Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has agreed to support Sweden’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a last-minute about-face that delivers a symbolic win for the military pact ahead of its summit on Tuesday.
Late Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that Erdoğan would push for Sweden’s ratification into NATO. It was a pretty remarkable turnaround from Erdoğan, whose objections seemed to deepen earlier Monday, when he tried to tie Sweden’s NATO prospects to Turkey’s ascension to the European Union.
Sweden had already made a series of concessions to Turkey to persuade Erdoğan, and Stoltenberg, the United States, and other NATO allies had spent recent days trying to convince Erdoğan to end his months-long obstruction. Allies are gathering in Vilnius, Lithuania for this year’s NATO summit, and Turkey’s objections undermined the sense of cohesion the alliance sought to project. It also distracted from the other difficult diplomacy leaders are working on this week, most notably, the question of Ukraine’s future NATO membership.
Glad to announce that after the meeting I hosted with @RTErdogan & @SwedishPM, President Erdogan has agreed to forward #Sweden's accession protocol to the Grand National Assembly ASAP & ensure ratification. This is an historic step which makes all #NATO Allies stronger & safer. pic.twitter.com/D7OeR5Vgba— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) July 10, 2023
Turkey’s parliament (along with Hungary’s) must still ratify Sweden’s membership, so this is not a totally done deal yet. But NATO can still claim a big victory — and, er, a totally natural photo-op — as the summit begins. This is more than just symbolism, though. This year, NATO expanded, and will gain two new members, bringing the total to 32. Finland (which officially joined in April) and Sweden had long pursued policies of nonalignment, cooperating with NATO, but staying firmly outside the pact. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced Finland and Sweden to reconsider their security interests, and see ascension as a deterrent to future Russian aggression.
Finland’s and Sweden’s membership, then, is a defeat for Vladimir Putin, whose war in Ukraine ultimately spurred the enlargement and potentially, the reshaping, of the alliance. NATO wants to seize on this moment to reinvigorate its mission and reimagine its role in the defense of Europe and its position in the world.
The NATO-Turkey-Sweden drama, briefly explained
Last summer, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden dropped their long-held stance of nonalignment and announced their intention to join NATO. The two European Union countries had a long history of cooperating closely with the alliance, and both are strong, stable democracies — typically the ideal formula for a smooth membership.
Erdoğan saw it differently. The Turkish leader opposed their bids because of what he saw as the countries’ support for Kurdish groups that he regards as terrorist organizations, and because of the countries’ arms embargoes on Turkey. At last year’s NATO summit in Madrid, Turkey, Finland, and Sweden all agreed to a memorandum of understanding that seemed to resolve these issues.
But it didn’t last. Though the Turkish leader ultimately allowed Finland to join, he continued to block Sweden’s entry, saying that it still had not been tough enough on terrorists.
Erdoğan’s definition of terrorists, though, is pretty expansive, and often includes dissidents and others critical of his regime. Even if Turkey has a case, Sweden has to follow due process and rule of law and can’t just, say, extradite a bunch of people on a whim. A recent Quran-burning outside a Stockholm mosque has added to tensions, as Turkey interprets these as Sweden’s permissive attitude toward anti-Islamic protests rather than freedom of speech.
Even so, Sweden made concessions, including strengthening its antiterrorism laws and by agreeing to extradite some individuals, including at least one person convicted of a drug crime in Turkey in 2013. (The person claims the real reason for his extradition is his PKK ties.) But Sweden is also trying to walk a delicate line, as both its government and its citizens have insisted they will not compromise on rule of law to appease Turkey.
In addition to these steps, the hope was that Erdoğan, fresh off a big reelection win this May, would no longer be seeking easy political wins, and so might ease off his Sweden stance by the time this summit rolled around. But just because Erdoğan won another term didn’t mean he would become a different president. As experts said, he would see the election as a way to reset relations with the West — but on his terms. Which meant few Turkish observers thought he’d rush to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership after the election, at least not without getting something in return.
That something might be F-16 fighter jets. The Biden administration has been very clear that it will be happy to let Turkey buy upgraded equipment, and hasn’t even been all that discreet about using it as leverage in this effort to get Sweden into NATO. “I congratulated Erdogan. He still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden, so let’s get that done,” President Joe Biden said after Erdoğan’s election win in May.
But it isn’t quite that simple. Congress ultimately has a say over weapons transfers, and it has continued to object to an F-16 deal over the Sweden-NATO standoff, but also other concerns, such as Turkey’s anti-democratic slide and Syria. Over the weekend, Biden and Erdoğan had a chat, where they talked about F-16s, but the Turkish leader appeared to bristle at the idea of a possible quid pro quo, basically saying it was “not correct” to connect the two.
Turns out Erdoğan wanted something unexpected: a revival of his country’s EU membership bid.
Turkey officially entered into ascension negotiations with the EU in 2005, but its democratic and rule-of-law backsliding under Erdoğan, especially in recent years, has put its bid indefinitely on hold.
It’s not really clear whether EU membership is even something Erdoğan really wants. Erdoğan uses his opposition to the West as a way to exert Turkey’s strength and influence, and that nationalism plays well domestically: being the headliner for the first days of the NATO summit and claiming that he revived Turkey’s EU bid may sell well at home. Even better if he ends up getting those F-16s.
What’s also not clear is how the Sweden debacle might further transform relations between the West and Turkey. Turkey is proving itself an unreliable ally and partner. Though Erdoğan conceded in the end, he put the alliance through quite a bit of strain, and the West may have less tolerance in the future for Erdoğan’s antics. NATO will likely lean into its moment of unity now, but it is unlikely to obscure its current fractures for long.