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Turkey, Finland and Sweden: Strategic patience, but with a deadline

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, walks with U.S. President Joe Biden during the G20 leaders' summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022.
Made Nagi/Pool Photo via Associated Press
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, left, walks with U.S. President Joe Biden during the G20 leaders’ summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia on Nov. 15, 2022.

Editor’s note: This article was edited after publication to clarify that Turkey’s elections will be held on May 14, 2023.

Sweden and Finland do not appear to have made much progress toward membership in NATO in the past few months. Turkish officials recently claimed that Sweden isn’t even halfway toward meeting Ankara’s demands, while Swedish officials argue they can’t make up the difference. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently upped the ante by demanding the two NATO aspirants deport or extradite up to 130 individuals that Turkey views as terrorists.

Concern is naturally growing that Nordic security — and hence, European security — is increasingly at risk, thanks largely to Ankara’s insistence on extracting concessions from both Sweden and Finland. Is it time for Washington to weigh in? Probably not yet. Instead, strategic patience is necessary, at least through the late spring. But after that, if Turkey hasn’t moved, Washington ought to take the gloves off and try to wield what little leverage it still has in Ankara.

For most observers, Finland and Sweden as NATO members will demonstrably strengthen the alliance. Both Finland and Sweden have small but advanced professional military forces. Finland has a land-centric military, with a small active-duty force of around 30,000 troops, but a massive reserve of 280,000 citizen-soldiers. Finland’s army has one of the strongest artillery forces in Europe, which has become valuable given the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Finland is in the process of replacing its F-18 fighter jets with the more advanced, radar-evading F-35.

Sweden’s military force is somewhat smaller but it recently reinstituted conscription to strengthen its military capacity. Its military force is supported by a large, sophisticated defense industry and by exceptional intelligence services. The Swedish army fields advanced German tanks, the U.S.-built Patriot air defense system, and Sweden’s own highly capable, self-propelled Archer 155mm artillery system. Its air force flies nearly 100  multi-role (and Swedish-built) JAS 39 Gripen jets. And its navy sails the Swedish-built Gotland diesel-electric submarine, with one of the most advanced propulsion systems in the world.

Both countries have decided to increase defense spending, despite the challenges created by the pandemic-induced recession. They also participated in NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, and Sweden took part in NATO’s mission to protect civilians in Libya. In sum, they have high-quality military capabilities, a commitment to future investments in defense, and a demonstrated willingness to contribute to security in Europe and beyond. Moreover, having them in NATO would make the defense and reinforcement of the Baltic states easier, complicate the job of defense planners in Russia, and help to bring a more holistic approach to defense and security in the Baltic, High North and Arctic regions. 

Accepting their applications to join NATO is a no-brainer — evidenced by the fact that 28 of 30 allies have done so, and Hungary is scheduled to act in February.

Why, then, has Turkey dragged its feet in approving Finnish and Swedish accession? Ostensibly, Turkish leaders object to what they view as sympathetic attitudes toward Kurdish militants on the part of Helsinki and Stockholm. Ankara’s approach has been compounded by a recent bombing in Istanbul that Turkish officials have tied to Syria-based Kurdish militants. And at the same time, Turkey appears ready to conduct another large-scale military incursion into Kurdish areas of Syria.

The reality, though, is that Erdoğan is exploiting NATO’s consensus-based decision-making process to extract concessions useful to his reelection campaign in the run-up to the May 2023 election. Beset by economic problems — mostly of his making — and corruption concerns, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are facing a difficult campaign season, according to recent polling. By appearing to demand, and potentially win, concessions from other countries, Erdoğan might bolster his domestic standing.

But simultaneously, Erdoğan is weakening — if not worsening — his standing among his NATO allies, because his domestic political machinations essentially prevent the alliance from strengthening its position in northern Europe. Given the impact Erdoğan’s intransigence is having on broader alliance security, perhaps it’s time for Washington to move beyond treating this as a trilateral issue between Turkey, Finland and Sweden and instead become more directly engaged.

The United States has limited leverage over Turkey and, for the moment, explicit American pressure on Erdoğan is likely to prove counterproductive and unnecessary. Leaning too heavily on Erdoğan will reinforce his domestic narrative that he’s the only reliable defender of Turkish values and security. Moreover, Russian ground forces remain heavily bogged down in trying to defend gains in Ukraine. It’s therefore unlikely that Moscow can militarily exploit the period between Finnish and Swedish applications to NATO and their actual membership in the alliance. 

Additionally, Washington should try to avoid ruffling feathers in Ankara, given Turkey’s important role in supporting Ukraine militarily and economically, especially through the remaining winter months. Finally, and assuming Erdoğan’s position on Finland and Sweden is indeed tied to domestic politics, it’s likely Ankara will give the green light before the May election in order to leverage its electoral value.

That said, if Erdoğan refuses to do so by summer, the time for strategic patience will have ended. If necessary, Washington ought to be prepared with an array of steps aimed at convincing Ankara to swiftly approve Finnish and Swedish membership in NATO, even if this means seeing the U.S.-Turkish relationship deteriorate further, at least in the short run. In other words, the United States should be prepared to prioritize Finnish and Swedish membership in the alliance over its relationship with Erdogan’s Turkey.

The United States has few levers to coerce Turkey, which evidently is banking on a multipolar world in which Russia and China figure just as importantly as Europe and Washington in Ankara’s foreign policy calculations. Nonetheless, there are some steps that Washington could at least signal are under consideration, if Ankara has not budged on Finland and Sweden by late spring. These might include undercutting the value of the Turkish lira by making public Washington’s displeasure and will to act; implementing another round of sanctions on key Turkish exports, ministries and leaders; reimposing restrictions on the sale of U.S. military hardware to Turkey; and signaling a willingness to reconsider NATO’s military posture in Turkey, as well as the American presence there. 

There is a risk that such moves might play into Erdoğan’s domestic political narrative, but they also might achieve the more important goal of solidifying Finnish and Swedish membership in NATO. In any case, for the time being, strategic patience appears a more prudent policy choice.

John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He’s the author of “NATO and Article 5.” The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @JohnRDeni.

Tags Finland NATO Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Sweden Turkey

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