The Turkish government’s assertion that it has problems agreeing to Finland and Sweden joining NATO has raised eyebrows in Helsinki and Stockholm in a week when the Nordic countries submit historical letters application for NATO membership.
The 30 members of the military alliance must agree on the admission of new members.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called Finland and Sweden a “hatchery” for terrorist groups.
At the same time, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said both countries should provide explicit security guarantees and lift bans on exporting certain defense sector goods to Turkey.
“Our position is completely open and clear. It’s not a threat – it’s not a negotiation where we try to take advantage of our interests,” Çavuşoğlu said.
The leader of a Turkish nationalist party also spoke out, saying NATO expansion to Sweden and Finland would provoke Russia and cause an extension of the war in Ukraine. He urged Turkish lawmakers to keep the two countries in the “NATO waiting room”.
The PKK, “major concern for national security”
Other NATO members have sought to play down Turkish threats – and the Finns have been typically diplomatic in finding an amicable solution to any possible standoff.
So what is behind the Turkish threats and what is Erdoğan’s possible endgame here?
Dr. Paul Leven, founding director of the Stockholm University Institute of Turkish Studiestold Euronews he thinks Turkey’s main concern is the presence of PKK militants in Sweden.
“What Turkey perceives as a threat from the PKK is the primary national security concern in Turkey. Sweden doesn’t quite share the same view on this threat,” Leven said.
“So you know it’s kind of a natural opportunity, as Sweden now wants to join NATO, for Turkey to state its position and demand that Sweden take it into account.”
However, Dr Level also thinks there are domestic considerations for Erdoğan, with an eye on the summer 2023 elections and speculation that they could be brought forward to this fall.
“Erdoğan is not doing well in the polls. He seems to be losing. It could also be something that will appeal to a wider Turkish audience,” he added.
While there is indeed a large Kurdish diaspora in Sweden and other Nordic countries, the PKK has been classified there as a terrorist organization and is not allowed to operate freely. So it’s unclear how Erdoğan’s insistence on a crackdown on “Kurdish activists” in Sweden would actually play out.
YPG the stumbling block
Sinan Ülgen, former Turkish diplomat and director of an Istanbul-based think tank Center for Economic Studies and Foreign Policysays that ultimately he doesn’t think Turkey will, in fact, block Sweden and Finland from joining, but that it might want to draw a price for agreeing to let them into the NATO.
“In my opinion, Turkey has legitimate demands. For example, Sweden should lift the arms embargo against Turkey. It is not reasonable to be a NATO country and impose an embargo on arms to another ally within the same alliance,” he told Euronews.
It’s a point Dr Leven also raises, noting that Turkey wants F-16s and to be allowed access to the US F-35 project again after being barred for buying a Russian missile system.
Ülgen also believes that the Turks will ask Sweden to be more active against the PKK and “stop supplying arms and financing the YPG”, a group that Ankara considers to be under the direct control of the PKK.
Dr Paul Leven and Sinan Ülgen believe there will be some form of negotiation between the three countries and possibly other NATO members as well, although Erdoğan has said there is no need for teams of diplomats Finnish and Swedish travel to Turkey for talks.