By Ali Bilgic, Loughborough University | –
The longstanding neutrality of Sweden and Finland was abandoned when both states submitted formal applications to Nato. But they are facing an unexpected obstacle on the way to membership: Turkey. While Turkey supports the alliance’s “open door” policy, Ankara’s veto reflects its aims to change the status quo and make gains in three areas: the eastern Mediterranean, Syria – and in its own domestic politics.
Turkey has always had bumpy relations with Nato. In 2009, Ankara blocked the appointment of the former Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, as Nato secretary-general, because of his defence of free speech during the Danish cartoons crisis in 2006. He also allowed a rebel Kurdish TV station to broadcast from Denmark into Turkey. Another low point was in 2019, when Turkey started a military campaign against the Kurdish forces in Syria. This led to Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, criticising Ankara for “jeopardising” the fight against Islamic State.
The current crisis is in some ways a hangover from previous episodes particularly in relation to the Kurdish region in Syria. But it is unfolding against the backdrop of different geopolitical realities, including the deterioration of relations between the west and Russia, as well as a new domestic political context in Turkey.
Turkey vs Greece
There is an interesting backstory to the recent confrontation between Greece and Turkey involving tensions between the US and Turkey – which have been building up for some time. When, in 2017, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin agreed on a deal for the purchase of Russian S-400 missile system, the US retaliated with the exclusion of Turkey from the F35 jet fighters development programme, banning Turkey from the purchase of the jets. The Biden administration has reportedly been considering dropping this ban in recent months, prompting the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, to urge the US Congress to reconsider.
There’s a complex background to all this. Athens is a key player in eastern Mediterranean energy politics, and the exploration of energy sources in the contested waters of the eastern Mediterranean as well as Egypt’s need to transport its natural gas exports to Europe has forged an alliance between Greece, Israel, Egypt and Cyprus – a bloc which excludes Turkey. Meanwhile, the EU has sanctioned two executives of Turkish Petroleum Incorporated Company for “illegal drilling activities”, because they were unauthorised by the Republic of Cyprus, which claims sovereignty in the area.
But as the search for alternative energy sources for Europe continues against the backdrop of the breakdown of relations with Russia over the war in Ukraine, Ankara sees an opportunity to break its isolation by becoming an energy hub for the west. However it believes Sweden and Finland’s prospective Nato membership could increase opposition to Turkey’s energy interests within the alliance in favour of Greece and Cyprus.
Turkey vs YPG
Meanwhile Sweden and Finland have operated an arms embargo against Turkey since 2019, prompted by Turkish military operations against Kurdish People’s Defence Forces (YPG) in northern Syria. Turkey sees the YPG as the offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU.
Sweden is home to a huge number of Kurdish refugees, estimated at more than 100,000 and Ankara has long been uneasy about the relationship between the Swedish leadership and the the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD – the political wing of YPG). These concerns deepened after Magdalena Andersson was elected as prime minister in 2021, partly as a result of the support of a Kurdish member of parliament. It has been reported that the support was secured in exchange for increasing cooperation between Andersson’s Social Democrats and the PYD, including better treatment of the supporters of YPG in Sweden and not giving in to Turkey’s demands.
Turkey also claims that Sweden provides military equipment to the Kurds, something it has criticised as against “the spirit of the alliance”.
Like in the eastern Mediterranean, the new geopolitical context offers Ankara an opportunity to change the status quo in favour of Turkey. If Ankara were to secure Swedish and Finnish concessions on reducing support to the Kurds in Syria, it would be seen as an important victory for Turkey. Assurances that Sweden and Finland would not block the military equipment transfer to Turkey or veto the trigger of Article 5 of the Nato treaty in case Turkey is attacked by an aggressor, would also be significant gains.
Domestic politics is also playing an important part in Turkey’s diplomatic manoeuvrings. According to the latest polls, Erdoğan faces stiff opposition in the 2023 presidential elections and his Justice and Development Party could lose its parliamentary majority to a united opposition alliance, thanks to a deepening economic crisis, high inflation and devalued Turkish lira.
Erdoğan, like any populist politician, knows how to manipulate voters by presenting himself as a strong hand against perceived enemies at home or abroad. Presenting a tough stance against Sweden and Finland’s support for the Kurdish forces in Syria, plays well to domestic audiences in Turkey. As does hitting back against Greece. It all adds up to a “siege mentality” strategy, which is likely to be the backbone of the government’s election campaign in coming months. The government is likely to make strong associations between the opposition parties and internal and external threats to help shift the focus from the deep economic crisis besetting the country.
Turkey cannot postpone Swedish and Finnish membership forever – but it’s possible that Ankara will receive some of the assurances it seeks. After all, Erdoğan has got away with using international crises for its own domestic and foreign policy ends. But in the context of a new cold war between the west and Russia, Turkey’s manoeuvrings might play into the hands of those questioning Turkey’s commitment to the alliance.