Why Türkiye’s Hindrance of NATO’s Nordic Expansion Will Likely Drag On
Why Türkiye’s Hindrance of NATO’s Nordic Expansion Will Likely Drag On
Turkish National Defence Minister Hulusi Akar gives a news conference after attending the NATO Defence Ministers' meeting in Brussels, Belgium, June 16 2022. Arif Akdogan / ANADOLU AGENCY via AFP

Why Türkiye’s Hindrance of NATO’s Nordic Expansion Will Likely Drag On

Ankara has blocked the bids of Finland and Sweden to join NATO, to the dismay of Western capitals who see the enlargement as strengthening the alliance after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With all sides seeing key principles at stake, the impasse is unlikely to end soon.

The diplomatic standoff prompted by Turkish opposition to the Finnish and Swedish requests to join NATO looks set to last well past the organisation’s forthcoming summit in Madrid on 28-29 June. U.S. President Joe Biden and other member state leaders had welcomed the Scandinavian countries’ applications as a way of strengthening the 30-nation Western alliance and highlighting that Russia’s war in Ukraine has upended Europe’s security architecture. They had hoped that Ankara would drop its objections swiftly. But Türkiye, which has been a NATO member since 1952 and commands the second-largest army in the alliance behind the United States, is unlikely to simply back down. It is using the occasion to raise grievances it has felt for a long time, mainly with what it sees as permissive attitudes in Western capitals toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – the insurgent group that, along with the U.S. and EU, it lists as terrorist. Ankara also complains about Western support, both military and political, for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which it regards as an extension of the PKK. The SDF is a coalition of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Syriacs dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have organisational ties and other connections to the PKK.

Ankara says it will not support the two Scandinavian nations’ accession to NATO until they take far-reaching steps to curb the political organising and fundraising that the PKK and its affiliates conduct on their soil. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has styled his appeal in part on a tough anti-PKK stance, likely hopes to score political points at home ahead of 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections. “They continue to let terrorists wander the streets of Stockholm and protect them with their police”, he said, decrying what Ankara sees as a laissez-faire approach in Finland and Sweden. Finnish and Swedish officials see the Turkish demands as overreach, cutting to the core of democratic values on which they are not prepared to compromise. As diplomats shuttle among Brussels, Helsinki, Stockholm and Ankara, trying to bridge the gap, Türkiye is raising other gripes with the West – from politics within the alliance to restrictions on arms purchases. “Turkey can be stubborn”, a senior European official close to the matter said.

The longer the spat drags out, the more it threatens to damage Türkiye’s reputation with the U.S. and NATO, making an eventual compromise more difficult and threatening the alliance’s cohesiveness. In the interim, while Ankara is holding up their formal membership, Finland and Sweden have sought security assurances from the U.S. and other NATO allies, though these remain vague. Meanwhile, NATO officials fret that the dissension is undermining the alliance’s projection of strength and its open-door policy for other potential members. The fear is that the dispute may play into Russia’s hands, ratcheting up tensions between Ankara and other NATO members that are already high over Türkiye’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems and its brinkmanship in the eastern Mediterranean.

Ankara’s Gripes

Driving Ankara’s objections is what it sees as the West’s failure to take seriously its concerns about the PKK and the SDF. “Maybe this will incentivise them to take steps on key security issues for us”, a Turkish official told Crisis Group. The Turkish military has been battling the PKK since the early 1980s. Since a ceasefire broke down in July 2015, the conflict has killed over 6,000 people, according to Crisis Group’s open-source tally. Since roughly mid-2019, Türkiye has taken the fight across the border into northern Iraq, where the PKK has maintained a presence for decades, and into northern Syria, where the Turkish military and its local allies are frequently clashing with the YPG. Ankara is incensed by the years of U.S. and Western support for the SDF in the fight to defeat ISIS. Ankara summoned Sweden’s ambassador to Türkiye in April 2021 to protest Stockholm’s growing ties with the SDF and its so-called Autonomous Administration. A meeting of the Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers with a leader of the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF’s political wing, later that year drew sharp Turkish rebukes.

Erdoğan called on the two Scandinavian countries to do more to “prevent the recruitment, fundraising and propaganda activities of the PKK”

Following their bids to join NATO, Erdoğan called on the two Scandinavian countries to do more to “prevent the recruitment, fundraising and propaganda activities of the PKK” in an op-ed penned for The Economist on 22 May. Ankara wants the extradition of seventeen individuals (eleven in Sweden, six in Finland) linked to the PKK. But that is not all: Türkiye also seeks custody of sixteen others (ten in Sweden, six in Finland) associated with what it calls the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation (abbreviated in Turkish as FETÖ) – a designation Ankara uses for the Gülen movement formed in the 1970s by Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has been living in the U.S. since 1999. Ankara blames FETÖ for the failed July 2016 coup attempt. Lastly, Ankara demands that Finland and Sweden broaden their anti-terror laws and lift the limited arms restrictions they imposed on Türkiye after its cross-border offensive in north-eastern Syria in October 2019.

Domestic politics and a number of other calculations are likely to keep Ankara standing in the way of Finnish and Swedish accession for some time. With the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections looming, most polls suggest that Türkiye’s ruling alliance is losing support amid deteriorating economic conditions, with yearly inflation at nearly 75 per cent in May. Erdoğan’s hardball approach to Finland and Sweden is popular, especially among Turkish nationalist constituencies. He may be seeking to rally these voters and distract others from the country’s dire economic straits.

Ankara’s larger aim may be to secure concessions from Washington on any number of bilateral disputes, European diplomats seeking to broker a solution say. “What is clear is that it is not about Finland or Sweden but some bigger NATO country”, one said. Türkiye is irritated with the U.S. not just for supporting the SDF, but also for resisting its extradition requests for Gülen. Turkish officials have also reiterated their desire for the U.S. to sell Ankara new-generation fighter jets, lift or ease sanctions on its defence industry and push other NATO members to end arms sales restrictions.

Ankara also appears concerned that the addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO may reduce its influence in the alliance in case these countries do not align with it on what it sees as key security priorities. Some Turkish officials perceive NATO to be biased in favour of Greece, with whom it is locked in a long-running dispute over maritime sovereignty in the eastern Mediterranean that escalated into a military standoff in the summer of 2020. As frictions with Athens grew in recent weeks, Erdoğan dubbed it a mistake for Türkiye to lift its veto on Greece rejoining NATO in 1980 (Athens had withdrawn in 1974 in protest of NATO’s lack of action against Türkiye’s military intervention in the north of Cyprus). Allowing in new countries that would “take an attitude against Türkiye”, Erdoğan said on 13 May, would be a “second mistake”. Enhanced U.S.-Greece defence cooperation in recent years has fuelled such worries.

Talks Hit a Wall

Sweden and Finland continue to engage in intense diplomacy with Türkiye to resolve the disagreement, but private officials from both countries say talks may have reached a stalemate. After meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said her country takes Türkiye's concerns very seriously, adding that tougher counter-terrorism legislation – approved in 2021 – will come into effect on 1 July. But both countries reject Türkiye’s claims that they are harbouring PKK figures. Sweden’s foreign minister, Ann Linde, called this idea “disinformation”. They insist that their counter-terrorism policies are in line with those of other NATO member countries, including with regard to contacts with the SDF in Syria.

Ankara’s obstruction was met with public scorn in both Scandinavian countries.

While they continue to engage in talks with Ankara, most European diplomats and officials, while acknowledging Türkiye’s legitimate security concerns, say many of the concessions Ankara is seeking are too politically contentious. “It is a question of price”, said a senior official. “For now, the price is too high”. Ankara’s obstruction was met with public scorn in both Scandinavian countries. “The emotional reaction [to Turkish demands] is very strong”, the same official said. It is particularly fierce in Sweden, which has a Kurdish diaspora of around 100,000 people, including six Kurdish-origin deputies sitting in parliament. One of those parliamentarians was the deciding vote when the government survived a vote of no confidence on 7 June; she has made her continued support conditional on Stockholm’s continued assistance to the SDF’s military and political wings in northern Syria, which complicates attempts to end the dispute. “Turkey can’t dictate our legislation”, a Swedish diplomat said.

At first, the Turkish veto caused anxiety that a long delay would leave Sweden, and particularly Finland, which shares a 1,300km border with Russia, vulnerable to Russian attack without the security umbrella that NATO’s Article 5 provides. These fears have subsided for now. Moscow’s reaction has been muted – or, in the words of a high-level EU official, “decent”. Russian officials called the decision a mistake but have downplayed it, saying the security risks are much less severe than they would be if Ukraine were to join NATO. With its military bogged down in Ukraine, Russia’s only concrete step so far has been to announce the formation of twelve new units in its Western Military District. President Vladimir Putin said Russia would respond, though he was unclear about precisely how, were NATO to deploy new troops and weaponry to the Scandinavian countries. “The Russian reaction has been as strong as it will be”, a Swedish official said. “The fact that we are on our way is what counts; we are not feeling particularly pressed for time”.

This feeling may owe partly to Biden’s promise, shortly after the two countries filed their application to join NATO, that the U.S. would defend Sweden and Finland. In a dramatic demonstration of that pledge, a hulking U.S. warship manoeuvred past pleasure boats into Stockholm’s harbour on 2 June –attracting the attention of city residents, who stopped to snap pictures. But Washington has given no specifics on its security guarantees, which remain more ambiguous than the NATO treaty characterising an attack on one as an attack on all.

Among officials in both Scandinavian capitals, there is a sense of resignation that, even were they prepared to make substantial concessions, it would not be enough, as Ankara appears to want to bargain with Washington, not Helsinki and Stockholm. They describe the situation as a waiting game: “This is the moment in the bazaar when you have to turn your back and walk away”, one said. The hope is that a show of support from the other 29 NATO members in Madrid might put pressure on Washington to help broker a solution and on Ankara to accept one.

Washington Remains Aloof

But the U.S. is mostly staying out of the dispute, unwilling to barter with Ankara over issues it views as separate from U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. “The U.S. is not planning to attempt some sort of mediation”, a senior U.S. official said. It has, however, told Sweden and Finland that they should seek to assuage Türkiye’s concerns, without acceding to the farthest-reaching demands.

Türkiye’s obstruction of NATO’s expansion threatens to spoil what the Biden administration had seen as an opportunity to mend fences with Ankara in the wake of Russia’s assault on Ukraine. The U.S. is generally pleased with the Turkish response to the invasion, but an official noted concern that “Turkey has taken Western capitals’ initial appreciation as an opportunity not to improve relations but to instead build leverage to use with respect to furthering other Turkish interests”.

Türkiye has walked a tightrope since the invasion, careful not to burn its bridges with Moscow, while voicing support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.

As for its position on the Ukraine war, Türkiye has walked a tightrope since the invasion, careful not to burn its bridges with Moscow, while voicing support for Ukraine’s sovereignty. It has not joined Western sanctions on Russia, but it has continued to supply armed drones to Kyiv. It closed the Turkish Straits to block Russia from sending reinforcements to its Black Sea fleet under the Montreux Convention, but it is still allowing Russian military and civilian planes to use its airspace (excepting those flying to Syria since 23 April).

Ankara has also sought to capitalise on its relations with all parties to help broker an end to the fighting. Russian and Ukrainian negotiators met in Istanbul in late March after weeks of assiduous Turkish efforts to convene the two sides. The talks have since broken down. But Ankara remains involved in talks with Russia, though so far without agreement, to secure the shipment of an estimated 20 million tonnes of grain stranded in Ukraine – a critical step in reducing risks to global food security and one that is likely to curry favour with hard-hit importing nations like Egypt, Lebanon and Somalia. The Turkish and Russian foreign ministers met in Ankara on 8 June to discuss a possible sea corridor for this purpose.

Still, if Washington has generally regarded Türkiye’s Ukraine policy positively, the relationship remains fraught. Tensions reflect issues over which Washington’s ties with Ankara have long been fraying, with the complaints more sharply expressed in Congress than in the White House. Among the thorns in the U.S. side are Türkiye’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence systems; its muscle flexing in the eastern Mediterranean; its incursions into Syria; and its deteriorating human rights record. “When we talk to the Americans, they say they have their plate full of Turkey issues already”, a senior EU diplomat said.

A threatened Turkish offensive in SDF-held areas in northern Syria would further strain relations. On 1 June, ignoring U.S. opposition, Erdoğan announced plans for a new operation in the towns of Tal Rifaat and Manbij, which YPG elements have used to launch rockets at Turkish forces or Syrian rebel groups allied with them. Ankara has long expressed frustration with what it sees as unfulfilled promises by the U.S. and Russia, respectively, to clear these two Arab-majority towns of YPG militants. Moscow voiced displeasure on 2 June with Ankara’s plan, which may have stalled the military operation. “The [U.S.] administration is quite alarmed by Turkish signals on the Syrian border and do not see this as a bluff”, a U.S. official said. “Turkey thinks Russia is distracted”. Many Western observers and officials see a link between possible Russian acquiescence in a new Turkish offensive in Syria and Türkiye’s continued blockage of Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO. But both Turkish and Russian officials deny any such connection.

Long Delay?

Much energy at the NATO summit will likely be spent dealing with Turkish objections to Finland and Sweden joining the alliance, instead of the historic welcoming that Stoltenberg said he anticipated when the Scandinavian duo announced their membership bid. Stoltenberg has since downplayed the urgency of offering candidacy to the two, saying the summit’s starting date was never a deadline. “When a vital, key ally like Turkey raises a concern like terrorism, then of course we have to sit down and take this seriously”, he said. “And that’s exactly what we will do”.

What is clear is that the standoff is unlikely to be resolved as quickly as a similar quarrel in 2009, when Türkiye lifted its veto on former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s appointment as NATO secretary general. Back then, Ankara – among others – was upset by what it saw as Denmark’s leniency with the PKK, such as its permission for the pro-PKK Roj TV channel to broadcast from Copenhagen. The U.S. intervened to offer assurances to Ankara that it would get more representation in the alliance’s upper decision-making echelons. Danish authorities, after apparently being pressed by the U.S., also launched legal action against Roj TV, first fining it and eventually shutting down its operations in the country over its broadcast of what the Danish court decided was pro-PKK propaganda.

This time around, though, there is little appetite in Washington to wade into the imbroglio – much less to link any of Türkiye’s demands upon the U.S. to Ankara dropping its objections to Finnish and Swedish membership. One way to bridge the divides would be for Washington to press some of its fellow NATO members to remove the arms restrictions they imposed on Türkiye for its Syria incursion in 2019. On 20 May, the UK, for instance, lifted all constraints on weapons exports to Türkiye and expressed interest in buying Bayraktar TB2 armed drones from Ankara. Ankara hopes that Canada may follow suit. A call from Biden to Erdoğan may also be an opportunity to discuss the impasse (the two presidents’ last meeting was on 31 March).

Helsinki and Stockholm may lack the leverage to resolve the dispute.

Without Washington’s clout behind them, Helsinki and Stockholm may lack the leverage to resolve the dispute – though there are steps they can take. Türkiye has broadly defined anti-terror laws, whereas most European countries, including Finland and Sweden, define terrorism-related offences much more narrowly. Differing legal definitions of what does and does not constitute a terrorist offence render it difficult for Helsinki and Stockholm to crack down on alleged PKK activities and follow through on Ankara’s extradition requests. Nonetheless, they could, as some other European countries have done, consider looking into whether they can take more concrete policing measures on individuals or entities that are involved in PKK-related criminal actions prosecutable in their countries. Ankara may welcome the effort itself. On extradition requests, the Nordic nations could offer to establish bilateral working groups to have technical conversations with Türkiye on issues such as why some of Ankara’s requests are impractical and how to improve the flow of information in this area. As Finland and Sweden keep up their support for the SDF as part of efforts in the anti-ISIS coalition, the two Scandinavian countries should be conscious that public displays of their contacts with representatives of the SDF and its political wing draw more ire from Ankara and Turkish society at large.

Whatever Finland and Sweden do, Türkiye may be in no rush to reciprocate. It has public opinion to consider: Western calls on Türkiye to quickly drop its veto have been dubbed unfair in televised debates and op-eds that point to how long Greece took to allow North Macedonia to join after objecting to the nation’s name. Nevertheless, if Ankara wants to resolve the spat, it will almost certainly have to downsize its demands regarding the PKK and the SDF.

Türkiye’s surprise objection to Finland and Sweden’s NATO bids threw a spanner into a striking policy shift by the Scandinavian states that NATO members had heralded as a show of unity in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. In Washington and other NATO capitals, as a U.S. official noted, “there remains an assumption that there will be an eventual, difficult compromise, but there remains an element of the unknown with regard to just how far Erdoğan would take this”. A way out is still within reach, but it will take deft diplomacy to avoid a greater rift. While expanding the borders of NATO, Finland and Sweden’s accession would also add important capabilities that will also benefit Türkiye, which values its role within the transatlantic alliance. The Madrid summit is an opportunity to bring home such shared interest and foster the political will that will be needed to resolve the dispute.

Contributors

Senior Analyst, Türkiye
BerkayMANDIRACI
Deputy Program Director, Europe and Central Asia
AdeCar
Program Director, U.S.
mwhanna1