Blocking NATO Expansion Could Mean Far-Reaching Implications for Turkey
By Suleyman Ozeren
Turkey's blocking of Sweden and Finland’s bid North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for membership led to confusion and frustration in the alliance. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced Turkey’s opposition to NATO expansion, and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) trailed his remarks. While repeating some conditions publicly, Ankara also seeks to use NATO’s expansion to gain concessions from the West, particularly from the United States.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has profoundly unsettled Europe’s security architecture, undermining the political status quo that came to define the continental order since the end of the Cold War. It also sent a chilling warning across the Baltics, where Finland and Sweden, long known for their unfaltering commitment to a policy of neutrality over the past two centuries, had gone through a sea change. All this change of heart took place within a couple of months. The climactic moment came when Sweden and Finland, abandoning their non-alignment policy, officially applied to NATO this past week in a clamor for full membership with the coveted protection of the 5th Article of the Alliance.
The Swedish/Finnish endeavor has unwittingly opened cracks within the alliance as Turkey, which is an indispensable and key ally within NATO, openly resisted and blocked two countries’ membership applications. So far now, Ankara has come up with major preconditions to lift its blocking. First, Turkey wants Sweden to change its policy toward the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with its military wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG). Ankara considers these parties to be the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) affiliated organizations. Second, Turkey requests the extradition of political dissidents, including journalists and activists who have protected status in Sweden. Last but not least, Ankara demands the end of the arms embargo by Sweden and Finland imposed against Turkey after its military endeavor in northern Syria in late 2016.
Why did Ankara block Sweden and Finland from becoming members of NATO? Are there other motivations behind Ankara’s objections to both countries’ bid for NATO membership? Were Turkey’s publicly stated conditions to lift its blockage reasonable and attainable? Where do the United States and Russia situate in this conundrum? How will the Biden Administration react to Turkey’s demands?
Turkey’s Many Calculations
Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu, was struggling when he scrambled to offer a compelling case about Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s latest expansion under consideration. Evidently, Ankara expects to gain more than just the conditions it put forward to lift its blocking. Erdogan capitalizes on this opportunity to put pressure on the Biden Administration to smoothen the process for Turkey’s plan to purchase 40 F-16s. Ankara also wants to be re-included in the F-35 program. The U.S. administration expelled Turkey several years ago after the imposition of punitive CAATSA sanctions due to the Erdogan government’s purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia to the chagrin of Washington and to the detriment of the Atlantic alliance.
Although not directly linked, the Turkish foreign minister referred to a federal case in the United States against Turkish state-owned Halkbank, which had been involved in a scheme to bust U.S.-led international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program in the early 2010s. Apparently, Ankara expects the Biden administration to kill off the judicial process against Halkbank, something that is inconceivable given the established notion of separation of powers in the U.S. Like his predecessors, including Obama and Trump, Biden also has to deal with this enigma.
Turkey’s multiple demands and recent actions within NATO cannot be fully grasped without understanding the transformation of civil and military bureaucracy over recent years. The unfolding diplomatic resistance in Turkey is not just related to the Erdogan government’s intransigence. Rather, the enthusiasm for Turkey’s ongoing resistance to NATO expansion springs from a political consensus shared by pro-Islamist intellectuals and ultranationalist retired generals.
The lingering Ukraine war also looms large over Turkey’s calculations regarding the recent NATO debate. Equally important, Ankara's current balancing act vis-à-vis the war cannot be analyzed without considering the aforementioned political transformation and the personal rapport between the Turkish and Russian strongmen, Erdogan, and Vladimir Putin. By indefinitely keeping Sweden and Finland at the gates of NATO, Ankara seeks to mitigate Moscow’s bruised feelings accentuated by Russian military losses caused by Turkey-supplied Bayraktar TB2 drones. Turkey’s dithering, in this respect, is music to Russian ears. It also gives Erdogan a fodder to perpetuate his balancing policy by subtly supporting Ukraine, but also wreaking diplomatic havoc within NATO and courting Russia all at the same time.
In recent months, Turkey-U.S. relations have witnessed a considerable recovery. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkey’s controversial position in the West has taken on a much more positive posture. As Turkey and its Western allies are once again at loggerheads over Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership bids, this positive shift in the Western perception of Ankara due to its geopolitical status during the Ukraine war proves short-lived. The Turkish obstinacy is also conceivably driven by the electoral calculations of the Erdogan administration. Against this backdrop, the NATO conflict provides a political drama like “us and them” as the country is entering an election wilderness.
Potential Implications for Turkey
For Ankara, wielding the veto option seeks to strengthen Turkey’s bargaining position against new applicants and the U.S., the leader and backbone of the NATO alliance. However, overplaying its hand could undercut Turkey’s position in the long run. The pressing geopolitical demands after the Russian invasion makes Ankara's uncompromising stance less palatable and more frustrating for Western allies. They have grown more impatient and less tolerant with regard to Ankara’s perceived brinkmanship. It also risks weakening Ankara’s hand in its bid to purchase new F-16s and its desire to patch up differences with E.U. as its economy teeters recently.
Turkey’s opposition to NATO expansion could have far-reaching implications domestically and internationally. First, Ankara’s extradition requests are difficult, if not impossible, to carry out due to Sweden's long history of promoting human rights. Turkey's demands belie the cornerstone of Sweden’s rules-based legal system and also do not sit well with the Swedish public. In this context, such requests seem implausible.
Ankara touts Finland’s arms embargo against Turkey as another main reason behind its blocking of the latter. It is rather interesting to see why Ankara considers this embargo a significant show-stopper while the Turkish leaders boast that Turkey’s self-sufficiency in the defense industry has reached 80 percent. To sum up, Turkey’s justifications for blocking the road for these two countries’ NATO membership are far from convincing.
Second, Ankara’s zero-sum game approach could further exacerbate the tensions with its allies and threatens to isolate Turkey in the Western bloc. It would harden anti-Turkey sentiment in the U.S. Congress, where the number of Ankara’s proponents has already thinned out due to the Erdogan administration’s missteps in recent years. The unfolding drama surrounding NATO may hinder the Senate's approval for the F-16 sale to Turkey.
The confrontation with NATO may have a potential fallout on Ankara’s overtures across the Middle East. It would significantly undercut Ankara’s recent charm offensive in the Middle East to mend some fractured relationships with regional countries, including but not limited to Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Israel, and others.
Third, unlike in the previous cases, Ankara lacks two critical positions of strength; value-based convincing arguments for international support, domestic backing, and popularity at home. Ankara's timing couldn't be worse, given that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has posed an existential threat to the countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. This time it is not just about who would be the Secretary-General of NATO or NATO operations in a certain country. The Ukrainian war created a political and psychological climate in which the Europeans have felt compelled to support Ukraine and any country that feels threatened by Russian aggression. More importantly, NATO is about to determine one of its most critical route maps. The new “strategic concept” will be adopted in the 2022 Madrid Summit, which “will define the security challenges facing the Alliance and outline the political and military tasks that NATO will carry out to address them.” Turkey’s disruptive tactics create frustration among NATO members at a time when the alliance needs stronger unity more than ever before.
Consequently, any impeding actor that might threaten unity could face a backlash; therefore, Turkey’s stance against NATO expansion could be a risk to NATO and Europe’s security. On the domestic front, Erdogan and his party are facing one of the most challenging elections in more than 20 years of his tenure. The deepening economic crisis has been eroding his popularity amid a waning public trust about whether he could pull off a magical solution to people’s pressing butter and bread issues. Feeling vulnerable, Erdogan, diplomatically speaking, wants to weaponize Turkey’s veto power to gain some political scores among Turkish voters by portraying himself as a formidable leader who could take on NATO and the West. Though it might have been appealing in the past, the strategy lacks muscle and meat given Turkey’s hardening economic and social woes.
Last but not least, Turkey's balancing act in the Ukraine war could lose its traction, something that could reinforce the skeptics' view that Turkey is swinging toward Russia's bloc. Turkey has already been under scrutiny since the AKP government declared an open-door policy for the Russian oligarchs. Despite its commendable efforts to mediate a diplomatic solution between Russia and Ukraine by hosting successive rounds of talks in Istanbul, Ankara’s opportunity-driven approach has raised eyebrows.
Asking Sweden and Finland to write off their rules-based system’s democratic tenets for the sake of Turkish requests is not attenable. Neither Sweden nor Finland would compromise their democratic system to satisfy Ankara’s demands. If Turkey wants to gain anything from this conundrum, the manner and substance of its diplomatic negotiations should be constructive, not disruptive in nature.
To preserve the integrity of the alliance, granting concessions without much fuss could be an easy option for the United States and NATO, but it would not easily satisfy Erdogan. Russia’s military undertaking in Ukraine does not only threaten the rest of Europe or Baltic states, it also poses considerable security challenges for Turkey as well. NATO may well remind Turkey’s leadership over its treasured protective umbrella.
When dealing with Turkey, the United States and other NATO members should emphasize the value system within NATO, its operational goals, and high-profile cooperation among allies as necessary preconditions. These elements only get materialized if constructive dialogue governs the intra-alliance relations, not threats or disruptive diplomacy.