Erdogan Cautions NATO Against Being Dragged Into War in Ukraine

(Bloomberg) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday cautioned NATO allies ahead of a leaders’ summit against taking steps that could drag the alliance into war in Ukraine against invading Russian forces.

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“While designing the steps to be taken to support Ukraine, we also maintain our principled stance not to make NATO a party to the war,” Erdogan said at the airport in Ankara before flying to Washington to join NATO leaders at a summit meeting.

Erdogan’s warning reflects growing concerns in the Turkish capital over plans by allies to ramp up supply of weapons including F-16 warplanes and missile-defense systems to Ukraine and deploy army trainers in the country against invading Russian forces. Turkey, which is working to improve military relations with the US even while maintaining ties with Russia, acknowledges that Ukraine needs military aid to defend itself but fears that Moscow could use the increased military aid to Ukraine by the allies as a pretext to directly blame NATO of fueling the war.

“Turkey’s commitment and support to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence is known to everyone,” Erdogan said referring to Turkey’s supply of armed TB2 drones as well as NATO-standard 155mm caliber ammunition for Ukraine.

Erdogan’s message risks undercutting efforts by NATO allies to project unity over support for Ukraine at the Washington summit, which opens Tuesday, even as many leaders are distracted by domestic issues in their own capitals. NATO allies will pledge continuing support for Ukraine, but plans to secure long-term aid for Kyiv have stalled.

At the same time, Erdogan urged allies to lift defense trade restrictions on his country.

“The implementation of the decisions we took in Vilnius regarding the fight against terrorism and the removal of obstacles to defense industry trade between the allies is important,” to strengthen the “solidarity and spirit of unity” of the alliance, Erdogan said.

Turkey, which has the second-largest army in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after the US, has complained for years about western partners including the US, Canada, U.K., Germany and France refusing to provide missile-defense systems as well as critical equipment such as engines for tanks, warplanes, drones and helicopters developed by Turkish companies.

Most of those countries have expressed concerns that the equipment might bolster Turkish military offensives against autonomy-seeking Kurdish militants at home, as well as in Syria and Iraq.

“We will follow up on the decisions we made in Vilnius last year,” Erdogan said referring to the communique issued following last year’s NATO summit in which member states said they would “reduce and eliminate, as appropriate, obstacles to defense trade and investment among allies.”

Turkey is currently sanctioned by the US over its acquisition of the advanced Russian S-400 missile-defense system, which NATO members worry might be used to gather intelligence on Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 stealth jet.

Turkey was barred from working on and receiving the F-35 after it decided to purchase the Russian system. It has refused to jettison the S-400 battery it acquired in 2019. The US, however, agreed to sell it F-16 jets following Ankara’s approval of NATO’s Swedish expansion.

“There should be no sanctions, obstacles, restrictions by allies on other allies,” Basat Ozturk, the director general for international security affairs at the Turkish foreign ministry, told a recent panel held by the Atlantic Council in Turkey. “We are expecting our allies to respect our security concerns and to act accordingly so that we can in Washington create a genuine unity.”

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