Will Turkey block NATO membership for Sweden and Finland?

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks ahead of peace talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations at the Dolmabahce presidential office in Istanbul, Turkiye, March 29, 2022.

Arda Kucukkaya | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has doubled down on his opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, a move that would be historic for the two Nordic countries following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We will not say ‘yes’ to those [countries] who apply sanctions to Turkey to join the NATO security organization,” Erdogan said at a press conference on Monday evening. He was referring to Sweden’s suspension of arms sales to Turkey in 2019 due to its military activities in Syria.

Sweden’s foreign ministry said on Monday it planned to send senior officials to join Finnish officials in the Turkish capital of Ankara to address Erdogan’s objections. But the Turkish leader basically said they would be wasting their time.

“Are they going to come and persuade us? Excuse us, but they shouldn’t bother,” Erdogan said. He added that the membership of the two countries would make NATO “a place where representatives of terrorist organizations concentrate”.

Finland’s Foreign Ministry responded to a CNBC request for comment, saying it “implements UN and EU anti-terrorism sanctions against any person or entity…in accordance with EU law. and that “the EU and Turkey maintain regular dialogue on counter-terrorism issues”. .” CNBC has also reached out to the Swedish government for comment.

Sweden and Finland have hosted members of the militant Kurdish separatist organization, the PKK, which Turkey describes as a terrorist organization and which has carried out attacks in Turkey. The two countries also provided support and held high-level meetings with members of the YPG, which is the branch of the PKK in Syria credited with helping defeat ISIS as well as fighting against Turkish forces.

Why is this so crucial?

Sweden and Finland are set to apply for NATO membership, after the governments of both countries expressed support for the decision to abandon their traditional positions of non-alignment between the alliance and Russia.

It would expand the influence and territory of the Western defense organization and make a dramatic statement in pushing back Russia, and has already aroused the anger and threats of Moscow. Sweden and Finland are members of the EU, but not of NATO, and the latter shares an 830-mile border with Russia.

“It looks like a major crisis is looming in Turkey’s relations with the West over Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO candidacy.”

Timothy Ash

Emerging Markets Strategist, Bluebay Asset Management

The accession of the two countries to NATO would give Moscow “more officially registered opponents”, warned in mid-April its former president and senior security official Dmitry Medvedev.

But the joining of NATO by a new member state requires the consensual approval of all existing members.

While the NATO leadership welcomed the news, suggesting candidates could be accepted into the group quickly, one of its most militarily powerful members stands in the way: Turkey.

Turkey, which joined the alliance in 1952, is a crucial player in NATO, with the 30-member group’s second-largest army after the United States.

For both Sweden and Finland, the decision to seek NATO membership is monumental and was sparked by Russia’s brutal invasion of neighboring Ukraine, which itself was aspiring to join NATO. . It was only after the invasion that public opinion in both countries soared in favor of joining the 73-year-old defense alliance.

“The stakes here are huge now,” Timothy Ash, emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, said in a note on Tuesday. “It looks like a major crisis is looming in Turkey’s relations with the West over Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO candidacy.”

“Other NATO members will be furious with Turkey given the now clear and present danger to Europe presented by Putin in Ukraine,” Ash added. “Turkey will be seen as an unreliable partner. This will leave even more bad blood/faith between the two sides – there will be no more remnants of a Turkish bid for EU membership.”

Turkey’s highly strategic Incirlik air base is home to 50 of America’s tactical nuclear weapons, which some US officials have suggested should be removed due to rising tensions with Washington and Ankara in recent years. Those tensions were centered in part on Erdogan’s warming ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his controversial decision to buy Russia’s S-400 air defense system, which saw him kicked out of Russia’s F-35 program. NATO.

While Turkey has backed Ukraine with weapons, including its deadly Bayraktar drones, and tried to mediate between Moscow and kyiv, it has so far refused to join its NATO allies. to punish Russia.

Just tough talk?

Some analysts are skeptical of Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric, convinced that he will not actually block NATO membership bids – rather they predict that he will simply use his country’s influence to obtain concessions and bolster his own waning popularity at home.

“Despite its objections, Ankara will not block countries’ entry into NATO,” analysts at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group wrote in a research note late Monday.

“Erdogan is likely to be looking for concessions to give the green light to NATO expansion, mainly from Sweden. These could include easing the Stockholm bilateral arms embargo against Turkey and some recognition of the PKK as a terrorist organization to reduce its fundraising and recruitment activities”. says the note.

Over the weekend, Erdogan’s top foreign policy adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, reassured allies by saying in an interview with Reuters: “We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey”, regarding NATO membership. for Sweden and Finland.

Arms agreements are likely to play an important role in any negotiations that take place. The Biden administration is currently seeking congressional approval to finalize a sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, for which Ankara will likely seek assurances.

But a more pressing reason behind Erdogan’s trick may be the need to bolster his weakened popularity domestically amid an inflation and cost-of-living crisis. Opinion polls in Turkey have hit their lowest level in years.

Turkish inflation hit 70% in April, largely due to years of Erdogan’s refusal to raise interest rates while burning foreign exchange reserves. The country of 84 million people has been hit hard by the global rise in the cost of energy and basic goods, with prices for fuel and agricultural raw materials soaring thanks in part to the invasion of the Ukraine by Russia.

“There are two things that unite the nation in Turkey,” Ash wrote. “Opposition to the PKK and Perceived Western Hypocrisy.”

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