Why Turkey's Erdogan is blocking NATO membership for Finland and Sweden

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It was supposed to be a fait accompli. Three months after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his forces into Ukraine, the governments of Finland and Sweden formally applied for NATO membership on May 18 as a hedge against future Russian military aggression.

President Biden immediately signaled his approval, saying that enlarging the alliance would “make NATO stronger,” and a month earlier Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a longtime Putin pal, told Finnish president Sauli Niinistö that he had no problem with the enlargement.

But Erdogan “can change 180 degrees in a second without looking back,” Turkish-born Cengiz Çandar, senior associate research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, told Yahoo News. On May 19, Erdogan did just that, announcing that Turkey would block fast-track NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, which requires unanimous support from member states, over his contention that the two nations are “guesthouses for terrorist organizations.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images)

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 he “is not going to give up an opportunity to use leverage, and where better to do it than in an alliance that’s based on unanimity of decisions?”

Erdogan’s demands mostly center on extraditing Turkish foes, such as members of the militant, terrorist-labeled Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Turkey has been fighting for 38 years, and followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom he alleges was behind a 2016 coup attempt to oust him. Finland extradited two of the 10 people on Turkey’s list and is reportedly evaluating seven more, while Sweden passed a new antiterrorism law. But Turkey still isn’t satisfied and has insisted on the extradition of others for crimes, including the public criticism of Erdogan.

“To fully try to meet all of Turkey’s demands, Sweden would have to turn itself into an alternative sort of authoritarian police state,” Paul Levin, director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies, told Yahoo News.

Finnish analysts share the sentiment. “Most of the demands are impossible to fulfill, such as extraditing a person just because he has used a Bylock [encrypted] application or has written a Facebook comment critical of President Erdogan,” Toni Alaranta, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told Balkan Insight.

“Many Kurds in Sweden are worried that Sweden is going to sacrifice them on the altar of NATO membership,” said Levin. While Stockholm plans to make concessions, he said, it’s a tightrope act. If leaders concede too much, “the Swedish government risks being accused of sacrificing long-held principles” such as support for the Kurdish cause and civil liberties “or just generally being seen as giving in to an authoritarian regime that’s making unacceptable demands — which, frankly, I think is the popular view here in Sweden."

So far, Turkey has lodged most of its criticism at Sweden, which has a larger, politically mobilized Kurdish population of 100,000, causing some Finns to question the wisdom of the decision for the two countries to apply jointly for NATO membership.

“It is entirely conceivable that Turkey could, for any number of reasons, say yes to Finland but no to Sweden for now,” Charly Salonius-Pasternak, senior researcher at the Finish Institute of International Affairs, told Euronews last week.

He clarified his position this week in an email to Yahoo News. “I haven’t said Finland should go it alone, rather, that it was not good — OK, potentially catastrophic — that the Finnish president said so clearly that we would [apply] hand in hand,” Salonius-Pasternak wrote. “I think it would be better for Finland and Sweden to join together, but giving this much leverage to everyone else seems a little short-sighted.”

If not for Turkey’s opposition, Finland and Sweden would be on a glide path to membership in the alliance at next week’s NATO summit in Madrid. Now it’s a guessing game as to whether Erdogan will ever be satisfied.

Announcing the NATO summit in Madrid
Announcing the NATO summit in Madrid. (Eduardo Parra/Europa Press via Getty Images)

“There is concern about the dangerous gray zone period that we seem to be stuck in,” Levin said, noting that now Moscow knows their 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 that the delay poses a “real danger [that] puts the security of Europe and of millions of people at risk.”

By making Nordic leaders jump through hoops, Erdogan is doing Putin’s bidding, Çandar said.

“Recall when we first heard speculations about Swedish and Finnish applying to NATO, Putin was very menacing and threatening,” noted Çandar. “But since Erdogan stepped in, have you heard Putin speak about Swedish and Finnish inclusion to NATO? Erdogan is doing his job.”

But for all the attention given to Erdogan’s demands about alleged terrorists, other factors are at work, analysts say, including his anger over a fighter jet deal between the U.S. and Turkey that unraveled.

Turkey committed $1.4 billion to buy four high-tech F-35 jets. In 2019, however, disregarding warnings from U.S. officials, Erdogan purchased a Russian air defense system — and the Trump White House promptly refused to deliver the four planes or to return the $1.4 billion down payment. Turkey recently requested the money be applied to upgrading its F-16s, a move the Biden administration endorsed but thus far hasn’t received requisite congressional approval. Erdogan’s cause wasn’t helped when Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, another foe of Turkey, flew to Washington last 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-35s.

In response, Erdogan announced that “from now on, there is no one called Mitsotakis for me” and canceled bilateral talks with him.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. (Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

Another of Erdogan’s apparent motivations for making a flap over NATO membership for Sweden and Finland, however, is domestic politics, said Çandar. 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,” said Çandar, who added it’s likely “closer to 100 percent.” By blocking Sweden and Finland’s entry, Erdogan has captured international attention. “Now everybody in the world speaks of Turkey’s conditions and Turkey’s security,” he said, adding that it’s a form of “image building” for Erdogan.

To be sure, there’s growing concern among NATO members about Erdogan’s continuing theatrics, Anna Wieslander, director for northern Europe at the Atlantic Council, told Yahoo News. The view among NATO members, she said, has always been “it’s better to have Turkey inside of NATO than outside of NATO because of its strategic value as the window to the Middle East.” But tensions between Turkey and the United States are increasing, she said, pointing to the soured F-35 deal and the fact that cleric Gulen is living in the U.S., which refuses to extradite him to Turkey. “The level of trust” between Washington and Ankara “is not really there,” all of which strains the alliance, she added.

Farkas suggested that NATO allies continue to work with Turkey to resolve the issue, but that they impose a deadline to coincide with next week’s summit.

“If the deadline passes and Turkey continues to block Sweden and Finland, then all of the concessions, including arm sales from the United States, should expire,” Farkas said. “That is likely the only way that we will get action on this — and it is in the interest of the international community that this membership be allowed to proceed.”