ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has halted historic decisions by Sweden and Finland to seek NATO membership, saying he cannot allow them to join due to their alleged support for Kurdish militants and other groups that Ankara says threaten its national security.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he was confident the alliance would quickly accept the admission of Sweden and Finland. But Erdogan’s statement suggests that the path to membership for the two Nordic countries could be anything but easy.
Turkey’s approval is crucial as the military alliance makes its decisions by consensus. Any of its 30 member countries can veto a new member.
Erdogan’s government is expected to use the two countries’ membership offers as leverage to secure concessions and guarantees from its allies.
Here’s a look at where Turkey stands, what it could gain, and the likely repercussions:
WHAT IS TURKEY’S PROBLEM WITH MEMBERSHIP OFFERS?
Turkey, which has NATO’s second-largest army, has traditionally supported NATO enlargement, believing the alliance’s “open door” policy bolsters European security. For example, it came out in favor of the prospect of Ukraine and Georgia joining.
Erdogan’s objection to Sweden and Finland stems from Turkish grievances over perceived support from Stockholm – and to a lesser extent Helsinki – of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, of the left-wing extremist group DHKP -C and supporters of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. which Ankara says was behind a failed military coup attempt in 2016.
Many Kurdish and other exiles have found refuge in Sweden in recent decades, as have members of the Gulen movement more recently. According to Turkish state media, Sweden and Finland refused to extradite 33 people wanted by Turkey.
Ankara, which frequently accuses its allies of turning a blind eye to its security concerns, has also been angered by restrictions on military equipment sales to Turkey. These were imposed by EU countries, including Sweden and Finland, following Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria in 2019.
Further justifying his objection, Erdogan says his country does not want to repeat a “mistake” by Ankara, which agreed to readmit Greece into NATO’s military structure in 1980. He claimed that this action allowed the Greece “to take a stand against Turkey” with NATO support.
WHAT COULD TURKEY WIN?
Turkey should seek to negotiate a compromise agreement under which the two countries will suppress the PKK and other groups in exchange for Turkish support for their NATO membership. A key demand should be that they stop all support for a Syrian Kurdish group, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The group is a Western ally in the fight against the Islamic State group in northern Syria, but Turkey sees it as an extension of the PKK.
Erdogan may also seek to use the membership of Sweden and Finland to extract concessions from the United States and other allies. Turkey wants to return to the US-led F-35 fighter jet program – a project it was kicked out of after its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems. Alternatively, Turkey is looking to buy a new batch of F-16 fighter jets and upgrade its existing fleet.
Other possible demands could include an end to an unofficial embargo on military sales to Turkey by allies; the concessions of EU member countries over Turkey’s failed attempt to join the bloc; and increased funds to help the country support 3.7 million Syrian refugees.
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT TURKEY’S IMAGE IN THE WEST?
Turkey’s veto threat is likely to undermine its own status in Washington and NATO, reinforcing the image of a country blocking the alliance’s expansion for its own benefit. With this decision, Turkey also risks damaging the credit it has earned by supplying Ukraine with the armed Bayraktar TB2 drones which have become an effective weapon against Russian forces.
“There’s no scenario in which Turkey doesn’t end up being seen as (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s mole in NATO,” said Soner Cagaptay, Turkey expert at the Washington Institute. “Everyone will forget the objections related to the PKK. Everyone will focus on Turkey blocking NATO expansion. It will distort the view of Turkey through (NATO).
Cagaptay said Turkey’s stonewalling could also negate the “positive momentum” that had begun to build in Washington over the sale of the F-16s. “I don’t see this sale happening at this point,” he said.
IS TURKEY TRYING TO APPEAZE RUSSIA?
Turkey has established close relations with Russia and Ukraine and tried to balance its ties with both. He refused to join the sanctions against Russia – while supporting Ukraine with the drones that helped deny Russia’s air superiority.
“The fact that Erdogan is derailing the (NATO) process intentionally suggests that he may be trying to balance the strong military support that Turkey has given to Kyiv with political support for Russia,” he said. Cagaptay.
A senior Turkish politician has also expressed concerns that joining Finland and Sweden could provoke Russia and ignite war in Ukraine. Devlet Bahceli, the leader of a nationalist party allied with Erdogan, said the best option would be to keep the two Nordic countries in the “waiting room”.
CAN DISPLACEMENT HELP ERDOGAN ASSESSMENTS AT HOME?
The Turkish leader sees a drop in domestic support due to a shaky economy, soaring inflation and a cost of living crisis.
A confrontation with Western nations over the emotional issue of perceived support for the PKK could help Erdogan shore up his support and rally the nationalist vote ahead of elections which are currently scheduled for June 2023.
“With domestic support waning at a time when Turkey is entering a critical election cycle, Erdogan is seeking greater international visibility to demonstrate his global importance to Turkish voters,” analyst Asli Aydintasbas wrote in an article published in the European Council on Foreign Relations. .