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Explained: Why is Turkey opposing the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO?

Turkey, which has been a member of NATO since 1952 and has the second largest military force in the alliance, has repeatedly opposed Finland and Sweden’s entry. What are its grievances?

Racep Tayyip Erdogan (AP/File)

Weeks after Turkish president Racep Tayyip Erdogan announced his opposition to fast-track NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, leaders of two Nordic countries and NATO will meet Erdogan Tuesday (June 28) to break the deadlock.

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, historically neutral Sweden and Finland had first applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in May. Turkey had opposed their entry, accusing the two Nordic countries of supporting Kurdish militant groups, which it deems to be terrorist organizations.

The presidential spokesperson stated that Erdogan’s meeting with the leaders of Sweden, Finland and NATO, “does not mean we will take a step back from our position.”

On June 15, Turkey had said the two candidates had not met its expectations and that any negotiations would have to address Turkish concerns.

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What is NATO?

The United States, Canada and various western European countries formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1949, in response to the perceived threat of the Soviet Union’s expansion in post-war Europe.

There are currently 30 members in NATO, and according to article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty, any European country that can “contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area” can join the alliance.

However, accession requires the approval of each member state. In 2008, Greece vetoed North Macedonia’s bid to join NATO due to a long-term dispute over the country’s name, ‘Macedonia’. Only in 2018, when the country changed its name to North Macedonia, did Greece grant its approval, after which the country was officially admitted as a member in March 2020.


NATO is essentially a collective security alliance, with its members committed to mutual defence if any one of them is attacked by an external force.

The alliance’s chief principle of collective defence is laid out in article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty: “The parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the party or parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

What are Turkey’s grievances?

Turkey, which has been a member of NATO since 1952 and has the second largest military force in the alliance, has repeatedly opposed Finland and Sweden’s entry.


Erdogan claims that they are “home to many terrorist organisations”, like the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The PKK has engaged in armed struggle with Turkey for decades, first seeking an independent Kurdish state, but has since evolved to seek greater Kurdish autonomy and increased rights of Kurds within Turkey.

The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the Turkey, the US, the UK and the EU. Finland and Sweden have also banned it as a terrorist outfit.

Ankara wants the Nordic countries to make written commitments to suppress the PKK and YPG forces in Syria. Affiliated with the PKK, the YPG is a militia that is active in the Rojava region of northeastern Syria. They supported western forces in the military campaigns against ISIS in Syria and played a pivotal role in their defeat. Turkey, according to a Bloomberg report, has accused the YPG of attacking its fighters near the country’s border.

According to a Brookings Institution report, Turkey has been angered by Sweden and Finland’s refusal to extradite PKK members and followers of the Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara accuses of instigating a failed 2006 coup.

Also, Turkey wants Sweden and Finland to lift their restrictions on the sale of arms to the country, which was imposed after Ankara’s military campaign in Syria in 2019.


Are there some domestic concerns behind Turkey’s stand?

Critics argue that Erdogan’s roadblocks on Finland and Sweden’s journey towards NATO membership also have domestic causes. Turkey is currently grappling with soaring inflation and a rising cost of living. With elections being held next year, Erdogan’s emphasis on nationalist issues could help boost his image amongst the Turkish voter base.


“Primarily this is a message toward his electoral base at home,” said former NATO official, Stephanie Babst, in an interview referred to by the New York Times.

“He has an election ahead of him. The economic situation in Turkey is pretty gruesome and so he wants to demonstrate leadership. He wants to demonstrate that he is a hard leader and so he is, I am afraid to say, using Sweden and Finland in order to get his strategic messages across.” she added.


Will Sweden and Finland be able to join NATO?

After a hiatus of several weeks, Turkish, Swedish and Finnish sides held talks on June 20. Subsequently, the Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters that his country needed to have “binding promises” to proceed with the countries requests.

“We don’t see ourselves limited by any timetable. The speed, scope of this process depends on these nations’ manner and speed of meeting our expectations,” he said, as reported by Reuters.

With Turkey suggesting that it does not plan to accept Sweden and Finland by the NATO summit (June 28-30), it is unlikely that the matter will be resolved very soon. Even if Turkey decides to lift its veto, it would still take the two Nordic countries at least a year to join the bloc, according to Rose Gottemoeller, a former deputy secretary general of NATO, as cited by The Hill.

If and when they do join NATO, Finland and Sweden will both be guaranteed military support by members of the security alliance in case an external force attacks them.

Once Finland becomes a member, NATO’s borders with Russia would more than double, adding close to 1,300 km of frontier, according to US-based think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CRF). Furthermore, NATO’s presence in the Baltic sea and the Arctic sea would also be strengthened.

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First published on: 27-06-2022 at 10:17:08 pm
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