How to Make Sense of Turkey’s Objection to Finland and Sweden?

May 21, 2022
by Enes Esen, published on 21 May 2022
How to Make Sense of Turkey’s Objection to Finland and Sweden?

Considering the strong solidarity among the NATO members against Russia in the face of the invasion of Ukraine, the application of Finland and Sweden was supposed to be a smooth and relatively straightforward process. They abandoned their historical non-alignment policy as a result of security concerns over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the Western countries are eager to welcome them into the alliance. Besides, these two countries are fully functioning democracies, enjoy advanced economies, and have advanced military capabilities well integrated into NATO. While these two countries were mostly worried over Russia’s reaction to their accession to NATO, Turkey put forward the most severe objection to the talks. 

Finland and Sweden endeavor to break the codes of Erdoğan’s obstinance about their accession to NATO. "We will continue our policy in a determined way. We have told allies that we will say no to Finland and Sweden's NATO membership," said Erdogan. Besides, why did Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu cause havoc at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers with their Finnish and Swedish counterparts where “they were trying to understand what their Turkish colleague wanted - you know, really wanted." Could it be the meager activities of a few Turkish opponents in these two countries? Is Erdoğan’s objection related to the denial of Sweden and Finland to repatriate 33 Turkish citizens? Or is it their arms embargo on Turkey since 2019, although their arms exports to Turkey are almost negligible? The presidential elections in Turkey will take place next year. Would Erdoğan’s stance against them bolster his image as a strong leader among his voters? 

The answer probably lies elsewhere. While the Turkish government is insisting publicly that Finland and Sweden are a nest that harbors “terrorist organizations”, behind the scenes they are making demands from a long and growing ask list from the US administration. Ankara has several contentious issues with Washington that cannot be resolved through diplomacy and mutual understanding due to Turkey’s diminishing status within Western democracies. On the other hand, President Biden has given a clear endorsement of efforts by Finland and Sweden to join NATO, and he is eager to welcome them within the alliance as the war in Ukraine rages on. Given that their admission to NATO requires unanimous approval from all 30 NATO member states, Erdoğan has now substantial leverage against the USA. He will definitely play the hardball to extract as much concession as possible.

“Someone who had gotten close to the Turkish government summarized Erdogan's position on my case as ‘Why should we let him go when we have the Americans bending over backwards.’ It seemed that any goodwill gestures the US made, Erdogan assumed to be a surrender to his hardline stance. He just pocketed them and demanded more.” writes Pastor Andrew Brunson in his memoirs about his wrongful imprisonment after the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey. As one would recall, Erdoğan had asked for several concessions from the Trump administration for Pastor Brunson’s release. Whenever they seemingly reached a deal, the Turkish government came up with a new demand. The negotiations finally broke down when Turkey added again a demand at the last minute regarding the prosecution of Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank, which faced a money-laundering scheme, bank fraud, and conspiracy charges for its role in evading US sanctions on Iran. 

President Trump fumed over Erdoğan’s bargaining tactics. “Turkey has taken advantage of the United States for many years. They are now holding our wonderful Christian Pastor, who I must now ask to represent our Country as a great patriot hostage. We will pay nothing for the release of an innocent man, but we are cutting back on Turkey!” said President Trump with the collapse of these negotiations. He then started to put devastating sanctions on Turkey and threatened more. Pastor Brunson was shortly released after this wrath shook the Turkish economy.

A similar chain of events takes place in the bid of Finland and Sweden to join NATO. According to media reports, Ankara’s ask-list from the US includes Turkey’s re-inclusion in the F-35 program, the purchase of F-16 warplanes and their upgrade kits, the lifting of CAATSA sanctions imposed over its possession of the Russian S-400 missiles, and the end of US support to PKK/YPG in Syria. A new item on the list was revealed on May 18 when Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu and U.S. Secretary of State Blinken met in New York within the framework of the U.S.-Turkey Strategic Mechanism. The Turkish side brought to the agenda the above-mentioned Halkbank trial again. They argued that this case is politically motivated. They went on to claim that as Halkbank is a Turkish state institution, it should enjoy immunity from US jurisdiction, an argument already rejected by the US appeals court. It is well-known that Erdoğan has a personal stake in this trial. Therefore, he has been closely following the prosecution process with grave concern. This item may not be the last, but it is certainly one of the most pertinent issues for the Turkish government.

To summarize, NATO member countries are seeking clarity on Turkey's view of the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO. If it is taken at face value, accusing Sweden and Finland of being a nest of terrorist organizations may not make much sense. It is more likely that their bid to join NATO is collateral for Erdoğan’s long demands from the US government. We do not know if there will be more demands from the Turkish government to lift its objection to the admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO. Yet, Erdogan will more likely not settle for a quick accession process as he will not want to let his leverage go away for further concessions. How long Turkey will hold its objection also depend on the US reaction, as we witnessed in the Pastor Brunson case.

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