The Turkish parliament voted on January 24 in favor of Sweden’s bid for accession to NATO. Many questions lingered as to why Turkey made an abrupt U-turn after months of tough bargaining and whether it gained anything in return. Despite all the initial harsh rhetoric, most Turkish political parties demonstrated similar attitudes toward NATO and broadly supported its “open doors” policy. But by lifting its veto, Ankara lost a major bargaining card in its relations with the West (US and EU) and in return gained something of no geopolitical significance. Stockholm must now overcome Hungary’s veto to become a full member of the alliance, which is expected to be complete by July without any major friction. Although the official procedure for Sweden is still ongoing, Turkey’s green light represents a major win for the Euro-Atlantic front against Russian activism in the High North.
NATO expansion after the end of the Cold War
To understand the reasons behind Sweden’s bid for accession to NATO, it is worth introducing a historic perspective into the strategic discussion. At the height of the Cold War, Sweden and Finland kept a neutral stance and refrained from provoking the then-Soviet Union (USSR). “Finlandization”, perhaps a misnomer, was a term used to designate strict neutrality and non-interference in the great power rivalry. Like Finland, Sweden decided not to join NATO in 1949 and adopted a policy of non-alignment in return for retaining its sovereignty and security against the over-bearing USSR.
At the end of the Cold War, Moscow believed that NATO would not expand further to the east by accepting former Warsaw Pact countries as members. This was based on the claim that the then US Secretary of State James Baker told the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in a discussion on 9 February 1990 that NATO would not expand if Russia accepted Germany’s unification. This alleged promise was not written down neither in the 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act nor in the 1999 Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Istanbul Declaration on Charter for European Security.
However, Article 8 in Part II of the OSCE Istanbul Declaration “reaffirmed the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve” provided that “Each participating State will respect the rights of all others in these regards. They will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States”. Although Russia was initially satisfied with its cooperation with NATO in the early 2000s, President Vladimir Putin began to see NATO’s expansion right up to his country’s borders since 2004, first in Central Europe, then in the Balkans, and finally in the Baltics, as a violation of this second premise and an existential threat to Russia’s national security.
The accession of Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary to NATO in the late 1990s was not a big deal for Moscow initially, because Belarus and Ukraine remained as buffer zones between Russia’s soft underbelly in the Baltics, the Black Sea, and Eastern Europe. But when Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the club in 2004, Russia sounded the alarm as it was cut off from its only land outpost in Kaliningrad and from a short-route sea passage to the Atlantic Ocean. At the time, the Arctic region was packed with ice and was inaccessible most of the year, partially open only between July and November.
In his famous 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, Putin did not hesitate to signal his country’s disappointment with the West’s disregard for alleged earlier promises. From Moscow’s perspective, NATO re-interpreted the disposition of forces and bases in ways that are against the 1997 Founding Act and run counter to Russian interests. When the NATO summit in 2008 confirmed that Ukraine and Georgia would become members of the club, the clock started ticking. Putin interpreted this accommodating approach as the final move in NATO’s encirclement of Russia and launched military operations to occupy parts of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014).
This should not have been a surprise for NATO. Throughout history, Russia has demonstrated a form of “defensive aggressiveness” by fortifying strategic depth along its periphery to secure its existence in a challenging global environment. Following the principles of the “Primakov Doctrine”, Russia aimed for a multipolar world and emphasized its dominance in the post-Soviet space. It would not take a lot of imagination to foresee that such a battle-hardened, security-oriented nation would respond to NATO’s proposed expansion militarily.
Russian reaction to NATO’s expansion: The war in Ukraine and the opening of the Arctic route
In 2022, Putin demanded the US to limit military deployment on NATO’s eastern flank and to drop Ukraine’s bid for membership, in effect returning NATO forces to where they were stationed in 1997, before the eastward expansion. As Washington refused to comply and tensions increased, both parties accused each other of failing to implement the Minsk II agreement for a peaceful settlement, and Russia launched a military operation in February 2022 to occupy eastern Ukraine.
There are three NATO members in the Black Sea region today: Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania. If Ukraine joins the club, Russia would not only be pressed from the east but also be deprived of its main naval facility in Sevastopol-Crimea, a crucial enabler of its assertive posture toward warm waters in the south. Prior to the Ukraine war, 90% of Russian foreign trade depended on maritime arteries, 60% of which passed through the Turkish Straits.
Since the Baltic Sea is almost under complete NATO control and the main Russian port of Vladivostok in the Pacific is surrounded by South Korea, Japan, and Australia – all US allies – Moscow could not tolerate to see a fourth NATO member in the Black Sea and to be unseated from Crimea without gaining anything in return. Ukraine’s and Georgia’s membership to NATO would drive the last nail into the coffin of the “Primakov Doctrine”.
From NATO’s perspective, however, efforts to contain Russia had a caveat: One of the side-effects of global warming and climate change is that melting polar ice caps make Arctic waters more accessible. As a result, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) along Russia’s coastline in the Arctic region has become a navigable shipping channel most of the year, cutting journey times by up to two weeks compared to the traditional Suez Canal route. The Arctic circle is also home to 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas deposits, 13% of the global conventional oil reserves, and US$1 trillion worth of rare earth minerals. Over the years, Russia has upgraded and expanded its military outposts in the region, stationed special units, and deployed assets equipped with nuclear torpedoes and hypersonic missiles to deter NATO from gaining ground. Russian warships now have greater freedom of maneuver (including north of the Norwegian island of Svalbard) to evade NATO detection.
The opening of the Arctic route is a transformative shift that enables Russia to access and project power at high seas via the north and poses a challenge to other coastal states, all of which are NATO members. This uncontrolled development is worrying for NATO, and it is not a mystery why the former US President Donald Trump offered to purchase Greenland from Denmark. More than a demonstration of allied unity against potential aggression, the US lobbying in NATO to ratify Sweden’s bid for membership should be viewed from the angle of bolstering its defense capabilities in the Arctic region.
Sweden’s bid for NATO membership
The Ukrainian war changed long-held calculations in northern Europe. Perhaps thinking that they could be next in line, or more likely due to fear of being left out of the club, Finland and Sweden dropped their non-aligned status and applied for NATO membership in 2022. While Finland has joined NATO on 4 April 2023, Sweden is still in the waiting room. Since all NATO decisions are made by consensus, all member countries must approve and ratify the accession protocol before Sweden can join the alliance.
Given that Sweden has robust defense capabilities, and already enjoys a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) with the US, which gives American forces “unimpeded access to and use of 17 Swedish military bases”, plus a mutual security pact with the UK (another nuclear power in the Atlantic), it is questionable whether Stockholm’s bid for NATO membership is more about symbolism than substance. In any case, thirty out of thirty-one members of the alliance approved and ratified Sweden’s accession. Hungary still holds to the veto card, although it should ultimately follow Turkey’s decision and ratify it in 2024. Meanwhile, NATO announced its largest military exercise in Europe since the Cold War, named “Steadfast Defender”, with 90,000 troops from 32 countries (including Sweden as a partner) to showcase “transatlantic unity, strength, and determination in the face of evolving security challenges”.
Turkey is not opposed fundamentally to NATO’s enlargement in general and Sweden’s membership in particular. As conditions to lift its veto, Turkey requested from Sweden and Finland to end safe harboring of PKK/YPG and FETÖ (Gülenists) members that are considered as terrorist fugitives; lift arms embargoes on Turkish defense industry; and lend support to revive the long-defunct process for Turkey’s bid to join the EU. In June 2022, the leaders of Turkey, Finland, and Sweden agreed, in a trilateral memorandum of understanding (MoU) in Madrid, to take concrete steps to alleviate these concerns and to pave the way for the two candidate countries’ ascension to NATO.
Finland has met all the outlined conditions in the memorandum while Sweden lifted the arms embargo and amended its constitution on 1 January 2023 to penalize terrorist activities in the country. However, Stockholm’s perceived shortcomings to fully implement Turkey’s requests, such as taking more concrete steps against the outlawed PKK/YPG and preventing the incitement of violence under the disguise of “freedom of speech”, hampered its progress to the next phase in the accession process. Although not set out as a condition in the MoU, tolerance of the Swedish authorities toward provocative incidents such as the burning of the Quran also affected Ankara’s perception negatively.
Despite these odds, and against objections by many opposition members in Turkey, President Erdoğan agreed at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on 11-12 July 2023 to proceed with the protocol for Sweden’s membership to NATO. The move aimed, first, to show the US/NATO that Turkey abides by the Madrid Protocol; second, to relieve pressure off Erdoğan; and third, to request the Biden Administration to start the approval process for selling F-16V fighters and modernization kits to Ankara. Erdoğan approved the protocol on 23 October 2023 and submitted it to the Turkish National Assembly (TBMM) for ratification. The procedure required the Foreign Relations Committee to approve the bill and send it for voting at the general assembly.
Not requiring a qualified majority, 151 “Yes” votes in the 600-member assembly would suffice for the bill to pass. However, since this is a politically loaded issue, President Erdoğan’s governing AKP did not want to shoulder the burden alone and tried instead to create a broad consensus with its coalition partner the MHP and perhaps to neutralize the opposition parties if not to bring them on the same page with the government.
Turkey’s calculus on Sweden’s NATO bid
In addition to specific bilateral issues between Turkey and Sweden, another reason behind Ankara’s extended period of deliberations was its interest to link the issue to the purchase of advanced military platforms and equipment from its NATO allies. Notably, some members of the alliance such as the UK, the Netherlands, and even Sweden have already lifted arms embargoes on Turkey and are involved in important defense projects with Ankara, but others have not.
In return for Sweden’s membership, and notwithstanding a dozen other issues in the Ankara-Washington relationship, Turkey expected at the very least the US Congress to clear the pathway for the sale of 40 F-16 Block 70 (V) fighters and 79 upgrade kits to modernize its aging air force, if not more solidarity from the Biden Administration on the fight against the PKK/YPG. The US had expelled Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program in 2019 due to its purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems, and Ankara needed a bridge solution, as discussed here, until its homegrown Kaan-MMU 5th generation fighter comes in the late 2020s/early 2030s. Add to this Turkey’s more recent bid to acquire 40 Eurofighter Typhoon jets from the consortium of UK, Germany, Spain, and Italy, and you end up with several politically sensitive topics tied to hefty defense contracts.
In essence, Turkey leveraged a strategic, influential card to press its case on matters that it has long sought to make progress on. Following Finland’s accession, which extended NATO’s land border with Russia by 1,340 km, Ankara thought that “it has done its part” and now requires more sincerity from its allies to attend to its previously overlooked, genuine security concerns. By re-formulating its legitimation strategy, Turkey pursued two goals in parallel: 1) To pressure Sweden to deliver more on fighting PKK/YPG terrorism as well as FETÖ (Gülenists) in terms of fund-raising, training/recruitment, and propaganda; and 2) to pressure the US government to deliver on Ankara’s request to modernize its F-16s. Sweden and the US have made some progress on both ends, but the outcome falls short of what Ankara had set for itself: Removal of support to the YPG/PKK in Syria, lifting of CAATSA-related sanctions, and progress on negotiations to join the EU. The only other concession Ankara might have got is a possible invitation from the White House to Erdoğan as a show of solidarity before the crucial run-off to municipal elections in Turkey this March.
The deal between US President Biden and Turkish President Erdoğan at the Vilnius summit was that Erdoğan would send the bill to the Turkish parliament and Biden would do the same with the US congress. Even before Turkey approved Sweden’s accession protocol, Tobias Billstrom, the Swedish Foreign Minister, jumped the gun and told the press in November 2023 that Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan has allegedly agreed to ratify his country’s bid to join NATO within 2-3 weeks (in 2023), which the Turkish side had denied.
After a long-awaited phone call from Biden to Erdoğan on 14 December 2023, the White House announced that the two leaders discussed “the importance of strengthening the NATO Alliance, including the importance of welcoming Sweden as an ally as soon as possible and further enhancing Türkiye’s NATO interoperability”. Erdoğan told the Turkish press that “Biden is positive about the F-16 sale and will notify the congress” while adding that “the [TBMM] parliamentary commission will coordinate the NATO bid with the US Congress”.
After an initial hearing on 16 November 2023, TBMM’s Foreign Relations Committee, which includes delegates from opposition parties, deferred the discussion of Sweden’s membership to late December, and finally rendered its approval on 26 December 2023 to proceed with voting in the general assembly. On 24 January 2024, the assembly approved the bill with “287 in favor, 55 against and four abstentions”, including support from the two opposition parties, the CHP and Deva Partisi. After President Erdoğan’s final signature, Ankara published the accession protocol in the Turkish Official Gazette and deposited it with the US State Department on 26 January for verification.
In accordance with the Erdoğan-Biden agreement in Vilnius, and to the surprise of many who thought that the US would not stick to the deal, Biden wrote a letter to the top four Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committees after ratification by the Turkish parliament, and urged the US Congress to approve the sale of F-16 aircrafts and modernization kits to Turkey "without delay”. The State Department then notified the US Congress of its decision to approve the sale to Turkey on 27 January. The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency of the Department of Defense, which deals with foreign military sales, published the justification for and content of the sale on the same day. If there is no objection from the Congress within the following 15 days (until 11 February), the decision becomes final. Top voices from the Senate and the House of Representatives already gave the green light and no hurdle is expected in the interim.
Ostensibly, mutual efforts to reach a win-win result seem to have yielded a positive outcome, but the story does not end here. The Gaza war has only made the case more complicated over the course of the negotiations, and Turkey has moved the goalpost to demand acquiescence to its position on the Israel-Hamas conflict. Although Erdoğan has not articulated it as such, his coalition partner, the nationalist MHP’s leader Devlet Bahçeli stated that, besides taking new steps in the fight against the PKK, Sweden should stand by Turkey in the Gaza crisis.
This turned out to be rhetoric and did not matter much in practice since Erdoğan’s AKP had the majority to pass the bill even without the MHP, but it shows linkages between seemingly different agendas among the Turkish polity as well as efforts to divert attention away from Turkey’s own security issues. Besides the F-16 deal, the case of Sweden’s membership could, in theory, be linked to recognition of a Palestinian state within 1967 border, a trial at the international tribunal for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and compensation by Israel to families of the victims in Gaza. Ironically, such connections put Ankara’s chances of receiving the F-16s in risk as in the case where 47 US Congressman like Chris Pappas demanded Turkey to be held accountable for rendering support for Hamas.
Whether any of these seemingly unrelated conditions were justifiable is up for question, but the reality is that Turkey made a sharp U-turn to ratify Sweden’s membership after months of gridlock. Possible reasons to explain this outcome could be as follows:
1) As the Turkish economy sails through dire straits, municipal elections upcoming in March 2024 will be a litmus test for Erdoğan’s government since the presidential race last May. He needs all the support from his traditional allies in the West to win back popular support in major cities like Ankara and Istanbul. For that, he had to court Washington and NATO.
2) The Gaza war brought the AKP government under the spotlight and Erdoğan wants to secure win(s) that will drum up his popular legitimacy ahead of the elections in March. The Sweden card was his only remaining leverage to make a quick win without a politically costly move at home. He quickly spent that card to try his best chance to secure President Biden’s support against the US Congress to approve the sale of F-16 and promote that as a “win” to his electoral base.
3) Russian President Putin is scheduled to visit Turkey in early 2024, in his first overseas trip since the war started in Ukraine. Erdoğan prefers to sit at the table with a strong hand and not have to face with Putin on Moscow’s terms. The only way he could do so and secure the backing of Washington/NATO on any give-and-take behind closed doors, especially on top issues such as energy, trade, and defense, was to approve Sweden’s accession protocol to NATO.
4) Greece had increased pressure on the US government to de-link the sale of 20+20 F-35s to Athens from the sale of F-16s to Ankara. To avoid the worst-case scenario where Greece receives F-35s and Turkey gets nothing, Ankara settled on a dual-deal scenario where both bids pass unimpeded through the Congress simultaneously. That still leaves Turkish Air Forces with a techno-generational gap against its main foe in the skies until mid-2030s, but it is better than no deal at all.
During the negotiations, the general sentiment even among government pundits/analysts on all major Turkish media channels was against further concessions toward the US/NATO. That was because the bilateral relationship suffers from mistrust due to memories of disingenuous promises and conflicting interests on a bunch of issues from the PKK/YPG terrorism to the fate of Gülenists (FETÖ), from the Gaza war to security dynamics in the Black Sea, from relations with Russia to US’ growing footprint in Greece.
That bore heavily on such a critical issue at this important juncture. But it seems that Erdoğan blinked first by accepting the terms offered by the US Administration and opening a window for Joe Biden to reframe Turkey as a loyal, integral part of the NATO alliance. Whether this is just window-dressing in a transactional setting or a more permanent re-alignment, and how it reflects on Turkey’s quest for strategic autonomy as a hedging, middle power in an increasingly multipolar world is yet to be seen.
The Way Forward
Sweden's bid for NATO membership unfolded against a backdrop of historical nuances, geopolitical shifts, and intricate negotiations. The end of the Cold War marked a significant turning point, with NATO's expansion triggering concerns and reactions from Russia, leading to conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine. Sweden's move to join NATO, alongside Finland, reflects a strategic shift in response to changing security dynamics in Northern Europe.
Ultimately, Sweden’s NATO membership was not a question of if but when. The primary reason is that as the Ukraine-Russia conflict has morphed into a war of attrition, a more challenging theater in the high north and the Arctic Ocean comes under greater attention. The quest for control in this strategically vital region plays out in Russia’s attempt to gain unimpeded access to high seas and project power, and NATO’s quest for expansion to the Nordics.
Sweden, as the last remaining piece of the puzzle, has gained enormous attention due to an intricate web of complex relationships: NATO’s unified stance against Russia, European solidarity in the face of aggression, protection of the so-called “rules-based liberal order”, Turkey’s position in the alliance, US’ position on the Gaza war, defense procurement deals, and more. The complex process of Sweden's accession involved Turkey's conditional support tied to issues such as counterterrorism measures and arms embargoes.
Turkey's parliamentary approval of Sweden's NATO accession, after a period of uncertainty and diplomatic maneuvering, marks a significant development in the geopolitical landscape. The historical context of NATO's expansion, particularly Russia's concerns and reactions, sheds light on the complex dynamics at play. Turkey's decision to lift its veto, despite losing a bargaining card, is a strategic move with multiple objectives. By leveraging its approval for Sweden's NATO accession, Turkey aims to address various bilateral issues with both Sweden and the US.
Whatever the outcome, it does not favor or undermine Turkey’s defense posture directly, but there is an indirect link to Ankara’s expectations from NATO allies to meeting legitimate security interests. The unfolding narrative, entwined with defense contracts, geopolitical interests, and domestic politics, underscores the multifaceted challenges faced by Turkey navigating the intricate landscape of international alliances. As the process evolves, the intertwined dynamics of NATO expansion, regional security, and bilateral negotiations shape the path of Sweden's journey toward NATO membership, leaving the outcome contingent on a delicate balance of diplomatic maneuvers and geopolitical realities.
In this context, Turkey's calculated move reflects its pursuit of strategic advantages and the complexities of balancing regional and global interests. The timing of this decision to approve Sweden’s bid, amidst domestic challenges and regional conflicts, underscores President Erdoğan's need for international support and a strategic position ahead of upcoming elections and crucial diplomatic engagements, including a meeting with Russian President Putin.
While approval has been granted, potential complications tied to Turkey's stance on several issues, from the YPG/PKK in Syria and Iraq to the Israel-Hamas conflict, may add layers of complexity to the aftermath of this diplomatic maneuver. The evolving dynamics in the region and global geopolitical shifts will continue to shape the repercussions of Turkey's decision and its implications for NATO's future engagements. With many moving parts in the puzzle, and the attention having shifted to the Middle East for the time being, the question on Sweden’s NATO accession will continue to occupy minds for some time to come.
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