraine, while committing to facilitate the entry of Ukraine in NATO.
But comments from the presidents of two key alliance members diverted attention from those two key issues ahead of the meeting.
This Monday morning, the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told the press that Sweden’s entry into NATO would depend on Turkey’s entry into the European Union.
“First, let’s pave the way for Turkey into the European Union, then let’s pave the way for Sweden, just as we pave the way for Finland,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan also pointed out that “Turkey has been waiting at the gates of the European Union for more than 50 years” and that “almost all NATO member countries are European member countries”.
Turkey’s membership of the European Union has been suspended since 2016, when a coup attempt failed to remove Erdogan from power. Since then, the president has clung to power through constitutional reforms that have raised concerns in the EU on legal and human rights grounds. Brussels’ official position is that Turkey would not meet the official criteria to join the bloc.
However, hours later on Monday, Stoltenberg said Turkey had agreed to support Sweden’s bid to join NATO. “I am happy to announce that following my meeting with @RTErdogan and @SwedishPM, President Erdogan has agreed to transmit Sweden’s accession protocol to the Grand National Assembly as soon as possible and to ensure its ratification. This is a historic step that makes all NATO allies stronger and more secure,” he said in a tweet after a meeting in Vilnius.
Turkey had long resisted Swedish membership in NATO. Ankara cited several reasons, including accusations that Swedish officials were complicit in Islamophobic protests, including the burning of the Koran.
More importantly, Turkey claims that Sweden allows members of known Kurdish terrorist groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to operate. Sweden changed its anti-terrorism laws earlier this year, making membership in these groups a crime.
The President of Turkey spent several years in the “corner of the punished” of the West. His relationship with Putin has been a problem for many Western allies, either because of his cooperation with Russia in Syria or because he presents himself as the key negotiator between the West and the Kremlin on Ukraine.
It has been punished with sanctions and restrictions on the military equipment Turkey can buy from NATO allies, including the United States. These two things have affected Turkey economically and geopolitically.
Sweden offers Erdogan a rare advantage. And Turkey’s president, as officials well know, is very good at using any influence to get what he wants from his Western allies.
The most cited example is the agreement reached with the European Union whereby it gave Turkey 6,000 million euros (6,580 million dollars), among other benefits, in exchange for hosting Turkey of Syrian refugees heading to Europe. Erdogan, European officials have repeatedly said, knew he was holding Brussels in a bind because he could “flood” Europe with refugees at will.
So it’s a puzzle, but not a huge surprise, that Erdogan is using a key international high to play his best hand. And for what it’s worth, the Swedish authorities remain confident that an agreement will be reached.
The second headache for NATO is US President Joe Biden’s comments, shared with CNN over the weekend, that Ukraine should not join the alliance until the war is over.
Several NATO officials told CNN on Monday that the comments were unfortunate because they allowed the conversation to move away from all the good things the alliance has done and will do for Ukraine, towards a largely irrelevant on immediate membership.
“Nobody is talking seriously about Ukraine’s membership at the moment. We are talking about charting a clear path and also about how best to help them in practice now. This is not a change of position from the United States or NATO,” an official said.
Both issues can distract from the main issues at the summit, but Western officials know that distractions that can serve to make the West appear disunited will be welcome in Russia at this time.
And that’s the real reason why the officials heading to Vilnius are so upset.
NATO, surprisingly, stuck together for most of the war and went further than most expected possible.
Both dramas, created by Erdogan and Biden, have the potential to generate headlines outside the summit that set up a false premise and could ultimately make the meeting look like a failure in some ways. And that only helps the man who watches the Kremlin from afar.
With reporting by CNN’s Sugam Pokharel.