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Turkey’s stonewalling of Sweden’s and Finland’s applications to NATO was only its latest showdown with the alliance

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at NATO headquarters in Brussels, May 25, 2017.

Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images

  • Turkey has dropped its objections to Finland’s and Sweden’s applications to join NATO.
  • Ankara had cited concerns about Swedish and Finnish policies as the reason for its objection.
  • Turkey has a history of actions that have undermined the alliance and benefited Russia.

Turkey’s already fraught relationship with its NATO allies deteriorated after its threat to block Sweden’s and Finland’s applications to join the alliance.

In early May, Sweden and Finland jointly submitted their applications, but Turkey blocked discussion on them on the grounds that the two Nordic countries provide refuge to members of the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organization, and because of the defense export restrictions that they imposed on Turkey after Turkey invaded Syria in 2019.

Following a visit to Sweden and Finland, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called Turkey’s concerns legitimate. “When a vital key ally as Turkey raises concerns on terrorism then of course we have to sit down and take them seriously. And that’s exactly what we do,” Stoltenberg said.

Turkey lifted its veto on Wednesday, allowing NATO to formally offer the two Nordic countries membership.

NATO members were as sympathetic as Stoltenberg.

Some saw in Turkey’s veto a tactical move to acquire US-made aircraft that it was barred from buying after its purchase of Russian weapons. Others saw it as the latest in a series of Turkish acts that undermine NATO and reflect a broader misalignment that may roil the alliance again in the future.

Stirring instability

Turkey Greece coast guard Imia KardakTurkish and Greek coast guard boats patrol around islets in the Aegean Sea on January 30, 2017.

Ali Balli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Turkey has long history of confrontation with NATO allies.

Greece and Turkey are nominal allies, both having joined NATO in 1952, but have longstanding disputes over territory and other issues and have come close to war several times since joining the alliance. Greek troops even fought Turkish forces during Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

Greece recently placed its military on high alert after Turkish jets conducted numerous flights over inhabited Greek islands and Turkish leaders used aggressive rhetoric to challenge Greece’s sovereignty over its islands in the eastern Aegean Sea.

Stoltenberg in June urged “Greece and Turkey to solve their differences in the Aegean in a spirit of trust and Allied solidarity.” More recently, the EU Council expressed “deep concern” about Turkey’s actions and statements and called on Ankara to respect the sovereignty and territory of all EU members — many of which are also NATO members.

Ankara involvement in Libya’s civil war has led to clashes with fellow NATO members, chiefly France.

In June 2020, France claimed that Turkish warships locked onto a French frigate with their radars as they escorted a civilian vessel suspected of carrying arms to Libya, which is under international arms embargo. Turkey denies the claim and NATO says the result of its investigation into the incident is classified.

Turkey and France are at odds over a range of other issues, including Syria and resource exploitation in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Paris also drew Ankara’s ire by signing a bilateral defense agreement with Greece in 2021.

Choosing sides

Russian S-400 unloaded in TurkeyRussian S-400 components are unloaded at Murted Air Base in Ankara, July 15, 2019.

Mehmet Ali Ozcan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Turkey has been criticized for its dealings with Russia and its stance on Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

In 2020, Turkey purchased Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system over the objection of NATO allies, who said it would comprise Western weapons, including the F-35 jet that Turkey was helping develop. Ankara went ahead with the S-400 purchase and was expelled from the F-35 program.

In October 2021, Turkey asked to buy 40 F-16 jets and 80 F-16 modernization kits from the US. Although the Biden administration expressed support, the request is unlikely to be approved by lawmakers, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Bob Menendez, who are wary of Turkey’s regional posture and democratic backsliding.

Ankara has sold its highly regarded Bayraktar drones to Kyiv and tried to broker a ceasefire in the weeks following Russia’s attack. More recently, however, it has been accused of buying stolen Ukrainian grain from Russia. It is also the NATO member that hasn’t sanctioned Russia.

erdogan putinErdogan with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 9, 2016.

REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Western officials may view Turkey blocking Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership as Ankara’s biggest gift to Russia, whatever Turkey’s stated reasons for objecting.

“Turkey’s reservations about Sweden and Finland joining NATO serve only Putin,” Menendez said at a recent hearing on Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO.

NATO leaders will meet in Madrid on June 28 for what Stoltenberg has said will be a “historic and transformative summit.”

The purpose of the summit is to agree on NATO’s Strategic Concept, its roadmap for the years ahead, but Finland and Sweden’s applications will also be discussed. If Turkey does not lift its veto, the summit may fall short of expectations.

Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master’s degree in security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. You can contact him on LinkedIn.

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