Turkey Continues To Challenge Sweden’s NATO Membership

Yves here. Wellie, I never thought I’d run a piece from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, but this one makes a big admission against US/NATO interests: that Turkiye, or here Turkey and Sweden are still at odds over Sweden’s NATO bid. Erdogan is insisting on progress in curbing protests by the Kurdish party PKK, which Turkiye deems to be a terrorist organization. This is problematic for Sweden since that would violate their free speech protections.

By RFE/RL staff. Cross posted from OilPrice

  • Sweden’s NATO accession has been delayed due to Turkey’s demands concerning fighting terrorism, lifting an arms embargo on Ankara, and fulfilling extradition requests; these issues still remain a year later.
  • Finland, which initially applied for NATO membership alongside Sweden, decided to decouple and entered NATO as the 31st member in April.
  • The final decision for Sweden’s NATO membership relies heavily on resolving differences between Stockholm and Ankara, and it’s possible that intervention from the NATO secretary-general or even the U.S. president may be needed.

The saga of Sweden’s NATO accession is now likely entering its endgame. Having applied to join the military alliance together with Finland in the wake of Russian’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many initially expected a quick accession. But it has turned out to be more complicated than first anticipated. Turkey signaled that it needed to see progress from Helsinki — but notably Sweden — in areas such as fighting terrorism, the lifting of an arms embargo on Ankara, and fulfilling Turkish extradition requests.

While the trio signed a memorandum of understanding on the sidelines of the NATO Madrid summit in June 2022, outlining what needed to be done by the Nordic duo in order to get Turkish ratification, the fact remains that, as NATO approaches the Vilnius summit in July, those issues still remain a year down the line.

The prospects looked grim earlier this year when two different protests held in Sweden truly enraged Ankara. In one, Kurds hung upside down an effigy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan near Stockholm’s city hall, while, in the other, a Swedish-Danish far-right politician and provocateur set fire to a copy of the Koran outside the Turkish Embassy in the Swedish capital.

Given Sweden’s slow progress, Finland decided to decouple and enter alone, becoming NATO member number 31 in early April. Most NATO officials I have spoken to on background say that there were never really any issues with Finland, only Sweden.

There also doesn’t appear to be much of an issue with Hungary, either. Budapest’s refusal so far to ratify Sweden’s membership is just solidarity with Turkey, according to the NATO officials I’ve spoken to.

Budapest hasn’t actually made any concrete demands on Sweden other than a few complaints about Swedish politicians criticizing the country’s rule of law, and Hungary has indicated that it won’t be the last country to ratify Swedish membership.

So, in the end, it will be about Stockholm and Ankara ironing out their differences, whether ahead of the Vilnius summit on July 11-12, during, or shortly afterwards.

Deep Background: The smart money is that there will be a deal in Vilnius that will allow the Turkish parliament to ratify later in July before it goes into recess until October. “Erdogan likes to be in the limelight and, just like in Madrid in 2022, he will find a way to steal the show at the summit,” a NATO diplomat who isn’t authorized to speak on the record recently told me with a smile.

Swedish and Turkish officials met in Ankara earlier in June, and it is possible that they will meet again in the days and weeks ahead of the summit.

However, NATO officials have told me that there is little left to solve at this level and it is time for the countries’ political leaders to reach an agreement.

There have been extraditions to Turkey, mostly Kurds on terrorism charges, although not as many as Turkey would like. “This is for the courts to decide, not the government” is a common refrain I hear from Swedish officials and diplomats.

A Swedish arms embargo on Turkey has been lifted and, as of June 1, there has been new Swedish counterterrorism legislation that could potentially make it easier to hand over people from Sweden.

While that won’t stop anti-Erdogan protests in Swedish cities, it could help prevent displaying at such events flags of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey designates a terrorist group. Plus, events in which burning the Koran will occur are unlikely to get permission to go ahead in the future.

The big question is whether that will be enough for Erdogan, who told NATO’s secretary-general in a phone call on June 25 that Sweden must stop protests by supporters of the PKK to get a green light on its NATO membership bid and that Sweden’s change of its terrorism law was “meaningless” while such protests continued.

But if Ankara insists on seeing concrete results from the new counterterrorism law, this could potentially drag on for years. So, if the Swedish prime minister and the Turkish president can’t find a compromise in Vilnius, then it might be that they’ll need assistance, or intervention, from the NATO secretary-general or even the U.S. president.

Drilling Down

  • The way things could be solved is a giant political package at — or on the sidelines of — the Vilnius summit. There might be a commitment by Washington to send F-16 fighter jets to Ankara — something that Turkey has been eyeing for a long time. The U.S. Congress, however, has been reluctant to green-light the sale of the jets until Sweden becomes a member of the alliance. So, there might be room for maneuver there. That is not the only sweetener the United States could offer. It’s possible there could be a further loosening of other U.S. arms export restrictions to Turkey. Plus, a possible visit by Erdogan to the U.S. capital in the fall.
  • In the meantime, Jens Stoltenberg might be asked to stay on for an extra year as NATO secretary-general, due to a reported lack of consensus on his replacement. That would be something that Turkey would look favorably upon as Stoltenberg enjoys good relations with the Turkish leadership and, apparently, Ankara isn’t too keen on any other Nordic candidate for the position. (There has been speculation that Danish Prime Minister Mette Fredriksen has been eyeing the secretary-general post.)
  • Stoltenberg, who has headed the military alliance since 2014, has been adamant that he would prefer to step down after the Vilnius summit. But it could very well be that he is asked to stay on until the next summit in Washington, D.C., in July 2024, when NATO celebrates its 75th anniversary.
  • Another crucial piece of a possible deal could involve an agreement on updated NATO defense plans. NATO countries have failed to reach consensus on the new plans, with several sources familiar with the issue saying that Turkey is the main obstruction to an agreement on the secret military blueprints of how NATO would respond to a potential Russian attack. According to my sources, Turkey’s main objection to the updated defense plans is that it wants the Bosphorus to be called “the Turkish straits” — something that Greece has balked at.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. The Rev Kev

    My prediction is that Sweden will be a part of NATO – but only as a de-facto member. It will have the same tactics, doctrine, equipment, networks, integration of command, etc. as NATO but it will just not have that final signature on a piece of paper. The same as is probably being planned for the Ukraine after the war. Meanwhile, Sweden still refuses to uphold the simple agreements that they have made with Türkiye and are telling the Turks to trust them to do so after they are in NATO. But not right now.

    This post says that ‘it might be that they’ll need assistance, or intervention, from the NATO secretary-general or even the U.S. President’ but I ask you, what good would that do? The US tried to recently wreck the Turkish economy with the help of the EU so that Erdogan would lose his recent election. After the election, Biden phoned Erdogan but instead of congratulating him and saying how he is looking forward to working with him, proceeded to lecture Erdogan how he must dump Russia and sanction them – which would wreck the Turkish economy. Would Erdogan be prepared to being lectured by them on how they must buckle and let in Sweden?

    In any case, how is Erdogan suppose to trust any agreements made with the NATO nations? Biden may promise Erdogan F-16s – but Biden could just get Congress to nix it. Such a deal would need a relationship for years forward based on a trust that is not even there. As for the Bosporus, if the Turks want to name it the “Turkish Straits”, why not? It flows entirely within the country of Türkiye and Türkiye alone. In fact, they could name it the Straits of Abdul Abulbul Amir if they really wanted.

    1. NN Cassandra

      On the other hand, isn’t that signature on piece of paper, one more flag before NATO HQ and another blob on map being formally painted in blue color, all our dear leaders actually care about? I would venture Erdogan denying them that one photo op where they all hold hands and congratulate themselves how the family of free nations is on unstoppable march to grow to take over the whole world, is the one thing they hate the most about it.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        I’m 100% convinced Biden told Zelensky to end the separatists for the sole purpose of campaign ads extolling how tough Biden is on the Soviet Union.

    2. TimH

      Biden may promise Erdogan F-16s – but any future US admin can use the spares supply as leverage.

      1. hk

        And Turkey does not care that much for F16’s–they are old. Turks still have grievances over being kicked out of F35 project. But I doubt US backs down on that front until F35 is outdated piece of junk (that moment may arrive sooner than not, though…)

    3. digi_owl

      They already are. Then jets can’t be built or sold without US approval, as vital parts are licensed from USA.

      There have in recent years been increased training up north between the neighbors, something i do not recall hearing about while Sweden and Finland was claiming neutrality.

      1. Polar Socialist

        The first one, I believe, was Northern Wind exercise in 2019. Back then it was about NATO (Norway, UK and USA) “attacking” Sweden and Finland coming to help.

        Ominously the NATO troops complained a lot about the Finnish artillery (Finnish units have very strong artillery element), which tended to “remove” the NATO units from the game several minutes after the units were discovered. Train like you fight, I guess.

        1. digi_owl

          Perhaps why the chief of defense here in Norway seem keen on artillery and SAMs, while politicians are more into fighter jets and tanks.

    4. Polar Socialist

      Sweden has been for decades a de-facto member of NATO. I wonder though, when the dust settles in Ukraine, if Sweden really wants to have same tactics, doctrine and equipment? They don’t seem to work in a modern war…

      1. digi_owl

        Reminds me that Sweden became (in)famous for their independent and flexible officer corp in the 90s.

  2. Retired Carpenter

    re: “This is problematic for Sweden since that would violate their free speech protections
    Yes, indeed! Sweden, “free speech” and Assange… Hypocrisy, hallowed be thy name.

    1. Joe Well

      Maybe they could just arrest all the Kurds for rape and keep their principles intact? /S

    2. digi_owl

      What may be going on is that Sweden is acting as safe harbor for them on US say so. This then secures Kurdish help to USA.

      Something similar played out in Norway, where a mullah out of Iraq was up on charges in Italy but Norway stalled extradition. Likely because he had been ferried to Norway by USA in exchange for cooperation by his people in Iraq.

  3. upstater

    Special Report: US, Swedish prosecutors study graft complaint naming son of Turkey’s Erdogan

    The company’s plan, according to the complaint, was for the administration of President Erdogan to pass regulations that would boost sales of Dignita’s product: dashboard breathalyzers that lock a vehicle’s ignition when the driver is inebriated.

    In return for 10 years of commercial exclusivity selling its products, Dignita committed it would pay tens of millions of dollars in lobbying fees, via a shell company, to two institutions for which Bilal Erdogan is a board member, the complaint says.

    Is rhe baksheesh like Burisma’s for Hunter Biden. It must be ok? I guess US and Sweden think they can intimidate Erdogan? It seems he wears Teflon to me.

  4. The Rev Kev

    Well this is gunna prove awkward. Sweden is going to allow more Koran burning-

    ‘Swedish police have allowed a demonstration in Stockholm during which activists intend to burn the holy book of Islam on the first day of a major holiday for Muslims.

    While recognizing that the planned stunt “may have foreign-policy consequences,” the permit deemed that associated security risks “are not of such a nature that… they can be the basis for a decision to reject an application for a public gathering.”


    Yep, Erdogan is gunna green light Sweden’s entry into NATO any day now. Just you wait.

  5. Robert Gray

    OK, so I get as far as

    > … in the wake of Russian’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine …

    in the second bloody sentence of the article and the alarm flashes red. But, then, I say to myself ‘consider the source’. Right. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, via OilPrice. Proceed (with caution).

    But then it starts:

    > Most NATO officials I have spoken to …

    > …. according to the NATO officials I’ve spoken to.

    > … a NATO diplomat … recently told me …

    and at least two more first-person direct statements in the piece. So now I go to OilPrice to double-check. Is there a by-line? Who is this ‘ I ‘ we’re reading? Nada. The same anonymous ‘By RFE/RL staff’.

    I don’t know about you but I am put off by this sort of condescension, when they can’t even be bothered to edit out the ‘here’s what I say, you proles, and don’t even bother wondering who I am’.

  6. Sunny Tzu

    Sweden will never be part of NATO as a member, it’s not a problem ‘related’ to Erdogan. It’s a national question for Turkey. The US wants Sweden in NATO for its arctic lunacies (the Arctic Council is going to hell next), and for Turkey this matter is as important as Curiosity the rover in Mars. In despite of what we can think about the conflict Turkish state vs Kurds, objectively the Turkish state, the *state*, not Erdogan’s party and/or allies, cannot tolerate that a member of NATO (other than US, of course) can desestabilise its internal situation. Turkey has a lot of problems and one thing is sure: it will not let to have any more other ones.

    So, Turkey has made the (final) choice to put Sweden in limbo, Turkey not only can live with it, in all certainty will profit from it. And Sweden… is the country of Ericsson, lunatic Banks and 9 million people.

    The reason because Sweden was the Kurdish sanctuary was precisely it was not a NATO member de facto. Both roles are incompatible.

    By the way, Turkey doesn’t want American weapons anymore. They want to recover its money in the F-35 circus (good luck with that), but from now on, they will use Chinese, Russian, surely Iranian (this is going to hurt a lot) and of course Turkish ones.

    The pyschos in NATO know well this little point can dinamitate the whole circus, so they won’t make any noise of it. They have many other points to screw Turkey.

Comments are closed.