Russia’s war against Ukraine has left Finland and Sweden nervous about themselves becoming the victims of Russian aggression in the future. As a result, Finland and Sweden have applied for membership within NATO. If they join the Western Alliance, the Finns and Swedes would be abandoning their longstanding traditions of neutrality. Their entry would have ramifications for Europe’s security architecture against the backdrop of growing global bifurcation between the East and West.

29 out of 30 NATO members fully support the Finns and Swedes obtaining NATO membership. 

At least 29 out of 30 NATO members fully support the Finns and Swedes obtaining NATO membership. The view in Washington and almost all other NATO capitals is that Finland and Sweden joining the Alliance would lead to tighter unity against Moscow.

But Turkey, at least as of now, is not on board. Ankara has blocked these two Nordic countries from a speedy entry into NATO, which Turkey has been able to do because a unanimous vote in favor of Finland and Sweden’s entry is necessary under Article 10.

This month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced his country’s opposition to Finland and Sweden entering NATO. He called the two countries a “hatchery” for groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), People’s Defense Units (YPG), and Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO)—each of which Ankara has designated a terrorist organization.

Turkey’s head of state called Finland and Sweden “a focus of terror, home to terror.” Erdogan asked, “How can we trust them?” Additionally, both Finland and Sweden have arms embargoes on Turkey as a result of Ankara’s 2019 military campaign against the YPG in northern Syria. This is another reason Turkey cites for opposing their entry into NATO.

On May 21, Erdogan told NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg that “unless Sweden and Finland clearly show that they will stand in solidarity with Turkey on fundamental issues, especially in the fight against terrorism, we will not approach these countries’ NATO membership positively.”

Historical Context

Turkey’s problems with Finland and Sweden in relation to militant Kurdish groups date back decades. These two Nordic countries have long been a haven for PKK members. A common belief among many Turks is that their government has not been able to eradicate the PKK for several reasons, including the organization’s ability to have “rear bases” in European countries such as Finland and Sweden. Thus, Ankara believes that pressuring Finnish and Swedish officials to deny PKK members continued haven is important for Turkey’s national security.

“There is a substantial presence of not just PKK/YPG but also Gülenist fugitives in Sweden and Finland, particularly in Sweden,” Dr. Serhat S. Çubukçuoğlu, an Istanbul-based expert in Turkish foreign policy, told Inside Arabia. “The Kurdish lobby is treated/received at the official level by the defense and foreign ministries. They fund the YPG, which is clearly an offshoot of the PKK under the disguise of ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘protectors of democracy.’”

Turkey is demanding that the two Nordic countries extradite suspected PKK and FETO members. 

Ankara’s top diplomat Mevlut Cavusoglu claims to have shown Swedish authorities photos and documents evidencing the PKK’s activities and operations in their country, from where they move around with significant freedom despite the government in Stockholm officially designating the organization a terrorist entity. Turkey is demanding that the two Nordic countries extradite suspected PKK and FETO members—a demand to which neither Finland nor Sweden shows any signs of agreeing at this point.

Turkey’s ambassador to Sweden Hakki Emre Yunt has even demanded that Stockholm extradite Amineh Kakabaveh, a member of the Scandinavian country’s parliament, to Turkey. She is a left-wing politician with Kurdish roots who came to Sweden as a refugee from Iran. Kakabaveh has been an advocate of Swedish support for the YPG’s political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). She took to Instagram to respond to the Turkish government’s demand that she be extradited: “I am a Swedish citizen and I have been elected to represent Swedish citizens in the Riksdag. It is the ambassador who should be sent back to Turkey. But not only the government must act. The opposition and opinion leaders throughout the political field must mark and explain that Sweden is not crawling for the Islamists in Ankara.”

The conflict in Syria has exacerbated PKK/YPG-related tensions in Turkey’s relationship with Finland and Sweden. “For Turkey, the declared Swedish financial support to the YPG is of great concern,” said foreign policy and security analyst Ömer Özkizilcik in an interview with Inside Arabia. “Both, the Finnish and Swedish Foreign Ministers hosted Elham Ahmad, the co-chair of the political umbrella of the YPG, in their capitals.”

Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s spokesman and advisor, clarified that Turkey has not made up its final mind. The door is open to Ankara voting in favor of Finland and Sweden joining NATO. Turkey might not veto their entry into the Western Alliance should Ankara believe that adequate concessions are made which can address Ankara’s security concerns. “Erdoğan has a point that Turkey needs firm security guarantees, in writing, that at the minimum these countries ban PKK-YPG in all its shapes and forms, and unconditionally lift the arms embargo on Turkey,” explained Dr. Çubukçuoğlu.

[NATO’s Dilemma Over Greece-Turkey Friction]

[Turkey’s Current Political Dynamics and Great Paradox]

Playing Tough for the Audience at Home

Turkey’s domestic politics heavily factor into the picture. With elections next year and the country grappling with an economy crisis, Erdogan must make it clear to voters that Ankara took advantage of the leverage granted to Turkey by its veto power to obtain something beneficial. “Turkey now found a once-in-50-years opportunity to leverage its membership/veto card with the Western world and wants to use it wisely to alleviate its security concerns in Syria and Northern Iraq,” according to Dr. Çubukçuoğlu.

The odds are good that Turkey will eventually agree to have Finland and Sweden join.

The odds are good that Turkey will eventually agree to have Finland and Sweden join after a negotiated outcome enables Ankara to save face. It is critical to consider how many NATO members—chiefly the US, Germany, France, and the UK—will put substantial pressure on Turkey to accept these two Nordic countries in the Western Alliance.

If Ankara maintains a rigid stance against Finland and Sweden joining NATO, the improved standing that Turkey has obtained in the Alliance throughout the Russian-Ukrainian war could be reversed. Also, the rebounding of the US-Turkey relationship post-February 24 risks being reversed and Erdogan would not want that to occur.

At the same time, Western countries such as the US have some leverage over Turkey that Ankara would not like to see Washington use. These levers include American military aid to Greece, Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions, F-16s, and F-35s, among others. Turkey pushing too hard against Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO “runs the risk to isolate Ankara and undermine its valuable position within the NATO alliance,” said Dr. Çubukçuoğlu. “I don’t think they are able to go that far and insist to get all their demands met, although they’d like to. But Ankara has vulnerabilities.”

Finding a Middle Ground

Some voices are expressing optimism about Finland and Sweden joining the Western Alliance, notwithstanding the stumbling block that is Turkey. As Finland’s former prime minister Alexander Stubb recently said, he expects Ankara’s stance against Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO to be “sorted out” through “some backroom diplomacy.” Stoltenberg explained that he is “confident that we will come to a quick decision to welcome both Sweden and Finland to join the NATO family.”

Finnish membership would add 810 miles to the amount of Russian land which borders NATO. 

Yet it remains to be seen how quickly such a compromise can be reached. Given the severity of Europe’s security crisis in relation to Ukraine, there is a strong desire on the part of both Finland and Sweden, as well as almost all NATO members, to see the Alliance grow. Indeed, Finnish membership would add 810 miles to the amount of Russian land which borders NATO—an outcome that Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, etc. would strongly support.

That said, Turkey has major grievances about how existing NATO members like the US have supported the YPG and given free rein to followers of Fethullah Gülen, seen by many Turks as a deviant Islamic cleric responsible for the 2016 coup attempt. Ankara’s belief is that Turkey shouldn’t expect such policies from its traditional allies. By engaging in this brinkmanship vis-à-vis Finland and Sweden’s candidacies to NATO, Turkey is making this point crystal clear.

What concessions, if any, that Helsinki and Stockholm would make to receive Turkey’s green light remains an open question. To be sure, Turkey blocking early efforts by NATO to fast-track Finland and Sweden’s applications to enter the Alliance speaks volumes of Erdogan’s mastery of holding deals hostage until other governments compromise with Ankara. Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO has become merely Turkey’s latest bargaining chip.