Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to block a Nato plan for the defence of Baltic nations against Russia while US president Donald Trump branded his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron “disrespectful” hours before the 70th birthday summit of the military alliance near London.
The barbs will stoke nerves that a carefully managed meeting intended to underscore Nato’s continued relevance and resolve will instead highlight growing faultlines over funding, co-ordination and military priorities.
Speaking in Ankara before flying to the UK, Mr Erdogan said he demanded the 29-member group agree to recognise the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which has helped the US-led coalition fight Isis, as a terrorist group.
“If our friends will not recognise those who we see as terrorists as a terrorist group, we will be against every [other] kind of step,” Mr Erdogan said. “We want support for our country in the fight against terrorism without ‘ifs and buts’.”
Mr Erdogan said on Tuesday that he had spoken to Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, by phone the previous day and agreed to meet him and other Baltic leaders in London. But, with Washington making clear that it would not cede to Turkey’s demands, it remained unclear how member states would break the impasse.
Mark Esper, US defence secretary, said Washington would not give in to Turkey’s demands to apply a terrorist label to the YPG militia, which was trained and equipped by the Pentagon in order to spearhead the fight against Isis jihadis in Syria.
Ankara sees the group as a grave threat to national security due to its close links to a Kurdish militia that has waged an on-off insurgency on Turkish soil for the past 35 years in a conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
Mr Esper warned Ankara that “not everybody sees the threats that they see” and said the US was unwilling to cede to Turkey’s demands.
“The message to Turkey . . . is we need to move forward on these response plans and it can’t be held up by their own particular concerns,” he said in an interview with Reuters.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, launched a pre-summit broadside against Mr Macron, branding the French leader’s comments last month that Nato was suffering “brain death” “nasty” and “very insulting”. Mr Macron risked further splits in Nato last week when he said its main adversary was terrorism, rather than Russia or China.
Mr Trump — who has in the past flayed European allies for failing to spend more on their militaries and who once branded Nato “obsolete” on the presidential campaign trail — said the alliance served “a great purpose”.
He said he saw potential for France “breaking off” from Nato, although Mr Macron has made no such suggestion.
“I’m looking at him (Mr Macron) and I’m saying that he needs protection more than anybody and I see him breaking off,” Mr Trump said, speaking to reporters alongside Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general. “So I’m a little surprised at that.”
The spats have turned a leaders’ gathering meant to celebrate the postwar alliance’s durability and mark the UK’s continued international relevance after Brexit into a diplomatic minefield.
The event is due to start with a reception on Tuesday evening with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. Substantive talks between leaders over subjects including terrorism and outer space have been pared back to a single morning session on Wednesday, a brevity that diplomats say is aimed in part at minimising the potential for disagreements.
While the gathering is billed as taking place in London — Nato’s original headquarters — the negotiations will be held at the luxury Grove hotel north-west of the capital, on the doorstep of The Making of Harry Potter studio tour.