LONDON — The defense ministers of Estonia and Lithuania appeared unworried by the prospect of Turkey holding up NATO’s eastern European defense plans over the security of its own border with Syria, portraying the standoff as a second-tier problem that would be easily sorted out.
At issue is Ankara’s refusal to sign off on updated military defense plans for the Baltics and Poland unless NATO addresses what Turkey has called a terrorist threat from YPG Kurdish militia units, which fought alongside alliance forces to curb the Islamic State group in Syria.
The issue is expected to come up as alliance leaders meet in London on Tuesday night and Wednesday. Western European NATO countries are already miffed about Turkey’s October incursion into northern Syria, and the government’s plan to purchase the Russian-made S-400 anti-missile system.
Turkey’s latest move of linking the controversial YPG question to the security of the faraway Baltics and Poland was sure to further draw their ire against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
But to Raimundas Karoblis and Jüri Luik, the defense ministers of Lithuania and Estonia, respectively, the kerfuffle over the latter issue seems almost pedestrian, based on their comments at Tuesday's NATO Engages think tank powwow in central London.
“It's only one of the topics we have at NATO,” Karoblis said during a panel discussion. “Life will continue. We'll see.”
Karoblis previously said his government seeks “more precise defense planning” capabilities, greater alliance help with air defense as well as more military exercises involving NATO partners. The batch of plans now blocked by Turkey constitutes a “revision” and an “adjustment” to contingency plans already in effect, he said.
Luik said he is “sad” to see the issue of defense plans — which exist for all countries bordering Russia — make it into the public sphere, given that documents related to the topic are highly sensitive.
“I am absolutely sure that we will find a compromise,” Luik said. “If we don’t find a compromise here, we hopefully will find it a bit later.”
From a Turkish perspective, the squabble over a defense plan is an “internal NATO matter” that leaders will address behind the scenes, said Gülnur Aybet, a senior foreign policy adviser for Erdoğan. “These negotiations happen behind closed doors all the time.”
Ben Hodges, a former head of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said Turkey’s penchant for being “spring-loaded” when it comes to resolving delicate alliance business doesn’t help. “Right now, people are mad at Turkey about a variety of things. It’s blown up,” Hodges told Defense News.
Western European governments tend to be less lenient toward a country they see sliding ever further into authoritarianism, such as Turkey under Erdoğan’s rule. But there is also a belief, as one Spanish alliance general recently put it, that there is only one thing worse than Turkey remaining in NATO: Turkey outside of NATO.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.