WASHINGTON — When Russia and Ukraine reached a deal on Friday to unblock Ukrainian grain exports, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan played the role of a benevolent statesman.
Sitting next to the UN Secretary-General in an Ottoman palace in Istanbul, Erdogan said the deal, which Turkey helped broker, would benefit “all of humanity”.
President Joe Biden’s administration welcomed the deal, which could ease a global food crisis exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the blockade of its ports. Officials have expressed skepticism about whether Russia was acting in good faith, and Russian missiles hit the Ukrainian port city of Odessa less than a day after the pact was signed. Nevertheless, a spokesman for the White House had praised Erdogan for his efforts.
But privately, Erdogan remains a source of significant irritation for officials in the Biden government.
Days before he presided over the grain deal, the Turkish autocrat reiterated a warning that he could veto NATO’s plans to admit Sweden and Finland as members in the coming months, an act that the alliance and the Biden administration are considering their work against Russia would embarrass deeply. And Congress this month raised concerns about Biden’s promise at a NATO summit in Spain last month to sell dozens of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.
On Tuesday, Erdogan traveled to Tehran, Iran, for meetings with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The images of two main US rivals with Erdogan, the leader of a NATO country, clashed with the Western narrative of a deeply isolated Iran and Russia, analysts said.
Then on Friday, a White House spokesman reiterated US concerns over Erdogan’s threats to launch a new invasion of northern Syria targeting US-backed Kurdish fighters, whom he views as terrorists.
Taken together, Erdogan’s actions – and Biden’s limited ability to contain them – underscore the Turkish leader’s unique position as a military ally that is often at odds with the agenda of his Western allies. For US officials, it’s an often wacky role.
“Erdogan is basically NATO’s Joe Manchin,” said Elizabeth Shackelford, a former Foreign Service official, referring to the conservative Democratic Senator from West Virginia who has stymied Biden’s domestic political agenda. “He’s on our team but then he does things that are so clearly not good for our team. And I just don’t see that changing.”
But Biden administration officials say writing off Erdogan entirely would be self-destructive. His nation’s position at the crossroads of East and West is strategic and allows it to be interlocutor with even more troubled neighbors – as demonstrated by the grain deal, which created a demilitarized corridor through the Black Sea for Ukraine’s agricultural exports.
A senior US official said that much of Erdogan’s problematic behavior was due to his political weakness in Turkey, where inflation has risen to nearly 80% over the past month. Hoping to divert attention from his mismanaged economy, Erdogan has turned to nationalist and demagogic statements about the threat posed by the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey, and Kurdish groups in Syria.
Major NATO initiatives, such as the proposed expansion of the 30-strong alliance to include Sweden and Finland, require unanimous approval. Biden said in May he hoped the two countries could engage “quickly” in what would be a major strategic blow to Putin.
However, Erdogan objected, complaining that both potential new members would have politically and financially supported the PKK, which the United States has classified as a terrorist organization due to its history of violent attacks. US and NATO officials feared the planned expansion could collapse with a major propaganda win for Putin, who has long worked to split the alliance.
NATO leaders breathed a sigh of relief at their summit last month when Erdogan struck a deal with leaders of Sweden and Finland, who pledged to crack down on terrorist organizations and join extradition deals with Turkey, the PKK members residing in those countries , wants to prosecute.
On Monday, Erdogan warned that he could still “freeze” NATO expansion if his demands were not met.
Biden also told Erdogan in Spain that he supports the sale of 40 US F-16 fighter jets that Turkey requested last fall, along with technology upgrades for dozens of fighters it already owns. Turkey wants those planes in part because the Trump administration canceled plans to sell advanced F-35 fighter jets to the country in 2019 after Erdogan used Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system in one of his more puzzling recent moves the US had bought warnings.
Biden denied offering the planes to buy Erdogan’s support for NATO expansion. “And with that there was nothing in return; we should just sell,” he said. “But I need congressional approval to be able to do that and I think we can get that.”
Congressional approval may not be given. And it was unclear whether Erdogan could block planned NATO expansion until he reached an agreement on the F-16 jets.
This month, the House approved an amendment to an annual military policy bill that would require Biden to confirm that any sale of the fighter jets is in the vital national interest of the United States and that Turkey will not use the jets to violate Greek airspace Aegean neighbor and NATO ally with whom Turkey is involved in a bitter territorial dispute.
MP Chris Pappas, DN.H., the sponsor of the amendment, also cited Erdogan’s purchase of the Russian missile system and his ambiguous position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Erdogan has called the invasion “unacceptable” but has not joined the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and its allies.
“Enough is enough,” said Pappas. “Turkey played on both sides of the fence in Ukraine. You were not the reliable ally we should be counting on.”
“I think the Biden administration needs to take a stronger stance,” he added.
Some of Erdogan’s harshest critics warn of an endless cycle in which the Turkish leader won concessions from the US and other NATO allies, such as new fighter jets and tougher action against Kurdish militia fighters, only to escalate his demands in the future.
“This dance around the F-16 — that’s jet fighter diplomacy, and that’s a mask of what’s really at play here,” said Mark Wallace, founder of the Turkish Democracy Project, a group dedicated to Erdogan and his turn toward authoritarianism extremely critical of it. “A good ally — let alone a good NATO ally — will not use blackmail to get what they want at key moments in Alliance history.”