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How Turkey is ruining NATO’s moment of unity

President Erdoğan is blocking the quick membership addition of Sweden and Finland to the alliance.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan holding a press conference during the NATO Summit at the IFEMA congress centre in Madrid, Spain, on June 30, 2022.
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

This July, NATO will meet for a key summit in Lithuania, a chance to get leaders together and showcase the alliance’s strength and renewed sense of purpose against the backdrop of Russia’s war against Ukraine. And NATO wants to do this in one very specific way: by welcoming two longtime holdouts, Sweden and Finland, into NATO.

Except right now, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan is threatening to spoil it all.

Erdoğan, specifically, is raising new objections to the ascension of Finland and especially Sweden over what Turkey perceives as the latter’s lax policies toward Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and other groups that Turkey deems terrorist organizations. Most recently, Erdoğan has used a far-right politician’s burning of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm to harden his opposition to Sweden’s NATO bid.

All NATO members must approve new ones, so Erdoğan’s opposition is effectively a veto. The Turkish president is not alone in declining support— Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is also holding out, for now — but Erdoğan is seen as the more legitimate roadblock. Erdoğan is flexing his foreign policy power and influence, and seeking to improve his domestic political position, especially ahead of difficult elections this May.

“Erdoğan thinks Turkey has leverage. Erdoğan thinks Turkey has justifiable grievances about Sweden’s policies. Erdoğan thinks he has an opportunity to use that leverage to address those grievances in a way that would be good for Turkey’s national interests. And, in addition to all of that, the entire issue is good for Erdoğan politically,” said Nicholas Danforth, editor at War on the Rocks and nonresident senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.

Given all that, it’s not really surprising this spat over the Nordic countries’ NATO membership is dragging out. But this is also really not how the script was supposed to go — at least according to most of the rest of NATO.

What Turkey says it’s objecting to and why

Sweden and Finland announced last year they would seek to join NATO, a historic reversal for two countries that have remained militarily non-aligned. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed their calculus, especially in Finland, which shares a border with Russia and has the memory of its own invasion by the country. Both are strong European democracies, and both have modern militaries that were already closely cooperating with NATO, so ascension was expected to be relatively uncontroversial and quick, unlike some other recent bids, which elicited a lot more criticism about the risks of NATO expansionism. Perhaps most importantly, the timing of their applications represented a strategic and symbolic win for an alliance invigorated and united against Russian aggression.

But Turkey quickly complicated things, with Erdoğan saying the country would not back the Finnish and Swedish bids. Turkey objected to what it saw as both countries’ — but especially Sweden’s — support or role as a safe haven for the PKK, and other networks Turkey has deemed terrorist groups. Sweden has traditionally taken in many Kurdish refugees, but Turkey sees Sweden as providing a refuge for organizing and financing anti-Turkish activities. The PKK has staged terrorist attacks in Turkey (it is designated as a terrorist organization by the US and European Union), but Erdoğan has also arbitrarily cracked down on Kurdish groups and other opposition members of civil society. Erdoğan also objected to the countries’ arms embargoes on Turkey, which were put in place after Turkey invaded Syria in 2019.

“Turkey has a number of grievances concerning the laxity of the Swedish response to fight the influence of terror-linked entities, like the PKK, its fundraising, its public manifestations, and so on,” said Sinan​ Ülgen, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “For quite a long time, Swedish authorities remained insensitive to Turkey’s requests to do more on this. So when Sweden decided to apply for [NATO] membership, Turkey obtained leverage. And now it has, and is using, this leverage.”

In June, Sweden, Finland, and Turkey reached a memorandum of understanding to try to assuage some of Erdoğan’s concerns. Sweden and Finland lifted their arms blockades and agreed to a series of steps to cooperate with Turkey on terrorism-related issues.

But Erdoğan is pushing for more concessions, especially from Sweden. Some of the demands are wholly unrealistic, such as a request to extradite 130 purported “terrorists” to Turkey. As experts pointed out, Turkey operates under a pretty shaky definition of terrorism, and things that Erdoğan might consider terrorism look a lot more like freedom of speech in Sweden. Additionally, even in things like extradition, Sweden and Finland can’t just arbitrarily arrest people; it has to go through the judicial system, and the accused have due process.

Then, recent anti-Turkey protests in Stockholm and the burning of the Quran by one far-right protester have soured talks even further. Turkey condemned the burning as “anti-Islam,” with the Turkish Foreign Ministry saying that allowing such acts “under the guise of freedom of expression is completely unacceptable.” Turkey then scrapped talks with Swedish officials.

Sweden also condemned the act and the protests (which were actually anti-NATO protests). “This act plays directly into the hands of Russia and weakens our country, and it happened during the most serious security situation since the Second World War,” said. Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström. (The book burner was reportedly funded by a journalist with Kremlin ties.) But, at the same time, Sweden said, the whole thing wasn’t actually against Swedish law, even if they were angry about it, too.

And that’s about where the standoff is now. Sweden and Finland are still trying to work something out, with Sweden introducing a law Thursday that would ban certain activities that could support terrorist organizations. Washington and Brussels are increasingly annoyed, with some leaders being pretty vocal about Turkey’s disloyalty. Congress has said Ankara will not get American-made F-16s (more on that later) unless it approves the NATO bids. More people are also saying that maybe NATO should just kick Turkey out (no more on that because, while it’s noteworthy politicians are even talking about it, experts said it’s not realistic and the mechanisms to do so are pretty fuzzy). Turkey, meanwhile, has basically said talks are meaningless in the current climate, though it floated the possibility of backing Finland for NATO, just not Sweden — something Finland immediately rejected, as the two Nordic countries are very close, and they purposely sought a joint bid.

And the standoff may stay this way, at least until May — which is when Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party are facing a difficult election. The economy is very, very bad, and has been for a while, with incredibly high inflation. Erdoğan has been in power for a long time, and polls — even in an environment where Erdoğan controls a lot of the media — show some opposition leaders edging him out.

But the no-Sweden-in-NATO stuff? That plays. Erdoğan has for a long time complained that NATO partners do not take seriously Turkey’s security concerns, especially around the PKK. This is an argument that resonates at home — not just with his base, but with broad swaths of the population. “It’s just an issue that he would like to keep alive because that plays well, along with other elements of the foreign policy arena, which, I think, he is weaponizing,” said Sinan Ciddi, a professor of National Security Studies at Marine Corps University. “It gets the crowds fired up and gives people an extra reason to vote for him.” And if the goal is to keep this an electoral issue, it doesn’t really matter what Sweden or Finland or other NATO countries offer.

And Erdoğan’s efforts to foil the best-laid plans of Washington and other Western powers in NATO may also resonate domestically. As experts said, this fits with how Erdoğan sees himself — and Turkey — as a player and a power in a multipolar world. “He sees an opportunity to demonstrate that this is a Turkey that is willing and able to engage in brinkmanship to get what it wants,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University and nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute. “This is a Turkey that can say ‘no.’ This is a Turkey that expects its interest to be taken seriously — and not to have its allies assume that it will simply get into line because they said.”

The rest of NATO is increasingly angry, which might make Erdoğan’s move riskier in the long run

Turkey sees NATO as an instrument of its foreign policy, a way to get Turkey a seat at the table, and wrangle what it wants out of the big powers also sitting there. Right now, NATO ascension is a way to do that.

“He understands the importance of NATO expansion to these countries [Sweden and Finland], for the United States, for Europe, so he wanted to get as much as he could from these countries,” said Gönül Tol, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and author of Erdoğan’s War: A Strongman’s Struggle at Home and in Syria.

But Erdoğan’s obstinance is causing real frustration in Washington and throughout European capitals. This is not exactly new; even before Erdoğan, Turkey was always something of a NATO misfit — incredibly useful to the alliance because of its unique position, but also a power whose interests and perspectives did not always align with the rest of the alliance members.

This has been on full display throughout the Ukraine war. Erdoğan is the rare leader in NATO who has an open line to Moscow — but also to Kyiv. Turkey has repeatedly tried and repeatedly offered to broker a talks, and Turkey did help broker the deal that got grain out of the Black Sea. Erdoğan has kept up his ties with Vladimir Putin, and he is buying a lot of Russia’s stuff, despite sanctions. At the same time, he’s still talking to Volodymyr Zelenskyy and is selling Ukraine critical weapons, most notably drones, that have been very influential on the battlefield. Turkey has also condemned the war and closed off a Black Sea route, which ultimately has made it very difficult for Russian warships to pass through. These are all things Washington and Brussels want to see stay in place, and that had helped win Erdoğan some leeway from other NATO allies.

But Erdoğan’s continued brinkmanship may undermine that. As Tol said, the Turkish leader may now be overplaying his hand. “By foot-dragging on Finland and Sweden, I think he has lost that momentum and he has lost the goodwill that he had built,” she said.

The rest of NATO is trying to be patient with Erdoğan, taking a wait-and-see approach with the election with the hope that if Erdogan wins, perhaps he won’t have the electoral motivation to keep blocking. Yet Washington does have some leverage, too: specifically, the F-16 fighter jets, which Turkey also really wants. Turkey was kicked out of the F-35 program after buying a weapons system from Moscow, and Erdoğan has always wanted back in. Right now, lawmakers in Congress remain extraordinarily opposed to selling the F-16s — specifically because of Erdoğan’s antics — and the Biden administration is unlikely to go around Congress. Which means Turkey won’t get near the weapons it wants if it continues to stymie NATO’s big moment.

Most officials seem confident that Turkey will, in the end, fall in line. But the longer he hammers his maximalist demands, the more likely the possibility that Erdogan denies NATO its ability to rapidly welcome Finland and Sweden. And the longer Erdogan drags this out, the harder it may be to undo the damage among allies. “Erdogan is using his leverage, we’ll see how effectively,” Danforth said. “But in the long term, this is really creating much deeper doubts about Turkey’s real value in NATO.”

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