Turkey Balks at NATO Membership
for Finland and Sweden
One outgrowth of the Ukraine War is the desire of Finland and Sweden, formerly neutral nations, to join NATO. The desire to join the Western alliance has been met with near universal approval. The US has said it will move legislatively to rush the memberships through Congress. Biden said on Thursday that NATO expansion was needed “now more than ever.”
Not universal approval. Turkey has made it clear that it has problems with NATO membership for Finland and Sweden. Turkey’s President Erdogan has said Turkey will, “say no to Finland and NATO membership.”
Is that a hard no? Probably not. Several Turkish officials have left the door open, and NATO Secretary Stoltenberg has indicated that it isn’t unusual for member nations to have differences of opinion. Erdogan’s chief foreign policy advisor spoke to several NATO leaders this week and noted that concrete steps must be taken to address Turkey’s national security concerns.
That indicates that Turkey will probably sign on to their NATO membership after there is some sort of agreement on Sweden’s support for Kurdish rebels fighting Turkey and the lifting of the weapons embargo on Turkey by Sweden.
This is not that unusual when a nation wants to join NATO. Greece opposed North Macedonia’s membership for years because of a dispute on the country’s name (Macedonia is the name of a Greek region).
Setting aside talk of Kurdish rebels and arms embargos, there are serious geopolitical reasons why Swedish and Finnish membership in NATO is a benefit to Turkey.
Despite some warm talks between Erdogan and Putin, the nations of Russia and Turkey have been bordering on open hostility for centuries. In the last 350 years, the two nations have fought 13 times – the latest in WWI, when Russia was one of the Allied powers and Turkey was Part of the Central powers.
Some of the reasons for fighting are Russia’s desire for a warm water port, influence over the Caucasus region, control of the Balkans, and influence in central Asia.
Although times have changed, many of the reasons remain. Russia doesn’t like Turkey’s control of the only entrance to the Black Sea. There is Turkey’s concern about Putin’s attempt to bring the Caucasus nations back into the Russian sphere of influence. And there is the issue of who will have the biggest influence in Syria.
NATO membership for Sweden and Finland will force Russia to refocus its geopolitical eyes further to the north. Just as the war with Ukraine has forced Russia to redeploy some of its troops from Syria, the expanded NATO will force Russia to redeploy forces to the long Russian-Finnish border.
Contrary to Erdogan’s speeches, anything that focuses Russia’s eyes to the north is a geopolitical benefit to Turkey.
The two critical issues for Turkey are arms embargos and the Swedish support for the Kurds. Turkey and most NATO nations have been in opposing camps concerning the Kurds fighting in Syria. Turkey is most concerned about the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has fought Turkey since the 1980s and is considered a terrorist organization by most NATO nations.
Russia, however, hasn’t identified the PKK as a terrorist organization.
However, Sweden hasn’t been as opposed to the Kurds and Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde has met with leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party. How, Turkey argues, can NATO nations protect each other if one of those nations (Sweden) provides some support for turkey’s enemy?
Turkey notes that while it has waited decades to join the European Union, Finland and Sweden are being “fast tracked” in joining NATO.
The issue of Kurdish support may cause a split on how fast Sweden and Finland will become NATO members. Turkey has suggested that both memberships be reviewed separately since Finland has supported membership for Turkey to the European Union.
The Finnish President, who met on Thursday with President Biden and said Finland condemns terrorism in all forms and noted that Finland is already talking with Turkey on the issues troubling Turkey.
Turkey is also aggrieved due to arms embargo imposed on Ankara. In the mid-2010s, American made Patriot missiles were sent to the Turkish-Syrian border. When they were withdrawn in 2015, Turkey asked to buy its own air defense system – a request that was denied.
Turkey then turned to Russia to buy its S-400 air defense system. This caused the US to remove Turkey from the F-35 fighter program, even though Turkey has spent money to acquire the 120 fighters it had planned on receiving. The American reason was that they were concerned that Russia might acquire some of the secrets of the F-35 from Turkey, which would make the air defense system better able to defeat American aircraft in a future conflict.
The F-35 wasn’t the only weapons system that was denied to Turkey. Turkey wants to upgrade its F-16s too, but the request has been shelved. Other NATO nations have refused to sell Turkey weapons, especially since Erdogan has suppressed domestic dissent. In fact, several Turkish officers assigned to NATO defected rather than go back to Turkey.
Although Turkey has remained in NATO, it hasn’t been on the best of relations with its fellow members. However, the applications of Sweden and Finland to join have given Turkey a second chance to reinvigorate its NATO ties.
Obviously continued opposition to Swedish and Finnish membership and refusal to negotiate with NATO will only hurt Turkey. Turkey could avoid the NATO weapons bans by buying from the Russians, but the war in Ukraine clearly demonstrates that some Russian weapons systems aren’t in the same class as those fielded by NATO. In addition, replacing its NATO weapon systems with Russian ones would cost billions of dollars and years.
In addition, continued opposition to Sweden and Finland will only increase Turkey’s isolation within NATO.
So, it makes sense to use this opportunity to get the weapons it needs, while becoming a “member in good standing” in the western alliance.
The most sensitive issue will be the F-35s. The US is opposed to selling the advanced jet fighter to a nation that uses Russian air defense systems. If Turkey allows the increase in NATO membership, the US could offer the F-35 fighters and the Patriot air defense system in return for scrapping the Russian S-400.
The US might also benefit by learning more about the S-400 and its weaknesses. And Turkey could share some secrets on how they have become very effective in drone technology, which has benefited the Ukrainians in the war.
No doubt, Sweden, which has an advanced defense industry, would be more than willing to sell arms to Turkey once they become a NATO partner. The Saab Group produces a wide spectrum of weapons like the Carl Gustaf anti-tank missile, which has proved itself in Ukraine, as well as the NLAW light anti-armor weapon. They also produce guided mortar rounds and several air defense systems.
With the eyes of NATO on Ukraine, a new degree of respect for Turkey, new weapons systems provided by NATO, and Russia moving some of its soldiers out of Syria, this is Turkey’s chance to regain some status as the regional power.
If Turkey decides not to support NATO membership for Sweden and Finland, Turkey will remain a pariah amongst NATO nations. They can also be sure that the advanced arms that they want will not be forthcoming. That leaves them with the same Russian arms, whose wrecks are littering Ukraine.
Meanwhile, several nations, including the US and UK have indicated that they will militarily support Sweden and Finland during the time the two countries are in the process of joining NATO, in other words, Turkey standing in the way of Swedish and Finnish membership will not benefit them and will only worsen relations with NATO.
Turkey will make carefully crafted diplomatic noises about Sweden and Finland. However, in the end, they will use this unique advantage to improve its standing in NATO.