When Sweden and Finland declared their intention to join NATO last May, it was seen by many as a poke in the eye for Russia and evidence of a shift in European thinking. Historically, both countries had committed to non-alignment with NATO as a way of avoiding provoking Moscow. The invasion of Ukraine changed that.
Both Finland and Sweden – along with the vast majority of NATO allies – would like to see the countries formally join the alliance at a NATO summit on July 11. However, a significant hurdle 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 nation blocking the move: Hungary has also failed to ratify the Nordics’ accession which further muddies the waters. However, right now getting Turkey on side is considered the priority.
Unfortunately for the pro-NATO gang, Western officials are increasingly pessimistic that Turkey will budge.
Officially, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan objects to Sweden and Finland’s membership on what he claims are security grounds. Turkey claims that both countries, though particularly Sweden, are harboring militants from the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terror group in Turkey, Sweden, the United States and Europe. Erdogan says he would like these individuals to be extradited; Sweden has made clear this won’t happen.
NATO diplomats are split on whether they think Turkey will budge before the July summit. Central to both schools of thought is this year’s Turkish election, perceived as the biggest political threat Erdogan has faced in years.
“The image he has 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-West and anti-Kurd sentiment in Turkey at the moment. This is a good topic for him to bang his drum and a dramatic U-turn would only make him look weaker.”
Tol believes there are other reasons that Erdogan doesn’t want to upset Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
“Russia has been a lifeline economically for Turkey after other nations imposed sanctions for their activities in Syria, their cooperation militarily with Russia and other hostile activity,” Tol explains. “Without Russian money, Erdogan would not have been able to raise wages or provide financial support to students. He is now promising mass rebuilding, post-earthquake. So Russia is still an attractive partner for Erdogan.”
Like many Western officials, Tol believes the Turkish claims about Sweden and Finland harboring terrorists provide perfect cover for Erdogan not to engage at a politically inconvenient time on the NATO question.
While nothing may come from the talks due between the three parties on Thursday, a conversation is taking place about how much political capital Erdogan might have to spend after the election, should he win.
First, the optimists.
This group includes Sweden, Finland and some of the states that border Russia or used to live under the Soviet sphere. They believe that Turkey, which benefits hugely from being part of NATO, will ultimately do what is in its best interest and drop objections.
For this to happen, officials are bracing for Turkey to make more realistic demands than the handing over of individuals it deems to be terrorists, such as the lifting of sanctions or the US allowing Turkey to buy the fighter jets that the country badly needs to keep its air force up to date.
‘Going for membership alone’
Ultimately, the optimists believe there is a compromise that vastly favors NATO. The alliance, Sweden and Finland have made their case and NATO has an open-door policy for any country wanting to join. Sweden and Finland have more than met the criteria, so not joining makes a mockery of the alliance – an alliance that Turkey benefits from being a member. One NATO official told CNN that they assumed Erdogan would wait for the summit before conceding so that he can bask in the “praise of all his Western allies.”
The far larger group among officials who spoke with CNN are pessimists. They think the chances of Erdogan shifting his position before July 11 are as good as zero and are already thinking beyond that summit.
“I think it’s increasingly likely that Finland breaks from Sweden and goes for membership alone,” one NATO diplomat told CNN.
Other members of the alliance still see a real prospect of both countries being blocked and are considering how best NATO can handle such a scenario.
Multiple NATO officials and diplomats told CNN that the danger here is Turkey’s block feeding the Kremlin narrative that the West and NATO are divided. The alliance’s job at that point will be to make clear that even if they are not members, Finland and Sweden are now effectively in lockstep with NATO. They might not be members, but they are as close partners as it’s possible to be – and they are not neutral any more.
Even if Turkey can be squared off, there is the separate, albeit less complicated issue of Hungary.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban has publicly indicated he is not opposed to the Nordic nations joining, but keeps finding ways to stall a decision becoming official.
There are a few reasons Orban would want to drag his feet. Finland and Sweden have both criticized Hungary for its rule of law record. He addressed this in a recent interview, asking how “can anyone want to be our ally in a military system while they’re shamelessly spreading lies about Hungary?”
Orban is considered to be the EU leader closest to Putin. Katalin Cseh, a Hungarian Member of the European Parliament, describes Orban’s blocking of the Sweden and Finland bids as “quite simply, another favor to Vladimir Putin.” She believes that Orban, who has been accused of drifting towards autocratic leadership, has “invested over a decade to copy his policies and build up a Putinist model,” and that any perceived NATO victory over Putin “puts his whole regime in jeopardy.”
It is possible that Orban is hanging on in order to get concessions from other EU member states, where Hungary has been accused of violating all manner of EU laws. The result has been withholding of EU funds and scorn from the bloc. While NATO and the EU are separate entities, they share many members and it is plausible that bilateral diplomacy could see some give-and-take between Hungary and its EU counterparts.
For all Orban’s foot-dragging, though, it is widely assumed that if Turkey can be squared off, Hungary will drop its opposition to Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
The irony isn’t lost on many that one of the main reasons Putin gave for invading Ukraine was to put a stop to what he claimed was NATO expansion. The fact that his aggression might have pushed a historically unaligned country into NATO is still seen by most in the West as a huge 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 picked a side since the start of the Ukraine conflict. It seems unlikely that they will return to a position of neutrality if the war were to suddenly end.
The risk for NATO and the broader Western alliance comes if they fail to join the alliance at all and the Kremlin can use it for propaganda purposes. If that happens, even if the war suddenly ends, the narrative of a divided West will continue to be the drum that NATO’s opponents can bang.