Analysis - Political Transformations

Setting Eyes on a Bargain

Why Erdogan is Blocking Sweden and Finland NATO bids?
Tuesday، June 07، 2022
Setting Eyes on a Bargain

The ongoing war in Ukraine has driven Sweden and Finland, historically two neutral states, to submit an application to join the NATO. The spiralling of Russia’s military activity at the gates of Europe has been quoted as a key reason for the two countries to shift their strategy. While Sweden does not share any borders with Russia, Finland does: The Finland-Russia border is nearly 1,300 kilometres long.

NATO members must unanimously approve a new country joining the US-led alliance. Yet Turkey, which joined NATO in 1952, says it will not approve Sweden and Finland’s applications over accusations of hosting and supporting Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the European Union (EU). Turkey has also accused both countries of sheltering members of the Democratic Union Party, who have carried attacks against Turkey from their strongholds in northern Syria. 

Turkey’s Objections

While Sweden and Finland’s applications were received with enthusiasm, Turkey’s objection has caused a predicament within NATO. Erdogan had told Stockholm and Helsinki not to bother sending delegations to Ankara, calling the Scandinavian countries “guesthouses for terrorists”. He also said it had been an error for NATO to admit Greece, with which Ankara is at odds over a host of issues, and urged against not repeating “similar mistakes”. Analysts maintain that Erdogan’s is taking the opportunity to achieve concessions from the Nordic countries. Significantly, already, Sweden has reaffirmed that it considers the PKK to be a terrorist organisation.

Soon after the Nordic countries submitted their application on May 18, Erdogan said he informed friends of Turkey about his position. He said Finland and particularly Sweden were “harbouring terrorists” who were given a platform to speak at their parliaments. He also referenced Greece, another member state who had joined the alliance the same year as Turkey, saying he won’t allow “similar mistakes” to be repeated.

In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus under the pretext of protecting Turkish Cypriot minorities, leading to a partition of the island and the establishment of a de facto Turkish Cypriot state in the northern third of the country. In response, Greece withdrew forces from NATO’s integrated military structure, but would reintegrate into the alliance in 1980s. For Erdogan, the ongoing rift with Greece would have much easier to deal with had Turkey objected to the reintegration of Greek forces into the NATO. Similarly, Erdogan hence is working to ensure Turkey’s strategic interests are served before agreeing to Finland and Sweden joining the alliance.

Demands

Turkey is looking to secure its strategic interests by excerpting several concessions from Europe. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said on May 14 that Ankara might be willing to discuss the reasons behind its objections to the Nordic states. There were unresolved concerns that the foreign minister said NATO allies should understand. “We say that alliances cannot be made with countries that support terrorism and impose restrictions on our country regarding the NATO memberships of Sweden and Finland. We don’t have any hidden agenda,” Çavuşoğlu said. 

Three Turkish officials spoke to Bloomberg and outlined the steps Ankara is hoping to achieve from the row. First, Ankara wants Sweden and Finland to put an end to arms-export restrictions they imposed on Turkey, along with several other European Union members, after its 2019 incursion into Syria to push the YPG back from the frontier. Second, Turkey’s demanding that Sweden and Finland publicly denounce not only the PKK, but also its affiliates before being allowed to join the bloc. The Turkish officials said that designating the PKK as a terrorist organisation isn’t enough: the Nordic applicants must do more to clamp down on PKK sympathizers it says are active in their countries and across the borders in Iraq and Syria.

In light of the above, there are four key goals Turkey wants to achieve before acceding to Finland and Sweden joining the NATO, which are: 

1. Cutting off the PKK: 

Despite being listed as a terrorist organisation by EU, Washington alongside many other European countries have been arming People's Defence Units, which Turkey opposes strongly. Ankara has demanded the Scandinavian countries close down PKK offices and extradite political activists to Turkey. 

Ankara is hoping to seek progress in this front. On May 23, 2022, Erdogan said Ankara would soon launch new military operations along its southern borders to create safe zones 30 km deep in Syrian territory to combat what he described as terrorist threats from these regions, alluding to Kurdish armed groups.

“We will soon take new steps regarding the incomplete portions of the project we started on the 30-kilometre deep safe zone we established along our southern border,” Erdogan said in a televised address. During the ceremony at the Golcuk Naval Shipyard in Izmit, he said Ankara cannot say yes to "terrorism-supporting" countries, a clear reference to sanctions imposed by the US and European countries in October 2019 in response to operations, dubbed Peace Spring, that saw Turkey and its Syrian allies seize border territory previously controlled by the People's Protection Units (YPG). 

2. Extradition of Gülen's Hizmet movement members: 

Accused of the 2016 failed coup attempt, Turkey has been cracking down on Gülen’s Hizmet movement inside and outside the country. Many members fled to Europe through Greece, which Erdogan accused of harbouring followers of Gülen. Many of Gülen’s Hizemet members have sought asylum in Sweden and Finland.

The Scandinavian countries have rejected Turkey’s request for the extradition of people with links to the PKK and Gülenist supporters, Turkish state news agency Anadolu Agency (AA) reported on 16 May. Turkey has requested the extradition of six Gülenist members and six PKK terrorists from Finland and 21 suspects from Sweden in the past five years, totalling 33 wanted people.

3. Lifting arms ban:

Turkey also wants Sweden and Finland to put an end to arms-export restrictions they imposed on Turkey, along with several other European Union members, after its 2019 incursion into Syria to push the YPG back from the frontier. In principle, Ankara won’t accept expanding a military alliance to countries that are blocking weapons deals. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has made the point publicly, saying the arms restrictions go “against the spirit” of an alliance.

4. Scoring concessions from Washington: 

While Turkey isn’t necessarily looking to bargain over subjects beyond Finland and Sweden’s stances on the Kurdish conflict, Ankara’s row with NATO run deep and its wish-list is long. Turkey wants to be re-included in the F-35 advanced aircraft program, from which it was barred, after it bought S-400 missile-defence systems from Russia. It also has an outstanding request to the US to purchase dozens of F-16s warplanes and upgrade kits for its existing fleet. Moreover, Turkey wants the US to lift sanctions over its possession of the S-400 missiles. Congress members have been opposing the deal and demanding Turkey to either transfer the missiles to a third country or at least to pledge not to use them. Turkey seems to be using the opportunity to pressure the US into expediting the deal and lift the F-35 ban.

Talks Continue

Extensive talks have been taking place between Turkey on one side, and Sweden, Finland, the US and other EU states on the other. İbrahim Kalın, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman and chief foreign policy adviser, spoke with high officials in Germany, Sweden, Finland, UK, and the US, and discussed the issue at hand. A statement issued by Kalın said that the Spokesperson has delivered Ankara’s demands and that Turkey looks forward to making progress in matters related to national security. Kalın reiterated that the presence of ‘terrorists’ in NATO cannot be accepted. Finally, and equally important, Turkey is looking to lift sanctions on its defence exports, stating NATO members cannot sanction one another.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held the 1st meeting of Strategic Mechanism in New York to discuss the NATO bids of Sweden and Finland, as well as the F-16 deal. Çavuşoğlu said Blinkin told him Washington was committed to cooperation and resolving outstanding security concerns. 

On May 20, 2022, President Erdogan and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson discussed the bilateral relations and the Nordic countries’ NATO application. Erdogan also called Dutch PM Mark Rutte to discuss a similar agenda. Later that day, Turkey’s undersecretary of defence Ismail Demir said London was lifting all restrictions on British arms exports to Turkey.

On May 21, Erdogan told Swedish PM Magdalena Andersson he was expecting tangible and serious efforts to address Turkey’s concerns over PKK terrorist activities in Syria and Iraq. In a phone call with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, Erdogan noted that it was “Turkey’s most natural right to expect respect to and support for the legitimate and determined fight Turkey had been putting out against a clear threat to its national security and citizens.”

In conclusion, Turkey is expected to tackle its concerns with Europe and the US in relation to Sweden and Finland’s NATO bid. It is more likely that Turkey’s aim is to achieve long-standing security objectives, rather than entirely derailing the NATO bid, in which case Turkey would seem to be aligning with Russia, which would be detrimental to Turkey’s relationship with the US and Europe. 

Keywords: TurkeyNATOFinlandSweden