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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a ceremony at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey on May 16.Burhan Ozbilici/The Associated Press

NATO is facing a peculiar and unexpected assault – not from Russia’s Vladimir Putin but from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On Monday, Mr. Erdogan reiterated his stand that Turkey would not approve Sweden’s and Finland’s admission to NATO – a momentous expansion of the military alliance triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We will not say yes to those [countries] that apply sanctions to Turkey to join the security organization NATO,” he said, adding that Finnish and Swedish diplomats “shouldn’t bother” visiting Ankara this week to convince him to change his mind.

At the same time, Mr. Putin signalled that he is resigned to Sweden and Finland joining NATO even though Finland shares a 1,340-kilometre border with Russia. He had long opposed any expansion of NATO, especially Ukraine’s attempt to join it. “As to the enlargement, Russia has no problem with these states – none,” he told the leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organization of several former Soviet states, including Belarus and Kazakhstan, on Monday.

But he warned that adding NATO infrastructure such as military bases or nuclear missiles in those countries “would certainly provoke our response.”

As for Mr. Erdogan, security analysts do not think he is serious about rejecting the applications of Sweden and Finland, which recently confirmed their intention to join NATO. Their applications are expected to be approved at the alliance’s summit in Madrid at the end of June, though the parliaments of all 30 member countries would have to ratify the decision, a process that could take several months (four months has been the shortest period between an application and full membership).

In an interview, Christopher Skaluba, director of the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative, said Mr. Erdogan is almost certainly using his veto threat to seek concessions and draw attention to Turkey’s role in NATO. “It’s a negotiation,” he said. “Turkey wants everyone to know that they matter a lot.”

Mr. Skaluba noted that the Swedes and especially the Finns are “very careful negotiators” and have probably already secured back-channel assurances from the Turks and other possible naysayers, including Hungary.

Ankara hinted as much Saturday, when Ibrahim Kalin, Mr. Erdogan’s spokesman and policy adviser, said, “We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security.”

He was referring to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, Canada and the European Union. Mr. Kalin said the PKK was recruiting and raising funds in Europe and that its presence was particularly “strong and open and acknowledged” in Sweden.

“What needs to be done is clear: They have to stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organizations and individuals and other types of presence to … exist in those countries,” he said.

Turkey has also accused Sweden and Finland of harbouring followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who lives in the U.S. and whom Turkey blames for organizing a coup attempt against Mr. Erdogan in 2016.

What assurances, if any, Sweden and Finland would give to Turkey about their relationship with the PKK or Gulen followers is not known. What is known is that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity rises whenever he directs his ire against those two groups. “These issues are a winner for Erdogan and they play well with his base,” Mr. Skaluba said. “Maybe he is raising them for the Turkish election.”

Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for June, 2023. The country’s grave economic problems, including a youth unemployment rate of 21 per cent and an inflation rate last measured at a crushing 70 per cent, have dented Mr. Erdogan’s approval ratings. He is anxious to reverse the decline before he goes to the polls.

Turkey and NATO have had a difficult relationship in recent years, and analysts say Mr. Erdogan’s threat to stop NATO’s expansion in the Nordic countries will strain the relationship even further.

In a note published Tuesday, Timothy Ash, emerging markets strategist at London’s BlueBay Asset Management, said Turkey is doing itself no favours with that threat.

“Other NATO members will be furious with Turkey, given the now clear and present danger presented by Putin in Ukraine,” he said. “Turkey will be seen as an unreliable partner. This will leave even more bad blood/faith between the two sides – gone will be any remnants of a Turkish EU ascension bid” (Turkey has been trying to join the EU since 1987).

Turkey’s relationship with NATO member states soured in 2019 when it purchased Russia’s S-400 long-range, anti-aircraft missile system as part of an attempted rapprochement with Moscow. That sparked a diplomatic crisis with the U.S., by far the most powerful member of NATO, which retaliated by blocking the sale of U.S.-built F-35 combat jets to Turkey.

While it seems unlikely that F-35 ban will be reversed quickly, even if Turkey does approve the NATO expansion, Mr. Erdogan could put pressure on Washington to sell Turkey more F-16 fighter jets to upgrade its existing fleet. U.S. President Joe Biden has already asked Congress to approve the sale, which would include Sidewinder missiles for the aircraft – a deal potentially worth US$6-billion. “F-16s are back on the table,” Mr. Skaluba said.

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