Analysis: Turkey is blocking NATO’s expansion. It could backfire and hand Putin a propaganda coup
When Sweden and Finland announced their intention to join NATO last May, it was seen by many as a slap in the eye to Russia and evidence of a shift in European thinking. Historically, both countries have committed to non-alignment with NATO as a way to avoid provoking Moscow. The invasion of Ukraine changed that.
Finland and Sweden – along with the vast majority of both NATO allies – want to see the countries formally join the alliance at a NATO summit on July 11. However, a significant obstacle stands in the way of this becoming a reality: Turkey has yet to give the plan its formal and official blessing.
Turkey is not the only country blocking the move: Hungary has also failed to ratify the Nordics’ accession which further muddies the waters. However, sidelining Turkey is considered a priority for now.
Unfortunately for the pro-NATO gang, Western officials are increasingly pessimistic that Turkey will budge.
Officially, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has objected to the membership of Sweden and Finland over what he claims are security bases. Turkey claims that both countries, though Sweden in particular, harbor terrorists from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group in Turkey, Sweden, the United States and Europe. Erdogan says he wants these men extradited; Sweden has made it clear that this will not happen.
NATO diplomats are divided on whether they think Turkey will budge ahead of the July summit. Central to both schools of thought is this year’s Turkish elections, which Erdogan sees as the biggest political threat in years.
“The image he created of a strongman who gets results for the Turkish people has been shattered,” explains Gonul Tol of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey Program. “There is a lot of anti-Western and anti-Kurdish sentiment in Turkey right now. It’s a good subject for her to drum up and the dramatic U-turn makes her look vulnerable.”
Toll believes there are other reasons Erdogan doesn’t want to upset Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Russia has been an economic lifeline for Turkey after other countries imposed sanctions for its activities in Syria, military cooperation with Russia and other hostile activities,” explains Tol. “Without Russian money, Erdogan would not have been able to raise salaries or provide financial aid to students. He is now promising massive post-earthquake reconstruction. So Russia is still an attractive partner for Erdogan.
Like many Western officials, Toll believes that Turkey’s claims about Sweden and Finland harboring terrorists have provided Erdogan with the perfect cover for not engaging at a politically inconvenient time on the NATO question.
While nothing may emerge from Thursday’s talks between the three parties, there is talk of how much political capital Erdogan will have to spend after the election, should he win.
This group includes Sweden, Finland, and some states that bordered Russia or were under the Soviet Union. They believe that Turkey, which has a lot to gain from being a part of NATO, will eventually do what is in its best interest and drop the objection.
To make that happen, officials are trying to make more realistic demands on Turkey than handing over individuals it considers terrorists, such as lifting sanctions or allowing the U.S. to buy Turkey the fighter jets the country desperately needs. Its air force is up to date.
Ultimately, optimists believe there is an agreement that overwhelmingly favors NATO. In the alliance, Sweden and Finland have made their case and NATO has an open door policy for any country wishing to join. Sweden and Finland have met the criteria, so not joining would make a mockery of the alliance – an alliance that Turkey benefits from being a member of. A NATO official told CNN they assumed Erdogan would wait for the summit before accepting so he could bask in “the praise of all his Western allies.”
The overwhelming majority of officials who spoke to CNN are pessimistic. They believe the chances of Erdogan changing his position before July 11 are as good as zero and are already thinking ahead of that summit.
“I think it’s increasingly likely that Finland will break away from Sweden and go for single membership,” a NATO diplomat told CNN.
Other members of the alliance still see the real possibility of the two countries being blocked and are considering how NATO might handle such a scenario.
Several NATO officials and diplomats told CNN that the danger here is a Turkish bloc feeding the Kremlin’s narrative that the West and NATO are divided. The alliance’s task then will be to make clear that even though they are not members, Finland and Sweden are now effectively locked into NATO. They may not be members, but they are as close partners as it is possible to be – and they are no longer neutral.
Although Turkey can be divided, Hungary is a different, though less complicated, issue.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has publicly indicated that he is not opposed to the Nordic nations joining, but continues to find ways to prevent a decision from becoming official.
There are a few reasons Orbán would want to drag his feet. Both Finland and Sweden have criticized Hungary for its legal record. He addressed this in a recent interview, asking “how can anyone want to be our ally in the military system when they are shamelessly spreading lies about Hungary?”
Orbán is considered the closest European leader to Putin. Catalin Szeh, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament, described Orbán’s blocking of Sweden and Finland’s bids as “quite simply, another side of Vladimir Putin”. She believes that Orbán, who has been accused of drifting toward authoritarian leadership, has “invested more than a decade in copying his policies and creating a Putinist model,” and that any NATO victory over Putin “endangering his entire reign.”
It is possible that Orbán is hanging on to get concessions from other EU member states, where Hungary has been accused of all sorts of violations of EU laws. The result has been a freeze on EU funding and an aversion to the bloc. While NATO and the EU are separate organizations, they share many members and it is plausible that bilateral diplomacy could see some give-and-take between Hungary and its EU counterpart.
To pull all of Orbán’s feet, however, it is widely believed that if Turkey can be squared away, Hungary will drop its opposition to Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
The irony is not lost on many that one of the main reasons Putin gave for invading Ukraine was to stop NATO’s bid for expansion. The fact that his aggression may have pushed a historically disorganized country into NATO is seen by most in the West as a massive own goal by the Kremlin.
Until an agreement is reached, however, the future of the alliance remains somewhat up in the air. Finland and Sweden have effectively taken sides since the start of the Ukraine conflict. It seems unlikely that they would return to a state of neutrality if the war suddenly ended.
The threat to NATO and the wider Western alliance comes if they fail to join the alliance and the Kremlin could use it for propaganda purposes. If that happens, even if the war suddenly ends, the narrative of a divided West will remain a drum that NATO’s opponents can beat.