As we fast approach the NATO Summit in Madrid at the end of June, one of the most anticipated agenda items will be Finland and Sweden's membership applications. NATO enlargement to the Baltic region now hinges on whether these two Nordic countries can satisfy Türkiye's concerns about terrorism.
- NATO’s enlargement is on the agenda
In the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the two nations seek fast-track membership after being neutral for decades throughout the Cold War and afterwards. This summit will also finalize the NATO Strategic Concept, which will guide the alliance in the coming years. The enlargement issue has profound implications for the trajectory of the Transatlantic alliance, and Türkiye's position is critically important.
While many analysts will be quick to portray Türkiye as obstructing NATO enlargement and creating fractures within the alliance, it is essential to understand and address Turkish reservations for cohesion within NATO.
- NATO is at a crucial turning point
NATO is at its most crucial turning point since the collapse of the Soviet Union, given the war in Ukraine. Eastern Europe and Baltic nations have been alarmed by the prospect of potential Russian aggression, which has led to a significant rethinking of security throughout Europe. As NATO sought to reassure allies via various deployments, Europe is taking a hard look at the existing security architecture while increasing defense spending at unprecedented levels.
Russian aggression has not been deterred by US-led efforts to isolate, sanction, and back Ukraine militarily. However, they have imposed significant costs on Russia and prevented Russian attempts to quickly seize control of the country. Realizing that their decades-old neutrality may not protect them against potential Russian aggression, Finland and Sweden have decided to join NATO, probably one of the unintended consequences from the Russian perspective. Türkiye is aware of this rapidly shifting geopolitical environment and has been one of the leading countries to help Ukraine while trying to broker a cease-fire and peace talks sooner rather than later.
- Türkiye’s contributions to NATO
In its more than 70 years as a critical NATO ally, Türkiye participated in NATO missions worldwide while protecting the alliance's southern flank. Following the end of the Cold War, the alliance could not immediately identify a common threat, and many voices argued that it had already lost its raison d'etre. Conducting numerous operations throughout the Balkans in the 1990s, the alliance showed that it still had relevance and a significant role in maintaining international peace and security.
In the two decades after the September 11 attacks, NATO conducted operations in different regions. It extended its area of operations to Afghanistan following the invocation of Article 5 by the US. The organization played a leading role in ending the Qaddafi regime in Libya and conducted border defense missions against threats to Türkiye from Iraq and Syria. While the Russian threat appeared to dissipate over the years, NATO members like Türkiye continued to believe in the benefits and privileges of being part of such an alliance with capabilities in numerous non-European theaters.
- Türkiye favors a stronger NATO
Türkiye has supported NATO's open-door policy and membership aspirations of countries like Georgia, Bosnia and Ukraine. Despite significant outstanding issues, a stronger NATO has always been in the Turkish national security interest. Today, however, Türkiye's reservations against Finland and Sweden's NATO membership emanate from Ankara's long-standing frustration over Western tolerance and support for the PKK and its regional offshoots like the YPG in Syria.
The PKK's fundraising and recruitment operations throughout Europe had long been a source of tension. Türkiye registered complaints about the relative freedom with which the PKK operated throughout Europe, spreading its propaganda, raising funds, and even recruiting fighters for terror operations inside Türkiye. Türkiye's concerns were often disregarded based on arguments about democratic freedoms such as free speech and the right to peaceful demonstration, among others. Only when the PKK staged violent demonstrations inside Europe did authorities in some countries like Germany start to act. Even then, some European countries like Sweden remain much more lenient toward PKK's overtly political activities despite formally designating it as a terror group.
- Türkiye's concerns over the West's support for PKK/YPG
Since 2014, Western tolerance of the PKK took on an additional geopolitical dimension when the US and European allies started openly supporting the PKK's Syrian branch, the YPG. The justification was the effectiveness of the YPG in the fight against Daesh/ISIS terrorism. Reassuring Türkiye that this would be a temporary, tactical, and transactional relationship, the US policymakers extended the policy of working "by, with, through" local partners to the Syrian offshoot of the PKK.
Despite ongoing Turkish objections to this day, US policymakers promote this relationship as a success and a low-cost alternative to fight Daesh/ISIS with American boots on the ground. Multiple Turkish offers to fight Daesh/ISIS have been turned down by US planners for one reason or another. This issue has been straining the US-Türkiye relationship, sometimes to the breaking point. Pushing the NATO alliance to take a more explicit stance against international terrorism appears to be one of the Turkish goals in raising objections to Finland and Sweden's membership applications.
There is also the question of sanctions imposed against Türkiye's national defense industry as the country acquired the Russian S-400 air defense systems. The US has pushed Türkiye out of the F-35 program and imposed sanctions, while other NATO allies like Canada also refused to sell high-tech cameras to be used in Turkish drones. Other European nations, including Finland and Sweden, have imposed arms exports to Türkiye following the country's military operations against the PKK's Syrian branch, the YPG, in northern Syria.
These formal and informal sanctions targeting Türkiye's national defense industry not only create frictions within NATO but also weaken Turkish defense capacity, thus weakening the southern flank of the alliance. Turkish conditions regarding the Swedish and Finnish bids to join NATO are related to the larger question of arms deals between NATO members and other nations like Russia. Turkish objections are now pushing NATO countries to think more carefully about sanctioning Türkiye, which should create more clarity and cohesion within the alliance.
- Enlargement should not be at the expense of a critical NATO ally
The good news for NATO is that Finland and Sweden have shown some willingness to address Turkish concerns. Their initial proposals were not satisfactory for Türkiye, but General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg's approach has been constructive. Affirming the legitimacy of Türkiye's concerns as a country that has suffered the most from terrorism among other NATO nations, Stoltenberg brought Turkish, Finnish, and Swedish delegations together in Brussels to work out their differences.
An immediate breakthrough ahead of the Madrid Summit may not materialize, but it should be remembered that many countries waited years to join the alliance, sometimes for rather frivolous reasons, as in the case of North Macedonia. The more significant question is whether Finland and Sweden's membership will increase NATO's strength and ability to provide security for its members. Many analysts affirm that the alliance would benefit from their membership, but it cannot come at the expense of Turkish security.
By Kadir Ustun
- The writer is the executive director at the Washington offices of the Ankara-based Political, Economic and Social Research Foundation (SETA).