Why Turkey unblocked NATO enlargement at the last minute, what it means, and how Erdogan was persuaded

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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (third from left) with the leaders of Turkey, Sweden and Finland, as well as the foreign ministers of these countries after the signing of the memorandum on 28 June.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (third from left) with the leaders of Turkey, Sweden and Finland, as well as the foreign ministers of these countries after the signing of the memorandum on 28 June.

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NV explains why Turkey suddenly agreed to a compromise and why this decision, made in the midst of the landmark days of the NATO summit in Madrid on June 28-30, is so important.

Erdogan's sudden compromise: What happened?

On June 28, on the eve of the main days of the NATO summit in Madrid, President of Finland Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister of Sweden Magdalena Andersson met with the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Spanish capital. The talks were mediated by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

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As a result of this meeting, Ankara agreed to the Scandinavian countries joining the alliance. The foreign ministers of Turkey, Finland and Sweden signed a memorandum, according to which the Turkish side reaffirmed its readiness to support the applications of these countries, although it had previously blocked their aspirations to become members of NATO.

"The concrete steps of our accession to NATO will be agreed by the NATO Allies during the next two days, but that decision is now imminent," said Finnish President Sauli Niinistö in a statement on June 28.

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Due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden renounced their long-standing neutrality and on May 18, 2022, submitted applications for NATO membership, signed by the foreign ministers. On the same day, the ambassadors of all 30 NATO member states were to have begun negotiations on the accession of the two Scandinavian countries, but a protest from Ankara halted the process.

Admission of new NATO members requires the consent of the leaders of all 30 member states and the subsequent ratification of this step by the parliaments of all NATO countries. Therefore, Turkey's disagreement slowed down the significant enlargement of the alliance.

But Ankara's stubbornness has now been overcome.

What Turkey demanded, how it was persuaded, and what was promised to Ankara

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's main formal claim to Sweden and Finland was their loyalty to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is recognized in Turkey as a terrorist organization, as well as to the "Gulenists" – Ankara has been raiding for many years those it considers followers of the preacher Fethullah Gulen and accuses them of organizing a coup attempt in 2016. About 100,000 Kurdish refugees have found refuge in Sweden.

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In the "Kurdish" issue, Ankara made five demands to Sweden and Finland, according to the Turkish newspaper Türkiye:

• extradition of members of the PKK and the Gulen movement from these countries (organization Hizmet, aka FËTO) – about 30 people;

• recognition of the Syrian national self-defense forces as terrorists, which in Turkey are considered affiliated with the PKK;

• cessation of support of representatives of the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FËTO) in two Scandinavian countries;

• closure in Sweden and Finland of all organizations associated with terrorists in Turkey;

• providing appropriate guarantees.

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Bloomberg sources and other analysts also pointed out that Turkey could use these demands in the negotiation process as a way to reach several other important decisions:

• lift the ban on arms exports to Turkey from Sweden and Finland, introduced in October 2019 after the start of Turkey's military operation in northern Syria;

• achieve Turkey's return to the U.S. program to produce the latest F-35 fighter bombers (after Turkey's scandalous purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems in 2017, the United States excluded Ankara from the program and it lost the right to purchase such fighters).

Apparently, Ankara has managed to obtain compromise steps from Sweden and Finland on many of these points. The general features of the agreements are stated in the official statements of Ankara, the two Scandinavian countries and the NATO Secretary General following the June 28 memorandum.

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The office of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that "Turkey got what it wanted" from Stockholm and Helsinki. The two countries allegedly promised "full cooperation" in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party and its allies, as well as agreeing to lift the embargo on arms supplies to Turkey imposed in 2019 in response to its campaign in Syria.

The Turkish side also claims that the movement of supporters of Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara considers to be the inspirer of the coup attempt in 2016, will now be considered a terrorist organization in Sweden and Finland.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reaffirmed that the terms of the compromise include:

• Sweden's and Finland's commitment to "fully support Turkey in combating threats to its national security"

• Sweden's readiness to intensify efforts to request the extradition of "probable militants" to Turkey, considering these requests "promptly and carefully"

• amendments to Swedish and Finnish counter-terrorism legislation to strengthen their approach to the "Kurdish" issue

• readiness of Finland and Sweden to lift restrictions on arms sales to Turkey.

In a comment to AFP, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson called the deal "very good" and dismissed speculation that her country had to give in too much to Erdogan to persuade him to abandon his veto. At the same time, Andersson confirmed that she had shown the Turkish president the development of changes in Swedish anti-terrorism legislation, which are due to take effect next month.

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Clarifying the wording of the compromise memorandum between the three countries, UK newspaper the Guardian noted that Finland and Sweden have promised not to "support" the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) and the Kurdish People's Self-Defense Forces (YPG). And according to the Turkish pro-government daily newspaper the Daily Sabah, the memorandum also states that "Finland and Sweden commit to preventing activities of the PKK and all other terrorist organizations and their extensions, as well as activities by individuals in affiliated and inspired groups or networks linked to these terrorist organizations."

According to CNN, the White House played a significant role in Turkey's final decision to agree to NATO enlargement. The U.S. television channel describes in detail all the efforts of the Biden administration in support of Finland and Sweden's application in recent months and clarifies that the U.S. president first called the Finnish president with the idea to join NATO on Dec. 13, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Biden told Niinistö that the risk of a Russian attack was significant and that Europe's security architecture would change soon.

In March, when the president of Finland was on a visit to the White House, both politicians called Prime Minister of Sweden Magdalena Andersson with the idea of a joint application by the two countries.

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When Turkey blocked their course to NATO, the Biden administration took the most outspoken position in Sweden's and Finland's talks with Ankara, both to avoid accusations of interference and to prevent Erdogan from raising rates in talks with the United States, explained CNN's senior sources in Europe and the United States. Instead, Biden preferred point-to-point tactics at the most critical points, explained one of the channel's interlocutors in the U.S. presidential administration.

This moment arose with the approach of the NATO summit, when the negotiations between Helsinki and Stockholm and Ankara showed signs of progress. Early on June 28, while Biden was in the Bavarian Alps at the G7 summit, he received a request from the leaders of Finland and Sweden to call Erdogan. In this conversation, the U.S. president called on the Turkish leader to "seize the moment" and unblock the application of the Scandinavian countries at the summit in Madrid.

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Biden also made it clear that announcing such a move before the summit would allow him to hold a formal meeting with Erdogan in the Spanish capital. The strategy proved effective, CNN notes: a memorandum was announced in the evening, and Biden and Erdogan will meet in Madrid on June 29.

At these talks, the politicians are expected to discuss the rest of Turkey's demands: its desire to regain the right to purchase U.S. fighters, and the demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen from the United States.

"It is Turkey's standard operating procedure not to give concessions until the last possible moment. And that last possible moment is usually defined as a bilateral with the U.S. president," the European official said.

What does Turkey's move towards NATO enlargement mean, and why is it important?

Although international analysts had previously speculated that Turkey would still be persuaded to unblock Sweden's and Finland's NATO bid, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said on June 21 that Helsinki had failed to make progress in negotiations with Turkey. All the more unexpected and significant then was the compromise between the three countries announced on June 28, which opens the shortest path to NATO for the two countries.

U.S. President Joe Biden called the agreement an "important step" towards Finland and Sweden's NATO membership, which would "strengthen our alliance and our collective security."

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the Scandinavian countries' compromise with Turkey as "fantastic news" ahead of the NATO summit, expressing confidence that the membership of Sweden and Finland "will make our wonderful alliance stronger and safer."

The New York Times calls Turkey's reversal "a blow to President Vladimir V. Putin, who in justifying the invasion of his neighbor bitterly protested previous expansions of NATO – and Ukraine' efforts to join the alliance – as a threat to his country's security."

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Should Finland and Sweden be formally adopted into the alliance, as is widely expected, Russia will look across 800 miles of border with Finland at one of NATO's newest members, NYT wrote.

Politico reiterates that as a result of Ankara's move, NATO leaders gathering in Madrid can now make a formal decision on June 29 to invite Finland and Sweden to join the alliance.

"Then the process will move to each individual NATO country, where all 30 parliaments must ratify the expansion. Because of those logistics, Stoltenberg declined to put a specific timeline on the two countries formally joining the alliance," Politico reported.

Still, Stoltenberg conveyed confidence that NATO would soon grow and touted the "advanced, well-developed" military capabilities both countries would bring to the alliance.

Finland and Sweden are both strategically located for NATO, Politico said. Finland shares a long border with Russia in the north and Sweden sits across the Baltic Sea from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – three countries pressing for more NATO support in the face of Russian threats.

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The Washington Post says that a deal paving the way for Finland and Sweden to join NATO has added momentum to the military alliance's most significant summit in years, as it heads into its second day, as well as putting NATO on the cusp of growing to 32 members and highlighting how Russia's war in Ukraine is transforming regional security.

In addition, the new course of Sweden and Finland will be part of what Stoltenberg called "the greatest restructuring of collective defense and deterrence since the Cold War."

In Madrid, the bloc is expected to announce a new, more flexible model, which provides for the readiness to deploy more troops and weapons "tied" to certain locations in allied countries.

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