ANKARA: Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s decision to open accession talks with Finland and Sweden has sparked debate about concessions Ankara might extract to greenlight membership for the two Scandinavian countries — the biggest change in European security architecture for decades.
Any country seeking to join NATO requires consensus approval from its 30 members, with the next NATO summit in Madrid coming in late June.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that Ankara, a NATO member since 1952 and possessing the alliance’s second largest military, does not support membership for Finland and Sweden, accusing both countries of harboring terror groups.
Turkey has told allies that it will say no to Sweden and Finland’s NATO applications, Erdogan said in a video posted on his Twitter account on Thursday.
“This move, which has poured cold water on expectations about Finland and Sweden’s ‘historic’ accession to the military alliance, was not really a surprise,” said Paul Levin, director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies.
Turkey has long criticized Sweden’s policy of turning a blind eye to the presence of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party on its soil despite being classified as terrorist group by the US and EU.
However, for Levin, what Erdogan wants in return has a number of possible interpretations.
“Sweden’s policy against the PKK and its Syrian Kurdish YPG offshoot in northern Syria was an issue of concern not only for the ruling government in Turkey, but also for the national security establishment for a long time. In that respect, the disagreement over this critical issue has been a widely-shared sentiment,” he told Arab News.
Finland and Sweden have imposed arms embargoes since 2019 over Turkey’s cross-border operation into Syria against Syrian Kurdish militants. Contacts between top Swedish officials and YPG leaders have been condemned by Ankara.
But, for Levin, there is always a domestic political dimension behind such decisions in Turkey.
“Erdogan’s personal concern is staying in power ahead of the looming elections in 2023 amid a troubled economy,” he said.
“Playing hardball with the West is likely to appeal (to a) domestic audience and consolidate stronger public support that needs nationalistic motivations.”
However, Levin is not convinced Turkey’s opposition to NATO enlargement will persuade Washington to approve Turkey’s request in October to buy 40 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters, and approximately 80 modernization kits for its current warplanes, which the US has so far refrained from doing.
“The presence of (the) Russian-made S-400 defense system on Turkish soil renders the acquisition of the F-35 aircraft impossible because of the interoperability problems. I’m not sure that the US Congress can approve the sale of other modernization kits as well because it can be considered as a concession against Turkey’s blackmail,” he said.
On Wednesday, Swedish Minister for Defense Peter Hultqvist held meetings with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin in Washington, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with his US counterpart Antony Blinken in New York.
Cavusoglu also held recent talks with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts in Berlin.
“Negotiations are going on to reach a diplomatic resolution,” Levin said.
“But, I don’t expect that Sweden (will) give some kind of public concessions on human rights that could drive the ruling Social Democrats into (a) corner ahead of the parliamentary elections in September.”
Sweden currently has six sitting Kurdish members of parliament.
“Giving up the Kurdish cause by extraditing 33 people accused of terrorism charges in Turkey will not play well with the Swedish government, as the country hosts a wide Kurdish diaspora,” Levin added.
Turkey wants the Nordic duo to stop supporting Kurdish militant groups on their soil, to refrain from having contact with PKK members, and to lift bans on arms sales to Turkey.
For Karol Wasilewski, director of actionable analytics at Warsaw-based agency NEOŚwiat, Turkey wants to show its NATO allies that it is dead serious when it says that its security interests, particularly its sensitivity about PKK and YPG issues, should be respected.
“For a long time, and not without reason, Turkey has had a feeling that the approach of its allies to its security interests does not correspond to the country’s contribution to the alliance’s security,” he told Arab News.
But Wasilewski thinks that the problem will be solved with negotiations between Turkey, Sweden and Finland, with the support of the US and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
“Perhaps Erdogan’s statement that Turkey can’t agree on membership for countries that sanction Turkey was a signal of area where the compromise could be made,” he said.
“Turkey would definitely drive a hard bargain, but I find it very difficult to imagine that this would translate to a hard veto.
“Turkey is well aware of the benefits that Finish and Swedish membership to NATO would bring, and that blocking the enlargement would result in immense pressure from the rest of (the) member countries. And Turkey simply can’t afford a strong backlash from the West.”
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, thinks that Turkey’s main objection to the Nordic expansion of NATO is rooted in existing PKK fundraising networks in Sweden, and Sweden’s public ties with YPG officials.
“Following closed-door conversations, Sweden could take measures to satisfy Turkey’s sensitivities,” he told Arab News.
Stoltenberg also made it clear that Turkey’s concerns will be addressed in a way that does not delay the membership process.
Cagaptay thinks that there are several explanations about Erdogan’s hardline rhetoric on NATO enlargement.
“He decided to up the ante to publicly embarrass Stockholm to get concrete steps,” Cagaptay said.
“There is also a Russian angle, where one veto inside NATO against Nordic expansion would make Russian President Vladimir Putin extremely happy.
“On the US side, Erdogan also signals that his objection to the NATO enlargement may be lifted if Biden convinces Sen. Bob Menendez in lifting his objections against Turkish defense exports,” Cagaptay added.
The US continues its active diplomacy addressing Turkey’s objections, as US national security advisor Jake Sullivan said on Wednesday.
“Turkey’s concerns can be addressed. Finland and Sweden are working directly with Turkey. But we’re also talking to the Turks to try to help facilitate,” he said.
According to Cagaptay, this latest crisis, besides showing Turkey to be akin to a Russian ally inside NATO, has helped Erdogan to again project his global strongman image domestically.
“At the end of the day, he will write a narrative of the political war he has waged against Europe, and will be emerging a winner of this fight,” he said.