It was supposed to be a fait accompli. Three months after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his forces to Ukraine, the Finnish and Swedish governments formally applied for NATO membership on May 18 as protection against further Russian military aggression.
President Biden immediately signaled his approval, saying expanding the alliance would “strengthen NATO,” and a month earlier Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a longtime Putin ally, told Finnish President Sauli Niinistö that he had no no problem with scaling.
But Erdogan “can change 180 degrees in a second without looking back,” Turkish-born Cengiz Çandar, a senior research associate at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, told Yahoo News. On May 19, Erdogan did just that, announcing that Turkey would block accelerated NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, which requires unanimous support from member states, over his claim that the two nations are “guest houses.” for terrorist organizations.
Former State Department diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford, now a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told Yahoo News the move was “classic Erdogan,” adding that she is “not going to give up the opportunity to use leverage And what better place to do it.” do that in an alliance based on unanimous decisions?
Erdogan’s demands mainly focus on the extradition of Turkish enemies, such as members of the militant and terrorist-labeled Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey has been fighting for 38 years, and followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah. Gulen, whom he claimed was behind a 2016 coup attempt to overthrow him. Finland extradited two of the 10 people on Turkey’s list and is reportedly evaluating seven more, while Sweden has passed a new anti-terror law. But Turkey is still not satisfied and has insisted on the extradition of others for crimes, including public criticism of Erdogan.
“To try to fully meet all of Turkey’s demands, Sweden would have to become an alternative type of authoritarian police state,” Paul Levin, director of the Institute for Turkish Studies at Stockholm University, told Yahoo News.
Finnish analysts share the sentiment. “Most of the demands are impossible to meet, like the extradition of a person just because he has used a Bylock [encrypted] application or has written a comment on Facebook that is critical of President Erdogan,” Toni Alaranta, a senior fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told Balkan Insight.
“Many Kurds in Sweden are worried that Sweden will sacrifice them on the altar of NATO membership,” Levin said. While Stockholm plans to make concessions, he said, it’s a tightrope act. If the leaders concede too much, “the Swedish government risks being accused of sacrificing entrenched principles” such as support for the Kurdish cause and civil liberties “or simply being seen as caving in to an authoritarian regime that is making unacceptable demands, which, frankly, I think is the popular opinion here in Sweden.
Turkey has so far delivered most of its criticism to Sweden, which has a larger and more politically mobilized Kurdish population of 100,000, leading some Finns to question the wisdom of the two countries’ decision to jointly apply for membership in NATO.
“It is entirely conceivable that Turkey may, for various reasons, say yes to Finland but no to Sweden for now,” Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a senior fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told Euronews last week.
He clarified his position this week in an email to Yahoo News. “I have not said that Finland should do it alone, but that it was not good, it is good, potentially catastrophic, that the Finnish president said so clearly that we would do it.” [apply] hand in hand,” Salonius-Pasternak wrote. “I think it would be better if Finland and Sweden joined together, but giving everyone else so much influence seems a bit short-sighted.”
Were it not for Turkey’s opposition, Finland and Sweden would be on track to become members of the alliance at next week’s NATO summit in Madrid. It is now a guessing game whether Erdogan will ever be satisfied.
“There is concern about the dangerous gray zone period that we seem to be stuck in,” Levin said, noting that Moscow now knows of his plans. But NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee—that an attack on one member is an attack on all—does not yet apply.
Former Defense Department official Evelyn Farkas, now executive director of the McCain Institute think tank, told Yahoo News the delay poses a “real danger.” [that] endangers the security of Europe and millions of people.”
By making the Nordic leaders jump through hoops, Erdogan is carrying out Putin’s orders, Çandar said.
“Remember when we first heard the speculation about the Swedes and Finns applying for NATO, Putin was very menacing and threatening,” Çandar noted. “But since Erdogan intervened, have you heard Putin talk about including Sweden and Finland in NATO? Erdogan is doing his job.”
But for all the attention paid to Erdogan’s claims about suspected terrorists, other factors are at play, analysts say, including his anger over a US-Turkish fighter jet deal that has unraveled.
Turkey has committed $1.4 billion to buy four high-tech F-35 jets. Yet in 2019, ignoring warnings from US officials, Erdogan bought a Russian air defense system, and the Trump White House promptly refused to hand over the four planes or return the $1.4 billion down payment. Turkey recently requested that the money be applied to upgrading its F-16s, a move the Biden administration backed but has so far not received congressional approval. Erdogan’s cause was not helped when Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, another Turkey foe, flew to Washington this month to make a high-profile plea to Congress not to approve Erdogan’s F-16 requests and offered to take the four undelivered F-16s. 35 sec.
In response, Erdogan announced that “from now on, there is no one named Mitsotakis for me” and canceled bilateral talks with him.
Yet another of Erdogan’s apparent motivations for making a fin about Swedish and Finnish NATO membership is domestic politics, Çandar said. Facing an election next year in a country where inflation is soaring, Erdogan’s popularity is plummeting.
“Official government figures put inflation at 70 percent,” Çandar said, adding that it is probably “closer to 100 percent.” By blocking the entry of Sweden and Finland, Erdogan drew international attention. “Now everyone is talking about Turkey’s conditions and Turkey’s security,” he said, adding that it is a form of “image building” for Erdogan.
There is certainly growing concern among NATO members about Erdogan’s continued theatrics, Anna Wieslander, director for northern Europe at the Atlantic Council, told Yahoo News. The view among NATO members, she said, has always been that “it is better to have Turkey in NATO than out of NATO because of its strategic value as a window to the Middle East.” But tensions between Turkey and the United States are rising, she said, pointing to the acrimonious F-35 deal and the fact that the cleric Gulen lives in the United States, which refuses to extradite him to Turkey. “The level of trust” between Washington and Ankara “doesn’t really exist,” all of which strains the alliance, she added.
Farkas suggested that NATO allies continue to work with Turkey to resolve the issue, but set a deadline to coincide with next week’s summit.
“If the deadline passes and Turkey continues to block Sweden and Finland, then all concessions, including US arms sales, should expire,” Farkas said. “That is likely the only way we will take action on this, and it is in the interest of the international community that this membership is allowed to continue.”