Aiming to secure support for Sweden’s bid to join NATO, U.S. President Joe Biden signaled a transactional approach in his engagement with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The newly reelected Turkish leader has been one of the most consequential yet complicated members of the transatlantic military alliance.
Biden spoke with Erdogan on Monday to congratulate him on winning his third presidential term and said the two had discussed the issue of Sweden’s NATO accession and Turkey’s request to overhaul and expand its fleet of American-made F-16 fighter jets.
“He still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden, so let’s get that done. And so, we’ll be back in touch with one another,” Biden said, adding that they will talk more about it “next week.”
This is the first time Biden has linked the two issues together. Neither the White House nor the Turkish government mentioned the potential F-16 sale in their readout of the call.
U.S. administration officials have repeatedly rejected suggestions of a quid pro quo between the transatlantic military alliance’s expansion and a weapons sale.
“That’s not a condition,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated during her press briefing Tuesday. “President Biden has long been clear that he supports selling F-16s.”
On Tuesday, during a joint news conference with Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Lulea, Sweden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that both issues “should go forward as quickly as possible.”
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership in May 2022. The bids, which must be approved by all NATO members, were held up by objections from Turkey and Hungary though Finland’s bid was finally approved in April.
Ankara has long sought to purchase 40 F-16 fighter jets made by U.S. company Lockheed Martin and nearly 80 modernization kits for its air force’s existing warplanes — a $20 billion transaction.
The F-16 jets make up the bulk of Turkey’s combat aircraft after the Trump administration in 2019 expelled Ankara from the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet program over its decision to acquire Russian-made S-400 air defense systems.
The U.S. Congress, which has authority to block major weapons sales, objects to F-16 sales for reasons beyond NATO enlargement. It wants Ankara to ease tensions with Greece, refrain from invading northern Syria and enforce sanctions against Russia for its war on Ukraine.
In April, about two weeks after Turkey ratified its support for Finland joining NATO, Washington approved a $259 million sale of avionics software upgrades for Ankara’s current fleet of F-16 fighter aircraft. But Sweden’s bid is still held up because Ankara believes that Stockholm is harboring “terrorists” — militants from the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984.
Swedish lawmakers have passed legislation tightening the country’s anti-terrorism laws, a move expected to help persuade Turkey. U.S. and Swedish officials have expressed hope that Sweden’s membership will be confirmed by the time NATO leaders meet in Vilnius, Lithuania, in mid-July.
While Erdogan is likely to leverage his support for Sweden, he is also a pragmatist, said Asli Aydintaşbaş, a Turkish journalist and visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings.
“What we are going to see is a bit of a last-minute drama heading up to the Vilnius summit,” Aydıntaşbaş told VOA. “At the end, it’s possible that this will be resolved on the night of the summit.”
F-16s aside, U.S.-Turkish ties will remain fraught, said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, who now chairs the Middle East program at the Wilson Center.
“It’s a complicated, transactional relationship,” Jeffrey told VOA. “It’s never 100% on our side. We’re hoping it won’t be more than 50% away from us, but a lot depends on the personal relationship between Biden and Erdogan. It’s been frosty; the call is a good first step.”
Solid ties with Ankara will be “dramatically strategic in terms of containing Russia,” as well as containing Iran and terrorist movements in the region — all key goals for Washington, Jeffrey added.
However, Erdogan’s friendly ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin while NATO helps Ukraine to fend off a Russian invasion have made Western officials uneasy.
“We are not bound by the West’s sanctions,” Erdogan said in a CNN interview earlier this month. “We are a strong state, and we have a positive relationship with Russia.”
Ankara has calibrated its response to the war in Ukraine consistent with its own strategic interests, condemning the invasion and restricting Russian warships and military flights across its territory while refusing to join Western sanctions on Russia and expanding its trade ties with Moscow.
At the same time Erdogan has maintained good ties with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. His government has provided aid and drones to Ukraine and was instrumental in the U.N.-backed deal allowing Ukrainian grain ships access to global markets via the Black Sea.
The Turkish decision to acquire S-400 air defense systems remains the thorniest issue for the U.S., said Howard Eissenstat, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
“That one’s going to be really difficult to solve,” he told VOA.
Washington insists it won’t allow Ankara back into its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program until Ankara abandons the Russian-made weapons. Earlier this month, Turkish media reported that Ankara rejected the Biden administration’s request for Turkey to send its S-400 air defense systems to Ukraine.
Next week, Biden will host British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. The leaders are expected to discuss the issue of NATO enlargement, including how to get Ankara on board.
“Those are good interlocutors for the president,” Jeffrey said. “Those are people who understand the geostrategic situation in Europe.”
Anita Powell contributed to this report.