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Diplomacy Watch: Sweden gets NATO, Turkey gets F-16s?

Diplomacy Watch: Sweden gets NATO, Turkey gets F-16s?

The Biden administration did some horse-trading to get a win at the summit in Vilnius, but obstacles remain.


In a sudden turn, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Monday that he would support Sweden’s bid to join NATO, clearing the path for Stockholm to become the alliance’s 32nd member as soon as this year.

President Joe Biden, usually wary of appearing close to Erdogan giving his autocratic tendencies, had nothing but praise for the Turkish leader. “I want to thank you for your diplomacy and your courage to take that on,” Biden said in a joint press availability at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. “And I want to thank you for your leadership.”

Shortly after Erdogan’s announcement, the Biden administration said the U.S. will move forward with plans to sell $20 billion worth of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, apparently fulfilling one of Ankara’s key demands for unblocking Stockholm’s bid. 

The decisions came after a weekend of whirlwind talks between U.S. and Turkish officials, including three calls between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan. The timing — less than two months after Erdogan won reelection in his closest campaign to date — lends credence to the argument that Turkish opposition to Sweden’s entry was, at least in part, for domestic consumption.

But there is reason to believe this saga is not over yet. As Amberin Zaman noted in Al-Monitor, Turkey’s parliament will likely not vote on Swedish accession to NATO until October since the legislative body goes into a long recess after next week. That leaves more than two months for Erdogan to renege on his promise or seek further concessions from the U.S. and other NATO members.

And another hurdle looms on the other side of the Atlantic. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the outspoken chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been pushing to block the F-16 sale over concerns about Turkish human rights violations and aggression toward Greece, a fellow NATO ally. And Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Menendez’s Republican counterpart on the committee, said Turkey’s about-face on Sweden only means it’s “time to talk about the F-16s,” suggesting that further discussions — and concessions — could be required.

The Biden team has signaled that it takes these concerns seriously. “Sen. Menendez has an important voice in this,” said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s top foreign policy aide. “We will continue to stay in close touch with him.”

But those comments could be more about projecting party unity than any actual worry about Menendez blocking a sale. In practice, individual members of Congress have almost no way to stop the president from selling weapons to a foreign country, according to Jordan Cohen of the Cato Institute.

“Menendez does not have the power to stop a sale by himself,” Cohen wrote on Twitter. “There are only three ways for Congress to stop a sale and they all require presidential buy-in.”

Two of those require a veto-proof majority, meaning that fully two-thirds of lawmakers in each chamber would have to vote against the deal. The third option is an informal hold that presidents can ignore at will, as former President Donald Trump did when he forced through a weapons sale to Saudi Arabia in 2018.

In other words, Biden is most likely held up in this case by concerns about publicly siding with Erdogan — a leader who many in the U.S. consider an authoritarian — at the expense of the administration’s friends at home. The resulting question is clear: Is Swedish accession to NATO worth the bad press?

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— At this week’s NATO summit, allies announced a series of new security guarantees for Ukraine, including promises to continue providing the country with military assistance in the long term, according to the Washington Post. Ukraine’s other big victory was the establishment of a Ukraine-NATO Council that further strengthens Kyiv’s relationship with the alliance. 

— But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not get the prize he had most hoped for before the summit: a specific timeline for Ukraine’s NATO accession. News that such a promise was unlikely caused Zelensky to lash out on Twitter, saying that NATO’s foot-dragging was further “motivation for Russia to continue its terror.” The United States and Germany reportedly remain opposed to Ukraine joining NATO while the war is still raging — a practical position given that the core of the alliance is mutual defense and its members have shown no desire to directly join the fight against Russia. And, according to the Washington Post, these more cautious members were less than thrilled with Zelensky’s Twitter tirade. The U.S. delegation was reportedly “furious” and considered removing an open-ended invitation for Kyiv to join NATO from the summit’s final communique. Though it’s unclear exactly what happened behind closed doors in Vilnius, Zelensky changed his tone by the end of the summit, calling the decision to waive certain membership requirements a “meaningful success for Ukraine.”

— France announced that it will send Ukraine long-range missiles, reigniting a debate over whether the U.S. should send similar weapons to help Kyiv hit targets deep behind the frontlines, according to the New York Times. The Times says some in the administration want to send at least a few ATACMS in a show of support for Ukraine, but others worry that such a move would raise the risk of escalation to a direct Russia-NATO war while drawing down America’s relatively small stockpiles of the long-range missiles.

— Czech President Petr Pavel said Tuesday that “whatever is achieved by the end of this year will be the baseline for negotiation” between Ukraine and Russia, according to the New York Times. Pavel added that, by next year, he expects a “decline of willingness to massively support Ukraine with more weapons,” which could force Kyiv to the negotiating table.

— The Biden administration faced blowback from allies for its decision to transfer cluster munitions to Ukraine, according to Voice of America. Canada, Spain, Britain, and Germany — all of which have signed onto a treaty banning the controversial weapons — opposed the move. “No to cluster bombs and yes to the legitimate defense of Ukraine, which we understand should not be carried out with cluster bombs,” argued the Spanish government in a statement.

— The United Nations has offered to reconnect a Russian agricultural bank to the SWIFT international payment system if the Kremlin agrees to extend the Black Sea grain deal, which has allowed Ukraine to export agricultural products by ship despite the war, according to Reuters. The pitch comes as part of a last-ditch effort to save the deal, which is currently set to expire on Monday. If the agreement falls through, insurers may not be willing to indemnify cargo ships traveling through the Black Sea, which would cripple Ukrainian grain exports and further drive up the cost of food worldwide.

U.S. State Department news:

In a Monday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller defended Biden’s decision to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions. “We were faced with the decision of either allowing Ukraine to run low or potentially run out of ammunition [...] leaving the Ukrainians without the ability to defend themselves against those [Russian] munitions versus providing them these munitions with some very serious assurances that we got from the Ukrainians,” Miller said.

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