Why Has Türkiye Changed its position on Sweden’s NATO accession?

The Turkish veto on Sweden’s NATO bid stirred up debates against the Erdoğan administration and raised questions regarding Türkiye’s commitment to NATO’s open-door policy.

Public Affairs
by Selen Öztürk

Following WWII, Türkiye experienced a significant shift in its international security policy. To relieve itself from the Soviet pressure and realign with the Western Bloc, Türkiye became a NATO member on April 18, 1952 — Precisely three years after the ratification of the North Atlantic Treaty among the Alliance’s founding members. Since its accession, Türkiye served as NATO’s southern flank along with Greece, and from the Balkans to Afghanistan, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) contributed significantly to the Alliance’s military missions. Currently, the TAF constitutes the 2nd largest and most powerful military power of NATO after the United States and actively participates in maintaining the peace and stability of the North Atlantic region.

From Peacekeeper to Peacemaker

However, considering the recent geopolitical developments, Türkiye’s role in NATO has evolved from a peacekeeper to a peacemaker ally, and Ankara’s delicate balancing act in the Russia-Ukraine war constitutes the main reason for this manner: The Erdoğan administration not only managed to support Ukraine through political and military means but also secured a successful grain deal with Russia, which enabled Ukrainian grain to reach world markets through the Bosphorus Strait while the Ukraine-Russia confrontations continued. By creating room for dialogue and mediating between the West and Russia, Türkiye demonstrated the utmost support for Ukraine yet managed to further economic cooperation with Russia, despite the imposed Western sanctions. While supplying the Ukrainian forces with TB2 military drones and providing Ukrainians with humanitarian aid, Türkiye actively advocated for the settlement of the conflict as a NATO ally in the Black Sea region. Ankara has turned into a conflict resolution hub and hosted both Presidents, Zelensky and Putin, to lead the peace talks within the last year, separately – which was a notable responsibility none of the other NATO members wanted to take over due to Western hostility towards Russia. Such initiatives positioned Türkiye as a pivotal ally in promoting regional peace and put Ankara in the spotlight again. 

The Case of Finland and Sweden’s NATO Accession

However, Western circles and news outlets have misinterpreted Türkiye’s unique and pivotal role in NATO recently. Ankara’s initial hesitation to Finland and Sweden’s requests to join NATO amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war constitutes a great example. While many Western experts speculate about Türkiye’s approach to NATO expansion, it must be made clear that Ankara has, for the longest time, supported NATO’s enlargement policy and welcomed 17 nation-states—including Finland– into the Alliance thus far; and that NATO’s open door policy benefits Türkiye just as much as other allies in terms of counterbalancing the Russian influence in the region.

It is understandable that the war between Kyiv and Moscow has created a sense of urgency and sparked further interest in joining the Alliance for Finland and Sweden, forcing them to leave their neutrality policies behind. However, NATO’s unanimous decision-making system makes it mandatory for all the allies to reach a consensus before admitting new members. For Türkiye, these countries’ accessions could not be taken lightly for national security reasons. On this account, Ankara imposed conditions for Finland and Sweden’s accessions to NATO and requested they cut ties with the FETÖ and PKK terrorist groups. 

Following the incident, most Western states have expressed concerns and attempted to confront Ankara directly or indirectly for putting obstacles in the way of Finland and Sweden’s path to NATO membership. For instance, Washington linked the Turkish demand for the F-16 jets to Sweden’s membership bid and put pressure on the already strained bilateral relations. It must be mentioned here that Turkish-American ties have gone through a series of bilateral issues, from the sales of defense systems to the American support for the YPG/PKK terrorist groups in Syria in the past decade, and such problems have damaged the trust between Ankara and Washington to a great extent. The tensions between Washington and Ankara over Türkiye’s national security concerns resulted in talks of “kicking Türkiye out of NATO” in Western circles, even though it was technically impossible under international law. However, the Russian escalations in the region provided room for rapprochement between Türkiye and the United States and other NATO allies.

To address Türkiye’s rightful security concerns and pave the way for Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg and the Biden administration made significant efforts before the NATO Summit held in Madrid between June 29-30, 2022. To reach a feasible common ground with Türkiye, Finland and Sweden signed a trilateral agreement and promised to take concrete steps towards eliminating terrorist formations and activities within their borders at the Madrid Summit. Following the event, Ankara lifted its veto against Finland and Sweden, and their Accession Protocols were signed on July 5, 2022. The Finnish state officially became the 31st NATO ally on April 4, 2023 — after all 30 national parliaments voted to ratify the country’s membership.

The situation was a bit different for Sweden since the Swedish administration chose not to cooperate with Ankara and further strained the bilateral relations by allowing pro-PKK, Islamophobic, and racist protests and staying indifferent to several Quran (the Muslim holy book) burning incidents that took place in Sweden. Such disappointing actions discouraged Ankara from ratifying Sweden’s NATO membership and angered other Muslim countries worldwide. Furthermore, the protests in Sweden made it even more difficult for the Erdoğan administration to welcome Sweden into NATO right around the time of the presidential elections in Türkiye. Many countries, including Finland, condemned such actions and invited Sweden to revisit its constitution to protect and promote religious peace.

The Vilnius Summit: An attempt to gain leverage or a sincere interest in reviving relations with the West?

Following the incidents, the Turkish veto on Sweden’s NATO bid stirred up debates against the Erdoğan administration and raised questions regarding Türkiye’s commitment to NATO’s open-door policy. It was clear to both domestic and foreign audiences that Erdoğan would not allow Sweden into NATO before the May 14 presidential elections resulted in his favor since such an action would jeopardize his election campaign. After the elections, however, Ankara’s attitude rapidly changed due to the active and constructive efforts of Secretary General Stoltenberg and the Biden Administration. Sweden, too, has made significant progress by amending its constitution, increasing its counter-terrorism cooperation, and resuming arms exports to Türkiye. Additionally, Washington signaled that the United States would allow transferring F-16 fighter jets to Türkiye, partially helping resolve Ankara’s national security concerns. Such efforts permitted the Erdoğan administration to change its stance on the Swedish bid to join NATO.

Yet, before the Vilnius Summit held in Lithuania between July 11-12, 2023, President Erdoğan made a few surprising remarks. He announced that Türkiye would fully support Ukraine’s accession to NATO and that Ankara would approve of Sweden’s request only if Türkiye’s EU membership talks were to be revived. In other words, Erdoğan requested to join the EU in exchange for Sweden’s accession to NATO and proved Türkiye’s commitment to the NATO enlargement policy at the Vilnius Summit. 

His request most certainly constituted an unexpected yet calculated move in many Turkish and Western experts’ opinions. That is because Türkiye had slowly abandoned its EU-centric approach since the EU Parliament voted to suspend Ankara’s accession process in 2019; Ankara has not publicly expressed any interest in joining the EU since 2021. Many would argue that President Erdoğan turned towards the East in this period, further distancing Türkiye from the EU. In addition, Ankara worked on fostering relations with other regional actors and unions. 

One cannot help but wonder if there is a relationship between Sweden’s NATO bid and Türkiye’s EU membership talks, and question Erdogan’s logic behind such a request. In this scenario, it would be naïve to assume that Erdogan’s actual goal is to become an EU member. The Turkish government does, for sure, know that the two premises are not equitable, and that the EU would not welcome Türkiye with open arms any time soon. While Sweden’s NATO bid has no direct relation to reopening Türkiye’s accession path to the EU, Erdoğan has utilized this opportunity to draw attention to Ankara’s needs and requests, and made the most of its leverage in the Alliance by bargaining his way out of the situation. More surprising is that both NATO and the United States, two entities with no say in the EU parliament, have immediately backed Türkiye’s EU proposal. Considering the American and NATO endorsement, Türkiye has agreed to support Sweden’s accession to the Alliance at the Vilnius summit. However, made it clear that the Turkish Parliament would approve of Sweden’s NATO membership when it reopens, before October, which still left some room to monitor future regional developments. 

Consequently, President Erdoğan achieved the following at the Vilnius Summit:

  1. He reiterated Türkiye’s commitment to NATO and proved its dedication to the North Atlantic security by endorsing Ukraine’s membership bid to the Alliance and changing Ankara’s stance towards Sweden’s accession to NATO,
  2. Secured Ankara’s national security interest by realigning with the West and reviving its relations with the United States and EU,
  3. Drew international attention to the unfair and overtly critical nature of the Western policies towards Türkiye (such as the never-ending EU membership processes, trade barriers, arms embargoes, anti-Turkish terrorist endorsements, and visa denials and travel restrictions to Turkish citizens, etc.)

In sum, President Erdoğan openly communicated his willingness to rekindle relations with the Western powers, mainly with the EU, via the Vilnius summit. It must be mentioned here that the economic challenges facing his administration in the post-election period have motivated him to take such steps along with the national security concerns stated above. The Turkish economy has been struggling dramatically for the past few years: The Erdoğan administration must shrink inflation and fix the budget and trade deficits while recollecting the lost foreign reserves to salvage the country’s economic future and constantly depreciating currency, the Turkish Lira. Given that Erdoğan will be running the country for the next five years, his administration had to come to terms with the fact that the money coming from the Gulf and Russia would not repair the damage his unorthodox monetary policies have caused to the Turkish economy. Türkiye still needs Western investors and heavily depends on trade with the EU, which is why reviving relations with the EU was of importance to Ankara via Sweden’s bid to join NATO at the Vilnius summit.  

In conclusion, it is possible to argue that Türkiye intends to realign itself with the Western bloc while keeping its foreign policy in check and contributing to regional peace. However, this does not necessarily mean Ankara will sour relations with Moscow. Under the current domestic and international circumstances, the Erdoğan administration will maintain its balancing act with Russia and continue to work on facilitating dialogue between the West and Moscow, especially regarding the war in Ukraine. 


Selen Öztürk’s article was published by a distinguished Chinese news platform, Guancha on 30 July, 2023. Click here to access the original article in Chinese.