Sweden, Finland and Türkiye: The New Dispute Triangle

By Sashank Rajaram

The Ukraine-Russian war has forced Sweden and Finland, two historically neutral countries, to apply for NATO membership as a measure to prevent future aggression. While all expected the induction process to be fairly simple, Türkiye, an important member of the Western alliance, expressed its displeasure at the expansion and threatened to veto the move unless certain demands were met. With the NATO members set to meet in Madrid later this month, this article aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the issues and implications it bears on Europe’s security concerns.

The Ukraine-Russia war, which has now lasted more than a hundred days, has had an indelible impact on Europe and the world—from economic to geopolitical. Since the beginning of the war, the West has imposed harsh sanctions on the Russian Federation to sever the country’s economy, and geopolitical events such as the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) have completely isolated Russia. However, one of the most significant transformations brought about by the war has occurred in a quiet area—the Baltic Sea. On the 18th of May 2022, Sweden and Finland, two historically neutral countries, handed over their application to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in a public event at the alliance headquarters in Brussels. With the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, conducting his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine on the pretext of the latter’s decision to join NATO, this decision of the Scandinavian countries is a historic shift in policy that has the potential to redraw Europe’s security map. Yet, in a move that shocked its allies, Türkiye, a long-standing member of NATO, has opposed the entry of the two-member countries, threatening to veto the same. With the NATO members set to meet in Madrid later in June, how does this complexity present itself given the current European security crisis?

Sweden and Finland – A Background

The Scandinavian territory, which is an area to the north of Europe, consists of five countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland. While both Sweden and Finland are ideologically, culturally, and politically inclined toward the West, they share territorial borders with Russia, a country that has historically been viewed as anti-West. As a result, both these countries have remained militarily non-aligned for a long time, with Finland even signing the Finno-Soviet Treaty of 1948 where it promised to neither join the West led by the U.S. nor the East led by the erstwhile USSR during the Cold War. However, although they are non-aligned, both countries are members of the European Union (EU), have participated in NATO exercises in recent years and have even signed bilateral defence agreements with the United States.

Now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which saw the former attack the sovereign territory of another country, forced Sweden and Finland to abandon their neutrality and apply for membership in NATO given the rising security concerns against a future Russian or similar invasion. Apart from joining for security concerns, the move of including the Nordic countries was also somewhat symbolic. It helped to project an image of European and democratic solidarity against Russian aggression. Welcoming the historic development, NATO Secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg stated that “I warmly welcome the requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO. You are our closest partners.” Experts argue that the accession of these two countries, if it gets through, would certainly put Russia on the backfoot. Both countries have a capable military—mainly Finland which boasts of a wide range of military competencies including a large artillery force. Importantly, the admission of Sweden would also include Gotland, a strategically significant island in the Baltic Sea. In case of any aggression, army veterans contend that Sweden could position their land brigades and air missile systems on the island and cut off Russia’s only direct access to the West. William Alberque, a former NATO official, argues that the inclusion of Finland and Sweden in the Western military alliance would substantially enhance Nordic security and reduce “the scope for Russian adventurism in the Baltics.” However, just as the two new members were about to be admitted, Türkiye objected to the enlargement and threatened to veto it unless some of its demands were met.

Türkiye – The Perfect Spoilsport

For numerous decades, Türkiye has been involved in fighting armed conflicts with multiple Kurdish rebel units that have been advocating for a separate country for the Kurds—a large ethnic group spread across Türkiye, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. One such group demanding sovereignty is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has been recognised and labelled as a terrorist organisation by the U.S., the EU and Türkiye. Interestingly, one of PKK’s offshoots, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has been aided by the U.S. in combating the Islamic State and liberating the city of Raqqa. Yet, due to their hostility towards Türkiye, the country has always viewed them as terrorists and security threats. Now, with Sweden and Finland knocking at the doors of NATO, the Turkish president, Recep Erdogan, accused the countries, mainly Sweden, of being “a complete hotbed of terrorism” for harbouring members of the PKK and YPG. Erdogan alleged that the Swedish government was endangering not only Türkiye’s security but that of the entire NATO by providing refuge to terrorists. Explaining Türkiye’s stance, the country’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, curtly said, “our demands are not impossible, we just want them to end support for Kurdish terror groups.” For Sweden to end support would mean extraditing almost thirty-three PKK rebels, considered terrorists by Türkiye, who have taken refuge in Sweden. It would also include those who have links to Fetullah Gulen, who Türkiye believes was the mastermind behind the 2016 coup attempt.

But that is not all. Ever since Ankara launched an offensive against YPG forces at the Syrian border, the West and several European countries including Sweden and Finland imposed an arms embargo on the country. Currently, Erdogan wants the embargo lifted to vote in favour. Speaking to The Economist, he argued, “Türkiye stresses that all forms of arms embargoes — such as the one Sweden has imposed on my country — are incompatible with the spirit of military partnership under the NATO umbrella. Such restrictions not only undermine our national security but also damage NATO’s own identity.”

The Underlying Stimulus

While only the Swedish embargo was explicitly stated, several other factors were lurking in the background. Though the Turkish Armed Forces rank second in NATO and have actively blocked Russian warships from gaining access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, it felt snubbed in its assessment that its contribution was not duly acknowledged. As former U.S. Ambassador, James F. Jeffrey, aptly states, “Türkiye’s assessment is that it is seen as, at best, a half-member, tolerated but not liked by the rest of NATO, and certainly not by the Washington foreign policy community.” For example, after Türkiye purchased the Russian S400 air defence system, it drew the ire of the U.S. which sanctioned and rejected selling its F-35 fighter jets. Additionally, the blockade of the sale of F-16 jets has not been well received in Ankara. As a result, these acts haven’t ensured a smooth relationship between Biden and Erdogan. The issue has become a political liability for the Biden administration too. After approving the prospect of new entrants into NATO, it has dissociated itself from the entire episode. State spokesperson, Ned Prince, has recently said that the U.S. will consulate and engage in dialogue but “ultimately this is not an issue between the United States and Tukey. This is an issue between those three countries.” Therefore, Türkiye’s stance may also be interpreted as Erdogan’s chance to gain an upper hand and pressurise the U.S and its allies into meeting its other demands.

At the same time, one cannot ignore the political dimension here. For the past year or so, Türkiye has been in economic turmoil. The inflation in the country is at a twenty-three-year high of a whopping 73% due to Erdogan’s unorthodox economic approach which is contrary to widely accepted anti-inflationary measures. In most markets around the world, central banks have been raising interest rates to curb the inflation rate. However, Tukey’s central banks have done the opposite. Interest rates have been lowered more than three times, thereby depreciating the value of the Lira (Turkish currency) and pushing up the cost of importing fuel drastically. While fears regarding a bank run or default are on a high, Erdogan has downplayed concerns, maintaining that the falling Lira would encourage exports. However, economists argue that it is unlikely to succeed, as soaring inflation would force exporters to pay more for energy and raw materials. The economic crisis has prompted protests against Erdogan’s government and damaged his public ratings. Consequently, it might not be entirely incorrect to view Türkiye’s stance on NATO as an opportunity for Erdogan to boost his popularity and gain political advantage.

The Expansion Dilemma Lying Ahead

Ironically, the war conducted against the expansion of NATO has yielded exactly the opposite result of what Russia hoped for. Still, it would be wise to consider the Russian reaction, if any, if the admission passes through. An eastward expansion of NATO has always irked Putin. Though he may not be in a position to plan another attack, an expansion that puts St. Petersburg within 200 miles of an attack would not be taken kindly. Moreover, all member states of NATO are required to allocate at least 2% of their GDP to defence and there are concerns about whether the two Nordic nations will be able to adhere to it on a long-term basis. Besides placing further demands on defence expenditures that are already stretched thin, an expanding NATO might complicate its capacity to reach a unanimous consensus. With such uncertainties, Europe should be careful that its policies do not deteriorate, instead of improving its security threats.

Sashank Rajaram is a 1st-year Undergraduate student at Ashoka University, pursuing an Economics Major and Political Science Minor.

Image credits – Balkan Insight

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