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Will Turkey block NATO membership for Sweden and Finland?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks ahead of the peace talks between delegations from Russia and Ukraine at Dolmabahce Presidential Office in Istanbul, Turkiye on March 29, 2022.

Arda Kucukkaya | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has doubled down on his opposition to Sweden and Finland joining the NATO alliance, a move that would be historic for the two Nordic countries in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We will not say ‘yes’ to those [countries] who apply sanctions to Turkey to join security organization NATO,” Erdogan said at a press conference late Monday. He was referring to Sweden’s suspension of weapons sales to Turkey in 2019 over its military activities in Syria.

Sweden’s foreign ministry said Monday that it planned to send senior officials from both Sweden and Finland to Turkish capital Ankara to address Erdogan’s objections. But the Turkish leader essentially said they’d be wasting their time.

“Will they come to persuade us? Excuse us, but they shouldn’t bother,” Erdogan said. He added that the two countries joining would make NATO “a place where representatives of terrorist organizations are concentrated.”

Finland’s foreign ministry responded to a CNBC request for comment, saying that it “implements the UN as well as the EU terrorism sanctions against any person or entity … in accordance with EU legislation” and that “the EU and Turkey have regular dialogues on counterterrorism issues.” CNBC has also reached out to the Swedish government for comment.

Sweden and Finland have provided refuge to members of Kurdish militant separatist organization the PKK, which Turkey classifies as a terrorist organization and which has carried out attacks in Turkey. The two countries have also provided support for and held high-level meetings with members of the YPG, which is the PKK’s branch in Syria credited for helping defeat ISIS as well as fighting against Turkish forces.

Why is this so crucial?

Sweden and Finland are on the brink of applying for membership to NATO, after the governments of both countries expressed their support for the move to abandon their traditional positions of non-alignment between the alliance and Russia.

This would expand the Western defense organization’s clout and territory and make a dramatic statement in pushing back against Russia, and has already spurred anger and threats from Moscow. Sweden and Finland are members of the EU, but not NATO, and the latter shares an 830-mile border with Russia.

“It feels like a major crisis is looming in Turkey-Western relations over Finland and Sweden’s NATO bid.”

Timothy Ash

Emerging Markets strategist, Bluebay Asset Management

The two countries joining NATO would give Moscow “more officially registered opponents,” its former president and high-ranking security official Dmitry Medvedev warned in mid-April.

But NATO ascension for a new member state requires consensus approval from all existing members.

While NATO’s leadership has welcomed the news, suggesting the applicants could be accepted into the group quickly, one of its most militarily powerful members stands in the way: Turkey.

Turkey, which joined the alliance in 1952, is a crucial player in NATO, boasting the second-largest military in the 30-member group after the United States.

For both Sweden and Finland, the decision to apply for NATO membership is monumental and was triggered by Russia’s brutal invasion of its neighbor Ukraine, which itself had aspirations to join NATO. Not until after the invasion did public opinion in both countries soar in favor of joining the 73-year-old defense alliance.

“The stakes here are now massive,” Timothy Ash, emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, said in a note Tuesday. “It feels like a major crisis is looming in Turkey-Western relations over Finland and Sweden’s NATO bid.”

“Other NATO members will be furious with Turkey given the now clear and present danger to Europe presented by Putin in Ukraine,” Ash added. “Turkey will be seen an an unreliable partner. This will leave even more bad blood/faith between the two sides — gone will be any remnants of a Turkish EU accession bid.”

Turkey’s highly strategic Incirlik airbase is home to 50 of the U.S.’s tactical nuclear weapons, which some U.S. officials have suggested removing due to increasing tensions with Washington and Ankara in recent years. Those tensions were centered partly on Erdogan’s warming ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and its controversial decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense system, which saw it kicked out of NATO’s F-35 program.

While Turkey has supported Ukraine by sending it weapons, in particular its lethal Bayraktar drones, and has tried to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv, it has so far refused to join its NATO allies in sanctioning Russia.

Just tough talk?

Some analysts are skeptical of Erdogan’s tough talk, convinced he won’t actually block the NATO membership bids — rather, they predict he will simply use his country’s leverage to extract concessions and boost his own waning popularity at home.

“Despite its objections, Ankara will not block the countries’ entry into NATO,” analysts at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group wrote in a research note late Monday.

“Erdogan is likely looking for concessions for green-lighting NATO’s expansion, mainly from Sweden. These might include the easing of Stockholm’s bilateral arms embargo on Turkey and some recognition of PKK as a terrorist organization to curtail its fund-raising and recruitment activities,” the note said.

Erdogan’s top foreign policy advisor Ibrahim Kalin over the weekend reassured allies by saying in an interview with Reuters: “We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” concerning the NATO accession for Sweden and Finland.

Weapons deals will likely play an important role in whatever negotiations take place. The Biden administration is currently seeking approval from Congress to finalize a sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, for which Ankara will likely seek assurances.

But a more pressing reason behind Erdogan’s brinksmanship may be the need to boost his weakening popularity domestically, amid an inflation and cost of living crisis. Opinion polls in Turkey have hit their lowest in years.

Turkish inflation hit an eye-watering 70% in April, due in large part to years of refusal by Erdogan to raise interest rates while burning through currency reserves. The country of 84 million has been hit hard by the global rise in the cost of energy and basic goods, with fuel and agricultural commodity prices skyrocketing thanks in part to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“There are two things which rally the nation in Turkey,” Ash wrote. “Opposition to the PKK and perceived Western hypocrisy.”

 

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