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As Finland and Sweden wait to join NATO, Turkey extracts concessions

Ankara is holding up expansion of the Western alliance, and the Biden administration may have to step in to get the deal done

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Sweden's Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom and Finland's Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto attend a meeting of the North Atlantic Council session on Nov. 29, 2022 in Bucharest, Romania. (Andrei Pungovschi/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined NATO ministers gathered in Romania last week, hailing the unity of the alliance in its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has seen member states scramble to provide weapons and funding to aid Kyiv’s fight.

But when Blinken welcomes his counterparts from Finland and Sweden in Washington this week, it will be the differing, and sometimes dissonant, agendas of the bloc’s 30 members that will take center stage.

Long after the June 2022 summit when Western leaders had hoped to cement the Nordic nations’ entry into NATO, the accession of Finland and Sweden remains blocked by two holdouts, Turkey and Hungary, which have not yet ratified the required protocols.

While Hungary has committed to doing so when its legislators reconvene in February, uncertainty about when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will assent — and the possibility he could delay until after Turkish elections next year — presents the Biden administration with a dilemma as it seeks to maintain a pro-Ukraine coalition already tested by steep energy prices and domestic politics.

The delay also highlights the ability of a sole NATO member to bog down alliance priorities and underscores the complexity of U.S.-Turkish ties at a moment when Erdogan is providing critical military support to Ukraine while deepening economic ties with Russia and threatening an offensive into northern Syria that U.S. military officials fear could put American troops at risk.

“The pressure is building up from the West,” said Gonul Tol, a Turkey scholar at the D.C.-based Middle East Institute. As Turkey makes the alliance wait, she said, U.S. officials are reluctant to let Erdogan “use the NATO accession card to extract concessions on other files.”

Ahead of talks with Blinken at the State Department on Thursday, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said that Sweden has already taken numerous steps to accommodate the accession memorandum signed by Turkey, Finland and Sweden in June — including changes to Sweden’s constitution that take effect in January to tighten anti-terror rules, a key Turkish demand.

Stockholm has also announced an end to an informal embargo on arms sales to Turkey and in recent weeks extradited a Kurdish man with alleged links to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a long insurgent war against Erdogan’s government. The extradited man had unsuccessfully sought asylum in Sweden.

Billstrom expressed hope that Turkey would move shortly to ratify the two countries’ entry into NATO, but declined to cite any specific timeline.

“Any delay outside of the most necessary is of course very, very bad,” he said in an interview. “I think that everybody has to take their responsibility on board and do the job they have to do.”

After months of waiting, NATO officials have begun to apply some public pressure on Turkey. During a visit to Istanbul early last month, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed that Finland and Sweden have made good on their side of the deal.

“It is time to welcome Finland and Sweden as full members of NATO,” he said in remarks alongside Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “In these dangerous times, it is even more important to finalize their accession to prevent any misunderstanding or miscalculation in Moscow.”

The accession of two countries that punch above their weight militarily would give NATO a boost and represent an additional setback to Moscow, adding 800 miles to Russia’s border with the alliance.

It isn’t the first time that political concerns have delayed NATO expansion plans. In 2019, Greece agreed to support Macedonia’s accession following a years-long delay — but only after the latter formally moved to change its name to North Macedonia.

It remains unclear what will satisfy Erdogan, who is scrambling to shore up his internal support ahead of presidential polls expected in May or June 2023. This week, Turkey’s justice minister demanded the extradition of “all terrorists that Turkey wants” before his country will sign off on Sweden’s NATO bid, suggesting that only a handful of extraditions will not suffice.

Turkey’s concerns appear to be primarily directed at Sweden rather than Finland. Swedish media reported Wednesday that the country’s attorney general issued an opinion that several additional individuals Turkey has identified in their NATO demands should not be extradited.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, speaking in a separate interview, said the delay had generated concern at a time of intense security upheaval in Europe. He referenced apparent attacks on Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea in September — which Nordic nations deemed sabotage — and an incident last month in which an explosion killed two people in Poland which sparked fears of a Russian attack into NATO, but which U.S. and NATO officials later said appeared to be an errant Ukrainian air defense missile.

“Luckily, it was not an attack from Russia. But of course you can imagine that if it had been an attack from Russia … it would have been a very complex situation for countries like Finland or Sweden: Do we associate with NATO decisions and action when we are not covered by Article V?” Article V refers to NATO’s mutual defense pledge.

U.S. officials acknowledge they have taken an arms-length approach to the accession debate, as they seek to avoid being pulled into a thorny discussion over the relationship with Ankara, parts of which have invoked congressional scrutiny.

While the Pentagon has said it supports a proposed deal to sell Ankara dozens of new F-16 fighter jets and upgrades for its current F-16 fleet, the sale already faces opposition from some key lawmakers in part due to Turkey’s hostile relationship with Greece.

Criticism of that potential sale threatens to compound congressional antagonism over Turkey’s 2020 purchase of Russia’s sophisticated S-400 air defense system, a deal that resulted in U.S. sanctions and Turkey’s exclusion from the U.S. F-35 stealth fighter program.

The NATO debate comes as U.S. officials voice concern that a threatened Turkish offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria could put the hundreds of American troops there at risk, as occurred in 2019 when Ankara launched a similar operation. A recent cross-border Turkish strike came within 150 yards of American personnel in Syria, U.S. officials have said.

U.S. support for Kurdish fighters there, whom Ankara views as part of the PKK, has been a thorn in U.S.-Turkish ties since that partnership began at the height of the war against the Islamic State.

The Turkish Embassy in Washington could not be immediately reached for comment. Ankara’s long-standing security concerns were underscored last month when an explosion on a busy Istanbul street killed at least six people in an attack Turkish authorities blamed on the PKK.

American officials acknowledge that Erdogan has staked out a unique, and often beneficial, position among NATO nations in regards to Russia’s war in Ukraine, supplying drones and other military gear to Ukraine while serving as an intermediary between NATO and Russian President Vladimir Putin, helping to broker a crucial grain export deal.

At the same time, Turkey has deepened economic ties with Russia despite successive rounds of Western sanctions. And while Erdogan’s reticence to ratify Finland and Sweden’s NATO bid may be tied mainly to domestic concerns, Western officials note that the delay only serves Putin, who has long complained about NATO encroachment.

Billstrom noted that there is only so much his government can do in attempting to clear the way for NATO entry.

“It is necessary to take into account the fact that Sweden has an independent judiciary and the government won’t be able to do things which are outside of these limitations,” he said.

He said Turkey needs to follow through with commitments of its own, for example improving coordination in tracking individuals who commit crimes in Sweden and then flee to Turkey.

Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey scholar at Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he expected Erdogan to give his consent shortly before the election, maximizing the political gain of conciliatory steps by Finland and Sweden as “a complete vindication of Turkey’s position.”

Cagaptay said that while American officials may want to stay out of the Sweden-Finland-Turkey debate, they may need to step in to help seal the deal.

“It’s a question of who’s going to blink first,” he said. “While [President] Biden says he’s not going to do anything, I think this will take a last-minute intervention from the White House.”

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