Turkey blocks Finland, Sweden’s historic NATO bid

In a stark shift in foreign policy, Finland and Sweden — both of which have long maintained neutrality during armed conflict — formally submitted on Wednesday applications to join military alliance NATO in response to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

However, while the Nordic countries’ bids for NATO membership have been almost universally well-received among existing NATO countries, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has placed his country in lone public opposition to their entry. As non-member states can only join NATO if all 30 existing members support their admission, Turkey’s approval is needed for either country to join.

Turkey’s reasoning for this opposition has hinged on claims that both Sweden and Finland have provided safe harbor for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group designated by Turkey, the EU and the U.S. as a terrorist organization.

“In many ways, as far as support for the PKK or the housing of accused PKK militants goes, Turkey’s grievance is probably stronger with Sweden than it is with Finland, but it has some grievances with both,” said Erik Tillman, an assistant political science professor at DePaul. “Over the years, it’s submitted lists of people to both countries that it’s demanded to be extradited back to Turkey on accusations of terrorism — and, of course, both countries have refused.”

A number of international experts believe Turkey’s aims extend beyond concerns over the PKK, though. Colin Wall, a research associate with the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggests that Erdogan may be using NATO’s consensus-based decision making as leverage against other NATO member states.

“This is not the first time that President Erdogan has seized a moment like this to try and extract concessions from the West,” Wall said. “Essentially, what’s happening here is that Erdogan is playing an irresponsible game. He’s seizing a moment where NATO, the U.S. and Europe need something, and he’s in a position to block it in exchange for extracting concessions on something.”

Such a compromise could involve a renewed trade of U.S. fighter jets to Turkey, which was halted in 2019 after Turkey purchased Russian-made S-400 missile systems. Both the White House and Congress have recently expressed tentative support for this following Turkey’s support for Ukraine amid the ongoing Russian invasion.

Additionally, Tillman suggests Erdogan’s opposition to NATO expansion likely serves as a bid for increased domestic support, as Turkey’s ongoing financial crisis has contributed to declining approval of Erdogan and his ruling political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

“Part of this is undoubtedly also probably being driven by the domestic audience,” Tillman said. “Here’s a chance for him to stand up for Turkish interests and to invoke the kind of anti-terrorism mantra that plays well with large slabs of the Turkish electorate, and especially his supporters and the voters he needs to keep on board.”

Ultimately though, Wall suggests that Turkey will likely concede its opposition to Finnish and Swedish entry into NATO following a series of negotiations.

“This fits into a general pattern of tensions between Turkey and Europe and the U.S.,” Wall said. “Most of the reports we’ve seen from NATO figures, the Biden administration and European leaders has been this pretty palpable sense of confidence that they’re going to be able to bring Turkey around, and I do share that sense of confidence.”

Even as Turkey currently stands in the way of both Nordic countries’ accession into NATO, the mere act of applying for membership defies longstanding traditions of neutrality in both Finland and Sweden.

“In historical terms, it’s really quite momentous,” Wall said. “From a symbolic point of view, this is really quite an incredible moment for both countries.”

During the 1940s, Finland lost 11 percent of its territory to the USSR as a result of the Winter War and subsequent Continuation War. Those territories remain under Russian control to this day, and the continued threat of Russian coercion has maintained tension between Helsinki and Moscow ever since.

“The characterization of Finnish foreign policy has always been pragmatic and geared towards maintaining good relations with Russia,” Tillman said. “Historically, it was organized around the belief that this was necessary because, as Finland experienced during World War II, it couldn’t really count on any promises of support from the West if it were attacked by Russia.”

In the case of Sweden, the country successfully maintained official military neutrality for over 200 years until 2009, when it entered into a mutual self-defense treaty with the European Union. Sweden has intermittently provided minor support for NATO and EU battlegroups throughout the 21st century, but formal membership into NATO would act as a significant escalation for the country.

“Its neutrality is much more historical, going back all the way to the end of the Napoleonic Wars,” Tillman said. “And so, you hear some people say that Swedish neutrality has almost kind of become a part of its identity.”

While Swedish and Finnish public opinion of NATO membership has remained low for much of the post-Cold War era, both countries have seen overwhelming support for membership following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine beginning in February.

“They clearly — and there’s just no doubt about this — they’ve clearly become aware that the Russian approach is not to respect boundaries and not to respect neutrality,” said Dick Farkas, a political science professor at DePaul. “So it seems to me like what they’re doing is compellingly logical.”

Erdogan held phone calls on Saturday with both Finland and Sweden’s leaders over concerns over harboring terrorist organizations, and discussions remain ongoing.