Russia’s invasion of Ukraine turned the spotlight on Turkey’s status as a regional power. Sweden and Finland’s expected bid to join NATO could further boost Turkish influence if the concerns raised by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who noted his objection to possible Swedish and Finnish membership in the US-led alliance, could be addressed.
There are several reasons for Turkish objections to NATO’s expansion into Sweden and Finland.
First, in the wake of Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia in 2019, the United States removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program. By acquiring some 120 F-35s through the early 2030s, coupled with the introduction of the locally designed and manufactured “National Combat Aircraft,” Turkey would have become the preeminent air power in its neighborhood.
Ankara also lobbied its allies to purchase advanced air defense systems for years — especially the US-made Patriot missiles. In the mid-2010s, various NATO allies sent their Patriot batteries to protect Turkey’s Syrian border. The withdrawal of US air defense forces in 2015 at one of the most critical junctures of the Syrian conflict offended the Erdogan administration. Under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty that established NATO in 1949, member states pledge to come to each other’s defense in times of war.
Not getting the Patriots or the F-35s have set back Ankara’s geopolitical ambitions. Instead of the F-35s, Turkey expects a significantly upgraded version of the venerable F-16s from the United States. A smart way for the United States to secure Turkish acceptance of Sweden and Finland’s membership in NATO would be for the US Congress to agree to the sale of F-16s to Turkey.
Along similar lines, Ankara wishes to see other NATO member states lift their official and informal embargoes against the Turkish defense industry.
The second reason Turkey opposes Swedish and Finnish membership relates to many NATO and EU states’ positions on the Syrian conflict. Since 2014, Ankara has found itself at loggerheads with Western countries over their support for the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia forces fighting in Syria. The PYD is tied to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed group that has fought the Turkish state since the 1980s. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
It is on this point that Turkish vitriol focuses on Sweden. A high-ranking Turkish official in the national security bureaucracy who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity pointed out Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde’s past meetings with high-ranking PYD members. The Turkish official asked, “What do we get out of Sweden [joining NATO]? Under Article 5, allies are supposed to protect each other’s borders. Turkish forces regularly conduct drills and patrols in the Baltic region with NATO allies. Will the Swedish air force patrol our southern borders — overflying the PKK? If not, then, maybe we should not become allies. Or maybe the PKK should defend Sweden under Article 5.”
The Turkish official suggested that the Swedish and Finnish applications could be reviewed separately because Finland has been “helpful” in Turkey’s EU application. The Turkish official said, “If Sweden is serious about its intentions, it should release a white paper or something about joining NATO — have an honest conversation about what it could and could not do for NATO.”
The same official expressed frustration at Turkey waiting to join the EU for decades while Sweden and Finland will be fast-tracked into NATO. “Turkey waited [in the EU] antechamber for 50 years. Maybe [Sweden] should be asked to wait for 50 minutes.”
An Istanbul-based university professor and security analyst thinks Ankara’s criticism of US and European support for the PKK-PYD in Syria, while valid, is weak. The academic, who also spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, pointed out how Russia does not even recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization and still cooperates with the group and even mediates its relations with the Syrian regime. Yet none of that undermines Ankara’s relations with Moscow.
The academic added, “Opposing [Sweden and Finland joining NATO] so publicly is not sustainable. I fear that this public opposition to Swedish and Finnish membership could bring back the image of Turkey as a Russian Trojan horse that came about in the wake of the S-400 crisis. What happens if the US Congress does not give us the weapons we want? Had this process been managed well, Turkey could have gotten closer to the West. Instead, this is turning into horse-trading.”
A third reason for Turkey’s opposition to NATO expansion relates to concerns that it could needlessly widen the conflict between NATO and Russia over Ukraine. In a recent analysis for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Turkish journalist Asli Aydintasbas pointed out how “Turkey’s bigger strategic worry is of a NATO-Russia conflict arising out of the war in Ukraine.” According to Aydintasbas, Ankara “does not want to be caught in the crossfire.”
For Istanbul-based geopolitical analyst Yoruk Isik, however, Turkey has nothing to fear from Russia. Isik told Al-Monitor, “The war in Ukraine strengthened Turkey’s hand against Russia. There is nothing even in the slightest that Russia can do about NATO’s expansion toward Sweden and Finland. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s recent statement that Finland and Sweden joining NATO is no threat to Russia is an admission of that.” Isik also questioned the Turkish government’s public opposition to NATO expansion and criticized the sidelining of the Turkish Foreign Ministry from these sorts of discussions.
Could Turkey get a grand bargain over Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership? Such a scenario would involve lessened Western support for the PYD-PKK in exchange for Ankara easing up the pressure on the organization. Adding new weapons sales to Turkey into the mix probably would seal the deal. With some patience and recognition that politics and diplomacy are the art of the possible, the Erdogan government just might get what it wants from NATO.