Analysis |

Finland and Sweden Knock on NATO's Door. But Erdogan Is the Club's Bouncer

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's objection to the two Scandinavian countries joining NATO strengthens his relations with Russia, and establishes his position as a moderator between Putin and Biden

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan holds a news conference during the NATO summit at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, in 2021.
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan holds a news conference during the NATO summit at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, in 2021. Credit: YVES HERMAN/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The intention of both Finland and Sweden to join NATO is perceived as a blow to Russia. President Vladimir Putin even hinted that he might retaliate with military action, although the Kremlin quickly made clear that it was not Russia’s intention to attack the two countries that had for more than 70 years refrained from joining the most powerful Western military organization.

For U.S. President Joe Biden, this is of course good news; moreover, it further undermines Putin’s assumption that his country’s invasion of Ukraine would tear NATO to shreds. But over the weekend, when the foreign ministers of NATO countries met in Berlin to discuss the war and the issue of the new candidates’ membership, they were forced to defuse an unexpected land mine.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Friday that Turkey would not “look positively” at their inclusion in NATO, because the two Scandinavian countries serve as a “guest house for terrorists.” Erdogan blames the two for allowing the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Ankara has declared a terrorist organization, to conduct political activity, to raise money and to lead an anti-Turkish media campaign on their soil.

All at once, Erdogan became the club's bouncer.

NATO does have an open-door policy that invites any country to join it, in keeping, of course, with the rules of the club, but the decision requires a unanimous vote by all 30 members. That is, each country has veto power. If Erdogan sticks to his guns, Finland and Sweden might remain out in the cold.

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin.Credit: LEHTIKUVA/ REUTERS

The Turkish president’s position is somewhat surprising given that in 2018, he himself threatened to withdraw from NATO because of sanctions imposed on his country by President Donald Trump, sparked by the lengthy detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey. Erdogan published an article at the time in The New York Times in which he warned that Turkey would have to find new friends if the United States did not change its policy toward Ankara.

In 2017, Turkey did not take part in joint NATO maneuvers because images of Erdogan and of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk were placed on the enemy targets. The apology by the NATO commander and the immediate removal of the photos did not help; the damage was done and Turkey was insulted to the very depths of its soul.

Threats or hints of Turkey’s intention to abandon NATO also surfaced after Ankara's purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems from Moscow three years ago. Trump went overboard to defend Ankara and accused the Obama administration of having pushed Turkey to that point because of its refusal to sell it comparable American-made systems.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy receives a standing ovation as he addresses Sweden's parliament via video link, in Stockholm, in March. Credit: Paul Wennerholm /AP

Trump’s main fear was that a sharp U.S. response could lead Turkey to leave NATO and forge a military alliance with Russia. That might have been a strong and persuasive argument, if not for the fact that the same year sanctions were imposed on Turkey, Trump himself had considered dropping out of NATO because of the enormous cost of membership paid by the United States. But ultimately the U.S. president was forced by NATO and Congress to back down, to kick Turkey out of the F-35 aircraft development program, and to impose sanctions on Turkish military procurement and manufacturing.

Now it’s Biden’s turn to manage the arm-wrestling contest with Erdogan. Ties between the two presidents are far from wonderful. During his election campaign, Biden said he knew how to handle Erdogan, but after he took office, many months passed before the two spoke directly.

It seems that there is no diplomatic or military issue both of them can agree on – whether it concerns Turkey’s actions in Syria, and especially against the Kurds; human rights and freedom of expression; the purchase of Russian-made missiles; Turkish gas drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea; or Ankara's refusal to join sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of its recent invasion of Ukraine.

The tight American embrace that initially brought Turkey into NATO in 1952 has relaxed, but the connection with the second-largest army in NATO and Turkey’s important strategic location are still essential factors, especially considering the desire to show Russia Western unity and to thwart any effort by Moscow to create cracks in the organization. Erdogan sometimes mistakenly overestimates his status and strength, but this time it seems that he holds a strong bargaining chip, although it is not entirely clear what he wants to do with it. Sweden and Finland do not intend to eject Kurdish activists or to close down their media outlets. What is “allowed” for Germany is allowed for them as well.

If Erdogan wants to pressure the U.S. government to sell it 40 F-16 fighter jets in exchange for allowing the two Scandinavian countries to join NATO – he’s barging through an open door. Biden has already asked Congress to approve that sale and, given the atmosphere in Congress, the request will be granted. It seems that Erdogan is now motivated by the desire to bolster his position as someone who can mediate between the United States and Russia, and between Ukraine and Russia, and in particular to maintain proper relations with the Kremlin, regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine.

Erdogan has someone to learn from – and someone to teach. Even its new-old friend, Israel, has been playing both sides of the field and presenting itself as having been invited in by both teams.

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