The Turkish government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, indicated days before the announcement that Sweden and Finland would seek membership in NATO that Turkey would be against it. And hopes for quick inclusion of the two countries into the alliance seem to have been dashed as Ankara blocked early talks on Wednesday, according to sources that spoke to news outlets.
After Sweden and Finland voted internally to seek membership in NATO, they officially handed in their applications to NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday morning. If accepted into the alliance, it would be a major blow to Russia, as one of the reasons they ostensibly invaded Ukraine was to stop NATO expansion eastward. The war has had the opposite effect.
Erdogan, on Monday, speaking to the media in response to reports that diplomats from Stockholm and Helsinki would soon travel to Ankara to discuss Turkey’s objections, was adamant that his objections were clear. He stated that neither country should bother coming to Turkey.
“We will not say ‘yes,'” to Finland and Sweden’s NATO applications, Erdogan said on Monday. Erdogan added that neither country has “a clear, open attitude towards terrorist organizations.” He asked: “How can we trust them?”
Kurdish Terrorist Organization Is a Major Sticking Point
At the heart of that statement is Erdogan and Turkey’s ongoing conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey has labeled a terrorist organization. The PKK, in an effort to establish an independent Kurdish state, has waged an ongoing campaign against the Turkish government since the mid-1980s.
Turkey’s concerns center around reported off-shoots of the PKK in Syria, and Iraq. The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are both groups led by the Kurds. Erdogan wants the countries to stop harboring members of the Kurds, who he says are terrorists and return them to Turkey.
On Saturday, Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesperson for Erdogan, told Reuters that Turkey was “not closing the door” on Finland and Sweden’s NATO bids. “But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” he added.
Many in the West, including Sweden, support the SDF in the war against ISIS. The SDF is the main partner force of the U.S. inside of Syria. Both the YPG and the SDF have denied any organizational involvement with the PKK, but Turkey has rejected those statements, considering them one and the same. It is a contentious issue between the allies, but not the only one.
Turkey is seeking other major concessions, including:
Ending Arms Exports Restrictions on Ankara
Turkey is also upset about what many nations of the West, including Sweden and Finland, did to Turkey in 2019 by restricting its ability to export arms after the Turks’ incursion into Syria to push the YPG back from the Syrian-Turkish border.
Despite Turkey not having any arms deals with either country, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has publicly said the arms restrictions go “against the spirit” of an alliance.
The Russian Connection
Erdogan has had, at times, a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin but at other times the two have been at loggerheads, specifically in Syria and during the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Turkey is seeking a middle ground approach regarding the war in Ukraine. They’ve sold TB2 Bayraktar drones to Kyiv, but despite this Erdogan has maintained a closer relationship with Putin.
The Turks were kicked out of the F-35 program due to their purchase of the S-400 air defense systems made by Russia, and the U.S. didn’t want its most advanced aircraft in such proximity to Russian technical advisers involved in the S-400 program. Turkey also angered Washington by using American-made F-16s in drills while testing the S-400.
Ankara is wanting to be included once again in the F-35 program as well as to be able to make further purchases of F-16s and spare parts for the ones already purchased.
While Turkey isn’t closing the door on membership for Sweden and Finland, it is demanding concessions that it feels are essential to them. Turkey owns the second-largest military in the alliance and will continue to assert its will now and in the future.
Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Army Special Forces NCO, and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 19fortyfive.com and another military news organization, he has covered the NFL for PatsFans.com for more than 10 years. His work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.