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NATO’s Casino Royale: Turkey Upps the Ante

The armed and three-month-long conflict between Russia and Ukraine has taken the role of a catalyst in Europe and its ongoing, long due decisions as countries swear allegiance to either side. One of which presented itself to the world on the 18th of May, Wednesday, 2022, as Sweden and Finland simultaneously submitted their official joining letters to NATO officials as a result of deliberations lasting over a decade. While all members welcome this proposal with open arms, Turkey takes an unlikely stand which may induce other countries to follow suit, causing more problems for the military alliance’s stand against Russia. What is the cause for this staunch opposition and now that it has taken up the world’s attention, what’s next for the two Nordic countries? Here to answer these questions and much more is Perspectoverse’s Anvita Tripathi.


The historic efforts of Sweden and Finland to join NATO have hit a rough patch after Turkish officials took a hard line against a Nordic enlargement of the transatlantic alliance. After Stockholm stated that the two nations would send representatives to try to modify Turkey's stance, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remarked on the 15th of May that Swedish and Finnish delegations "should not bother" to travel to Ankara.

On the same day, Erdogan accused the two Nordic countries of supporting "terrorism." “Neither of these countries have a clear, open attitude towards terrorist organisations,” Erdogan said, while pointing to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara has designated as a “terrorist group”, and other armed and active Kurdish groups in Turkey and its peripheral territory.

The ball kept rolling as Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu lambasted Finland and Sweden for failing to extradite people wanted in Turkey, despite Ankara's requests in less than a day. The sought suspects were accused of having ties to either the PKK or the Gulen movement, which Turkey blames for a failed coup attempt in 2016 that killed thousands of people.

Pekka Haavisto, Finland's Foreign Minister, responded by saying that while he was shocked by Turkey's stance, he did not wish to "bargain" with Ankara. In his statements, Erdogan also singled out Stockholm for its anti-Turkey armaments restrictions. Of course, the fact that Sweden has put a moratorium on arms sales to Turkey since 2019 due to Ankara's military action in neighbouring Syria and has no plans to modify that decision is just adding salt to the wound.

Ankara has also sought to use Sweden and Finland's membership aspirations as leverage to resolve critical concerns it has with the United States, a staunch supporter of the bids, according to Mensur Akgun, an international relations professor at Istanbul's Kultur University. “Ankara has been under US sanctions over F-35 fighter jets and is not happy about it,” Akgun stated.

One of the major problems that has soured relations between Turkey and the United States in recent years has been Turkey's acquisition of the Russian S-400 defence system. Days after Turkey got the first supply of Russian S-400s, the US dropped Ankara from its major F-35 fighter jet programme in July 2019.

The United States and NATO allies argue that a NATO member's use of a Russian missile defence system is dangerous to NATO's own defence systems, but Turkey claims it purchased the missile system after President Barack Obama's administration stalled on a sale of the US Patriot air defence system, which is widely used by NATO member states.

“Turkey has every right to block Sweden and Finland’s ascension to NATO,” Ahmet Erdi Ozturk, associate professor in politics and international relations at the institute of London Metropolitan University, told Al Jazeera. However, taking such a stance would be costly, since NATO countries would most certainly view Turkey as a problem child in the future. “It is hard to see Turkey’s future position since it is mostly based on domestic political developments. We should remember that Erdogan has been doing these policy changes to win the next election,” said Ozturk.

One of Russia's declared motives for invading Ukraine was to prevent NATO expansion, and Moscow has threatened Finland and Sweden with a vaguely phrased "response" since they publicly stated their NATO intentions.

"Turkish reservations have nothing to do with any sort of appeasement towards Russia," Murat Ersavci, a former Turkish ambassador to Ireland, Oman, Australia, and Belgium, remarked. He went on to say that Turkey has long supported NATO expansion.

"Turkey has always been strongly in favour of NATO enlargement, as seen with the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, as well as Slovenia, Slovakia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia, Albania and even Georgia. However, the situation is now different," he explained. "There is a very strong public perception in Turkey that Sweden is assisting Turkey’s enemies, and this exerts huge pressure on the government," Ersavci added. He did, however, suggest that Ankara should have pursued a private diplomatic process to settle its concerns before going public and causing a global uproar.

The coalition is presently in a precarious situation. On the one hand, Sweden, Finland, and the vast majority of member states want the applications to be processed quickly. Turkey, on the other hand, is determined to stymie the process in the name of national interests, at least for the time being. Evidently, it aims to take full advantage of its geopolitical position and as NATO's second largest standing military force behind the United States, it is a potential contribution to the alliance's collective defence.

So, what’s next, as one might ask. Well, that’s the good news. Even while Ankara's rhetoric remains harsh, Washington and NATO officials have stated that they expect Turkey's difficulties to be resolved. Despite recent developments, experts predict that future conversations will be more quiet.

The next phase will almost certainly be a flurry of behind-the-scenes diplomacy and international pressure to persuade Turkey to remove the blockage as soon as possible. Sweden and Finland will try to appease Turkey, but the US and the EU will likely be at the forefront of this pressure campaign. After all, both have leverage over Turkey, whether it's through the sale of military weapons by the US or funding provided by the EU as part of the 2016 migrant agreement.

Meanwhile, amid the Ukraine conflict and as the alliance prepares for its Madrid summit in late June, where a united stance is critical, a sense of urgency is rising.

The most likely consequence is that Finland and Sweden will shortly join the alliance. Erdogan is a transactional politician, and the costs of banning the two Nordic countries – which would enrage Western friends – would outweigh the domestic gains. Meanwhile, several experts believe Turkey is attempting to gain influence at this time.

Erdogan also momentarily vetoed Anders Fogh Rasmussen's candidacy as NATO Secretary-General in 2009, until relenting after getting a prize in a high-level NATO appointment for a Turkish official.

In light of this, NATO may be willing to make acceptable concessions to Turkey in order to overcome this temporary stumbling block and go forward with the application process. Because the remainder of the coalition is eager to welcome Finland and Sweden, there is evident political resolve to overcome this short stumbling block.

Written by Anvita Tripathi

Illustrated by Anushka Doshi







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