BACKGROUND: On March 30, 2023, a few hours before midnight all 276 parliamentarians present unanimously approved Finland’s NATO membership. Turkey became the last NATO member to ratify Finland’s entry, following Hungary, which ratified Helsinki’s membership on March 27. Finland became NATO’s 31st member on April 4, under the envious watch of Sweden that is still awaiting approval from both Ankara and Budapest. Ankara’s approval of Finland was both a message to Sweden and an attempt to debunk allegations that its objections to the two Nordic countries' entry to NATO are prompted by an alleged intention to please Russia. Turkish officials also object to claims that Ankara and Budapest are in coordination on the approval process, and make the case that Budapest acted on its own when it decided to give a green light to Helsinki a few days prior to the vote in the Turkish parliament.
Although Finland remained determined for a long time to enter NATO together with Sweden – with which it made a joint application last year -- it was apparent early on that Turkey’s objections were largely related to Sweden, and that problems with the latter were of a much more substantial nature. The Finnish government’s decision in January 2023 to lift its arms embargo against Turkey eliminated the main hurdle that had delayed Ankara’s approval for Finland’s NATO entry nearly a year. However, a similar decision by Sweden did not budge Ankara. Although Ankara argued that implementing an arms embargo against a NATO member ran against the spirit of alliance solidarity, the issue was not at the top of its list of concerns.
The Turkish government has been complaining for years about the activities in Sweden of the members or sympathizers of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, (PKK) as well as the members of the Fethullah Gülen movement. PKK is recognized as a terror organization by Sweden, but Ankara accuses Sweden of still providing a safe haven for PKK members and holds that PKK sympathizers engage in activities against Turkey which Ankara claims “poisons” relations between the two countries. Ankara also claims that PKK is recruiting new members, as well as mobilizing financial support through racketeering in Sweden. Members of the Gülen movement, meanwhile, have found refuge in Sweden after the July 2016 failed coup by the movement. Ankara holds that Gülenists are active in Sweden and engaged in hostile campaigns against the Turkish government. While Turkey considers the movement a “terrorist organization,” no other country subscribes to that definition. While PKK militants and Gülenists are present in Finland as well, their activities are, according to Turkish officials, under stricter scrutiny, which is why Turkey found it easier to lift its veto against Helsinki.
The hanging of an effigy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan outside Stockholm's city hall and the permission for the burning of the Quran outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm in January 2023 vindicated Turkey’s argument that Sweden’s lax attitude encourages acts that are hostile to a presumptive ally. When a similar permission was withheld a month later, it proved, in the eyes of Ankara, that when there is a will there is a way.
IMPLICATIONS: The ratification of Finland’s NATO membership is in part intended as a message to Sweden that meeting Turkey’s demands that it curb what it deems anti-Turkish activities is in fact not in contradiction with democratic practices, as Finland is no less democratic than Sweden. More importantly, Turkey wants to press the point that it is not an unreliable NATO ally and disprove the suspicion that it is in cahoots with Russia. Indeed, the Turkish government is sensitive to the charge that its stance on NATO’s Nordic enlargement speaks of a pro-Russian bias. In fact, the anti-Russian steps that Turkey has taken since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are more than meets the eye.
Turkey represents the main NATO asset in counterbalancing Russia in the Black Sea which has become a new center of gravity for NATO strategy and operations. Ankara argues that it has in fact been fulfilling its commitments to the alliance in this theater much more loyally and effectively than other NATO member littoral countries. Turkish surface combatant, submarine, and maritime patrol aircraft remain in the area around the clock, providing NATO with 67 percent of the Black Sea's recognized maritime picture. This information has also been shared with Ukraine for nearly a decade, since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The remaining 33 percent could in theory be provided by other littoral states yet Turkey points out that Bulgaria and Romania have instead chosen to deploy naval resources to the Mediterranean.
Turkey did not hesitate to call Moscow’s so called “special military operation” war; it did so within five days of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and by designating the invasion as war, it could invoke Article 19 of the Montreux Convention which gives Turkey the right -- and duty -- to block the passage of warships that belong to belligerent parties – in this case Russia -- through the Turkish straits, the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. But Turkey did more than apply the letter of the convention: under the Montreux convention, Russian warships that belong to the Russian Black Sea fleet have the right to return to their bases. Turkey, however, asked Russia not to invoke this clause. As a result, Russia’s naval presence in the Black Sea has been significantly reduced, to the detriment of the Russian war strategy.
Some 20 to 30 Russian warships that belong to the Black Sea fleet are believed to have remained outside of the Black Sea, according to Turkish officials. But while this is bound to have impaired the Russian strategy against Ukraine, Turkey has also sought to avoid being party to an escalation between Russia and its NATO allies. It has similarly requested that its NATO allies not deploy war ships to the Black Sea through the Straits, an unofficial request with which they have complied.
CONCLUSIONS: Sweden’s NATO membership will have to be approved by the new Turkish parliament which will convene following the May 14 general elections that will be held simultaneously as the presidential election. In case the opposition wins the presidential as well as the general elections, the chances are that Sweden will be welcomed as NATO member at the Alliance summit in Vilnius in July. The opposition Nation Alliance has pledged to strengthen Turkey’s Western vocation and the economic crisis that the Erdoğan regime will be bequeathing will inevitably prompt a new government to improve relations with Western actors. In fact, there is every reason to assume that this will also apply in case President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are reelected as Turkey is in desperate need of financial support in the wake of the devastating twin earthquakes in February.
The ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership will be an early, welcome opportunity for a new regime to signal Western allies that the days of friction between Turkey and the West are over. In case Erdoğan is returned to power, it will be an opportunity for him to show that he wants a fresh start with the United States.
However, notwithstanding the fact that the opposition is eager to restore Turkey’s standing in the West – and Erdoğan has no other choice -- does not mean that ratification of Sweden is a foregone conclusion. Even though the foreign policy spokesperson of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ünal Çeviköz, has vowed that a new government will promptly ratify Sweden’s NATO accession, the national security bureaucracy would have to be on board as well. Also, neither Erdoğan nor a new government cannot afford giving the impression of being complacent on the issue of terrorism and would have to be able to convincingly show the Turkish public that Sweden has indeed taking concrete steps in meeting Turkey’s demands.
While Turkey is eager to demonstrate its loyalty with NATO, Sweden will also have to make an effort, and ensure that its NATO accession is not endangered by any new, unfortunate incidents like the ones that prevented it from being accepted into the alliance simultaneously with its co-applicant Finland.
Barçın Yinanç is a foreign policy columnist at the Turkish news site t24