NATO’s Nordic Expansion Stuck at Turkish Roadblock

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not quite to the Finnish line on NATO membership.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Polish, Swedish, Finnish, and NATO flags are set up.
Polish, Swedish, Finnish, and NATO flags are set up.
Polish, Swedish, Finnish, and NATO flags are set up prior to the signing ceremony of the law ratifying the NATO Protocol on Finland and Sweden’s membership in Gdynia, Poland, in July 22. Mateusz Slodkowski/AFP via Getty Images

Sweden and Finland have launched a new diplomatic offensive to convince Turkey to approve NATO membership for the two Nordic states after months of thorny negotiations turned what was supposed to be a smooth path to alliance expansion into a major diplomatic headache.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg traveled to Turkey this week to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and lobby him to move forward on the two countries’ accession. New Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson is expected to travel to Turkey next week to drive the message home.

Turkey is the last of NATO’s 30 members that has voiced opposition to both countries joining; 28 member states have already approved membership for Sweden and Finland, and Hungary has signaled that its parliament will greenlight the bids in the coming months. New members require unanimous signoff from existing NATO members. The Turkish government has said it wants Sweden and Finland to do more to crack down on individuals it considers security threats, including Kurdish militants and those allegedly involved in the country’s 2016 botched coup attempt, and it has focused most of its criticism on Stockholm.

Sweden and Finland have launched a new diplomatic offensive to convince Turkey to approve NATO membership for the two Nordic states after months of thorny negotiations turned what was supposed to be a smooth path to alliance expansion into a major diplomatic headache.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg traveled to Turkey this week to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and lobby him to move forward on the two countries’ accession. New Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson is expected to travel to Turkey next week to drive the message home.

Turkey is the last of NATO’s 30 members that has voiced opposition to both countries joining; 28 member states have already approved membership for Sweden and Finland, and Hungary has signaled that its parliament will greenlight the bids in the coming months. New members require unanimous signoff from existing NATO members. The Turkish government has said it wants Sweden and Finland to do more to crack down on individuals it considers security threats, including Kurdish militants and those allegedly involved in the country’s 2016 botched coup attempt, and it has focused most of its criticism on Stockholm.

Behind the scenes, U.S. and European diplomats are becoming increasingly frustrated with what they see as Turkish intransigence over an issue that should have been resolved months ago, particularly during a dangerous moment in European security as war rages in Ukraine.

Finnish and Swedish officials are hoping this latest diplomatic offensive can break the logjam. Both countries have already offered concessions, including Sweden’s decision to lift an arms embargo on Turkey that it put in place after Turkey’s incursion into Syria, new pledges to cooperate on counterterrorism efforts against Kurdish militant groups, and a vow to address Turkey’s requests for deportation or extradition of those the Turkish government considers terrorism suspects. Sweden’s new center-right government under Kristersson also hopes it can make a fresh start in building closer relations with Turkey.

“It’s about trying to set the groundwork, seize momentum so that this could be finished by the end of the year,” said Henri Vanhanen, a foreign and security policy advisor to Finland’s center-right National Coalition Party. “We are hoping there’s new momentum.”

Still, Turkish officials are saying the steps taken so far are not enough, insisting that neither Nordic country has carried out all the demands Turkey listed in a joint memorandum released in June.

“These two countries must take important steps on combatting terror because one of the biggest threats NATO is facing today is terrorism,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday after talks with Stoltenberg, adding that Turkey supported NATO expansion in theory. “It’s not possible to say right now that the two countries have completely implemented all aspects of the memorandum.”

“Our counter-terrorism work is a priority, and we take our commitments seriously,” a spokesperson for the Swedish foreign ministry told Foreign Policy in an email response. “We have communicated this to all allies, including Türkiye, and to the NATO Secretary General.”

The “terrorism” issue is of core concern to Erdogan ahead of next summer’s election, as he must court the vote of Turkish nationalists who are deeply opposed to Kurdish separatism. Many experts believe that, despite the recent diplomatic full-court press, Turkey will defer any decision on Nordic NATO membership until after its 2023 elections.

But Western officials also believe that Turkey’s cold feet are due as much to Russian economic influence as any purported concern over Kurdish separatists. Since the start of the war—and a wave of Western sanctions on Moscow—Turkey has often acted as an economic lifeline for Russia, increasing its purchases of Russian crude oil, pushing for more (and discounted) Russian gas, and moving forward multibillion-dollar plans for a Russian-made nuclear power plant.

Turkey has also been one of the biggest exporters to Russia since the start of the war while also receiving a massive influx of unexplained money from abroad that is underwriting an otherwise deeply unbalanced Turkish economy. Western officials suspect Russian money is in part keeping Erdogan’s Turkey afloat.

Stoltenberg, who has sought to balance all sides in the negotiations, became decidedly less subtle during his trip to Ankara this week, reflecting a growing impatience with Turkey in the halls of NATO headquarters.

“It’s time to welcome Finland and Sweden as full members of NATO,” he said at the press conference. “In these dangerous times, it’s even more important to finalize their accession, to prevent any misunderstanding or miscalculation in Moscow.”

Western officials agree Russia poses no direct military threat to either country, particularly with its military bogged down in Ukraine. But defense planners still fear that a prolonged period of limbo on NATO membership could open the alliance’s northeastern flank to new vulnerabilities from Moscow that fall below the threshold of military confrontations. A drawn-out accession process also undercuts the message of alliance unity and solidarity in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and nuclear saber-rattling.

“If the alliance can’t coordinate itself and convince its members to admit these two very capable countries, it reflects badly on NATO as an institution,” said Kristine Berzina, an expert on European security at the German Marshall Fund think tank. “And perhaps some of the Russian and Chinese messaging on NATO being inherently weak … doesn’t seem as wrong then,” she added. “There’s a lot of reputational concerns at stake for NATO.”

When Finland and Sweden announced their bid to join NATO in May as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, most alliance leaders and defense chiefs hailed a new round of NATO expansion as a no-brainer. Both countries had closely partnered with NATO for years, and they boast some of Europe’s strongest and best-equipped militaries. They also provide new alliance territory and sea routes to shore up the defense of NATO’s vulnerable Baltic members that neighbor Russia and its ally Belarus.

Although adding Finland to NATO would more than double the alliance’s border with Russia, the Russian government has been stripping down its military in that region to send its troops to Ukraine. And while Russia remains a top long-term threat for Finland, Finnish officials don’t believe Moscow has the intent—or capability—to start any sort of military confrontation in the Nordic region.

“We’re already seen as belonging to the sphere of NATO’s collective security in one sense,” Vanhanen said. “Plus, we know that Russia is quite occupied right now with occupying other countries.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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