Turkiye Refuses to Back Down on Sweden Accession Ahead of NATO Summit

With the unfolding disaster for the West in Ukraine, Washington’s desperation for some sort of good news to emerge from this week’s NATO summit is growing.

While Kiev has been outspoken about its desire to join NATO, that almost certainly isn’t going to happen. Another option is for Sweden to get the green light, but that would require Turkiye to drop its opposition.

Biden is apparently “anxiously” waiting for Sweden’s approval, which is a scary thought because he doesn’t come across as someone who handles anxiety particularly well.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, knowing that Western officials with the slightest degree of sanity are against Ukraine in NATO, might have deftly added to the alliance’s predicament when he declared on Saturday that “there is no doubt that Ukraine deserves NATO membership.”

With that very unlikely to happen it could put even more pressure on the West to give Erdogan what he wants in order for him to drop his opposition to Sweden’s bid and prevent the summit from looking like a failure.

Erdogan has been consistent with his demands since Sweden applied for NATO membership: Stockholm must deport individuals Turkiye accuses of involvement in terrorism, including followers of US-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen, as well as groups and individuals allegedly linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.

Erdogan had this say on July 7:

The essence of the alliance is the institution of mutual trust and solidarity. Without it, it’s meaningless to talk about other subjects.Those who advise us should first reply to these questions frankly: How can Turkiye trust a country where terrorists wander around on its streets?

That’s not to say that behind-the-scenes deal sweeteners couldn’t play a role, but so far what the west has offered (selling F-16s to Ankara) doesn’t appear to be enough. Protests in Sweden that involve the burning of the Quran likely also upped the price (Stockholm is apparently now considering a ban on Quran desecration).

Barring some major concession, it’s hard to see how the divide is bridged. While Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared in June that Sweden had addressed Turkiye’s concerns “appropriately and effectively,” simply making such a statement does not apparently make it true.

Talks last week ended with the same stalemate that has been present for months. From Al-Monitor:

Thursday’s high-level talks between Turkish and Swedish foreign ministers and NATO’s chief appeared to yield no sign of progress with both sides reiterating their competing positions. Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan pressed for more concrete steps from  Stockholm, while his Swedish counterpart Tobias Billstrom insisted that his country had fulfilled its commitments to Turkiye.

Sweden changed its counterterrorism laws and amended its constitution in accordance with Ankara’s demands. Turkiye, however, is still pressing Sweden to further restrict the activities of groups it deems terrorist organizations and extradite or deport their members.

If Erdogan wants other sweeteners outside of the demands on accused terrorists, well, Turkiye certainly needs economic help, as it has been struggling with runaway inflation, a growing budget deficit, and dwindling reserves. While Erdogan won reelection, if he and his AKP ruling party can’t return to their old ways of delivering economic growth and rising living standards, they face the prospects of internal upheaval and a rude awakening in future elections.

The government-run Turkish Statistical Institute reported last week that the annual inflation rate was 38 percent in June (the independent inflation group ENAG put the figure at 109 percent). Erdogan and his ruling party a receiving criticism for increasing taxes 2 percent on a range of goods and services, including basics like toilet paper, detergents, and diapers

The government also hiked the tax collected from lending institutions on consumer loans. The moves are part of an effort to reduce the country’s ballooning budget deficit.

According to Reuters, Turkiye “recorded a deficit of 263.6 billion lira ($10.21 billion) in the first five months of the year, compared to 124.6 billion lira a year ago due to increased spending ahead of May elections and the impact of February’s devastating earthquakes in southern Turkiye.”

Other countries – from Russia and China to the UAE and Saudi Arabia – have been helping Ankara with its currency reserves and/or infrastructure projects, but the West has offered little other than the possibility of F-16 sales. It’s unclear, however, if such a sale could even gain congressional approval as key senators have already voiced disapproval and the Armenian lobby is opposed.

Aside from that, it’s mainly been threats of sanctions. The Wall Street Journal came out with another report June 29 about Turkiye’s increasing trade ties with Russia. It was portrayed as if this was some sort of scandal despite the arrangement being well known since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. The WSJ report again raises the threat of US sanctions on Turkish businesses for allegedly aiding Russia and hurting the Western efforts to isolate Russia.

In addition to the sanctions threats, the US has also been sending military support to Cyprus and Greece as part of an effort to pressure Erdogan to toe the NATO line – at least that’s the way Turkiye sees it.

That strategy has not worked, and won’t work as the West is no longer the only game in town. The same denial that led the Biden administration to believe it could isolate Russia and crash its economy continues to play out with Turkiye.

Using sticks with probably the second most important NATO, which controls passage through  the Turkish Straits and hosts US nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Force Base, is a questionable decision. It also ignores the fact that Erdogan can turn eastwards. As mentioned above, Turkiye is increasingly receiving assistance from the East to help its floundering economy.

Moscow has helped Ankara prop up its foreign currency reserves with the purchase of Turkish bonds via a scheme involving the construction and development of Turkiye‘s Akkuyu nuclear power plant. Ankara and Moscow recently celebrated the loading of fuel into the first reactor at the Russia-built plant. It was a major milestone for  Turkiye, which joined the ranks of countries with nuclear energy.

Turkiye had been trying to get a nuclear power plant built for 50-plus years. Back in the 90s Ankara had bids from Westinghouse + Mitsubishi, AECL, and Framatome + Siemens but had to cancel because it was going to cost more than the Turkish government could afford at the time.

Instead, Russia financed, built, and is delivering the fuel to Akkuyu under a build-own-operate model. Turkish nuclear engineers are also receiving training from the Russians.

On the military hardware front, after years of ignored requests for the US Patriot system, Türkiye purchased the arguably superior Russian system in 2017.

Saudi Arabia deposited $5 billion into the Turkish central bank a few months back to help Ankara firm up its long-weakening currency. The UAE did the same. Turkiye is also  expecting another $10 billion soon in investments from the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. In addition to better relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Erdogan is successfully mending ties with Bahrain and Egypt in an effort to boost Turkish trade and investment.

Beijing is also becoming a more important player in Turkiye. Imports from China doubled from 2019 to 2022 (only Russia sends more), while EU exports have seen a corresponding spike, leading some to argue Turkiye is trying to save its economy by buying half-finished goods cheap from China, finishing them domestically, then selling them to the EU.

From MIT Technology Review:

Starting an EV business from scratch is hard; making batteries—the most important part of an EV—is even harder. That’s why Turkiye isn’t going it alone and is instead partnering with Farasis, one of the top Chinese battery companies, just behind the industry leaders like CATL, BYD, and CALB. In 2019, Togg and Farasis formed a joint venture named SIRO, each taking a 50% stake, to build a battery plant in Gebze, Turkiye, that will produce lithium-ion batteries to power Togg’s electric cars.

Farasis is not the only Chinese tech company making its way into Turkiye. In January, a Turkish newspaper reported that Alibaba is planning on investing more than $1 billion to build a data center and a logistics center in Turkiye. Alibaba owns Turkiye’s biggest e-commerce company, Trendyol, and its overseas shopping app AliExpress is often the most downloaded free app in Turkiye’s Google Play store. Shein, another important Chinese player in the fast-fashion industry, has also started manufacturing in Turkiye after producing exclusively in China for a decade, the Wall Street Journal reported in December.

…But Turkiye is also important because, sitting at the intersection of Europe and Asia, it can be an entry point for Chinese tech companies aiming to go into the European market.

All of this is not to say Turkiye is about to turn its back on the West, but it does mean that the West’s pressure campaigns are increasingly futile. It would be a mistake for Turkiye to abandon its spot on middle ground. In fact, it is well-placed to emulate Germany’s previous model of turning cheap energy imports from Russia into manufacturing prowess for exports. As War on  the Rocks points out:

As cliched as the platitude about Turkiye being a bridge between East and West is, it helps to describe trade flows: Turkiye imports energy from Russia and goods from China to cover domestic demand, and local factories assemble components for Europe. Turkiye’s greatest trade surpluses are close to home — with countries like Azerbaijan and Iraq — but it is the European market that allows Turkiye to maintain an export-oriented manufacturing sector of scale.

Following nearly a decade of an aggressive foreign policy that caused nothing but problems with neighbors in the  region, Turkiye is back on more comfortable ground: using its geopolitical and geographical position to its advantage.

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  1. ChrisRUEcon

    Fascinating! Thanks Conor! Erdogan remains a joker in the deck as it were – wily old fox!

    I just had a curious thought – I wonder if any country “will be allowed” to be both a member of both NATO and the BRICS[T?] … I think you know which one my bet is on … ;-)

    1. Jams O'Donnell

      Russia has categorically said that Türkiye can’t join the SCO as long as it is a member of NATO. As for BRICS, that is a less political and security oriented bloc, and it presumably would depend on members inclinations. However, I don’t suppose that they will welcome a still NATO member Türkiye with open arms. It would just be asking for trouble. The question is can Türkiye face down the US and leave NATO. It would probably be a good move to leave the sinking US/EU/NATO ship for the upcoming east, but it won’t be easy.

      1. ChrisRUEcon

        > The question is can Türkiye face down the US and leave NATO …

        Indeed. This is why I qualified with “allowed to”, and thanks for your response. I concur. #itWontBeEasy

  2. The Rev Kev

    I can’t see Erdogan trusting any of his western “partners”. These were the same one who were trying to sabotage the Turkish economy in the lead up to his re-election but which failed. And certainly he is not going to trust Sweden’s assurances that they will do everything that he wants – just after he signs the papers letting them into NATO. He would have zero trust in Sweden’s political leadership. As it stands, Türkiye is in the catbird’s seat due to its own geographical situation and trying to get maximum benefits from all sides is just politics. But he would have to reflect that it is not Putin or Xi that is trying to regime change him. The later two he can do business with and be well assured that they will honour their agreements. So trust is still a factor in international agreements. Who knew?

    1. Polar Socialist

      That was my first thought, too. Erdogan (and most other Turks, surely) would want to see the “partners” to actually provide first something tangible (and unrectractable) before committing to his part of the deal.

      1. hk

        Erdogan is also “trolling,” (well, more serious than in the usual sense). Nobody really wants to see Ukraine in NATO and with the US taking an official position, it almost certainly won’t happen. So Erdogan can take a meaningless “moralizing” position (granted, no one would take Erdogan’s moralizing seriously, but it does draw attention to the diplomatic trap that the West got itself mired in )–repaying the West in its own currentcy, so to speak.

    2. marku52

      Well what on earth was Erdogan thinking when he released the Azovs, contrary to his agreement with Russia that they would remain in Turkey until the war’s end?

      And announcing arms to UKR?

      If he’s trying to piss everyone off, he’s off to a fine start.

      1. EquitableEqual

        I get the feeling this was coordinated with Russia to coincide with the ‘Ukraine deserve NATO membership’ statement. It adds a lot of weight to the statement and therefore to turkey’s position as an independent mediator. It’s now hard for the west to (publicly) argue that Turkey is subservient to Russia.

  3. Louis Fyne

    Finland got played by Sweden as with Finland in NATO, Sweden has little practical need to be in NATO and can be as much as a thorn in Erdogan’s side as Sweden’s domestic politics demand.

    Instead of Sweden colonizing Finland again, Sweden manages Finland to get colonized by NATO.

    1. ChrisPacific

      If the US threatens to load Finland up with military bases and nukes, it could easily go the way of Ukraine. I read the translation of Medvedev’s recent interview and he’s already starting to refer to Finland as “the country created out of thoughtlessness by Lenin”, which is the same kind of language they’ve been using for Ukraine. (Usual warning about machine translation, and we’d need a Russian speaker to tell us what he actually said, but I think the general gist is pretty clear).

      All of the Western politicians who drum up hate for Putin don’t seem to realize that he’s the good cop.

      1. Polar Socialist

        Thoughtlessness is good enough, I think. The word he used means literally not-thinking-trough-ness.

        I did see a Finnish expert* commenting Medevedev’s “outburst”, but somehow he missed that dimension totally. He was pointing out that Lenin’s intentions hardly matter anymore… and that Madvedev was using language so vulgar it should be frowned upon and not be taken seriously.

        According to the latest opinion poll 75% of the Finns try to avoid news from Ukraine – almost as if they are starting to understand that the war will not end well for the side they were in such a hurry to join.

        * From Finnish Institute of International Affairs, a blatant propaganda organization masquerading as independent research institute.

        1. ChrisPacific

          I tend to agree, in the sense that I think once a country is independent then it’s independent, and the signatories to that don’t get to say: sorry, we changed our mind, we’re revoking your independence now. I think the Russian argument for reclaiming Ukraine similarly makes no sense.

          It doesn’t matter what I think, though, or what the Finnish expert thinks. If Russia thinks that way, and can sell it to its people and sympathetic countries, and decides to act, what are Finland and NATO going to do about it? Kick and scream? They do that anyway, all the time. Nobody in Russia will shed a tear. This is the consequence of escalating to infinity with Russia rather than talking.

  4. Stephen

    My guess is that if the Vilnius Summit were not already in place then no one would have chosen to schedule it! But given it has been scheduled it cannot be canceled. Far too embarrassing.

    Zero progress on the counter offensive, the US now resorting to supplying dodgy cluster munitions and the Sweden admission to membership is still in the air. No doubt they will keep the pretense going and western lying and corrupt corporate media will help but it is a giant Prisoners Dilemma: they dare not confess and own up to the truth that the whole thing is a cluster.

    Borrell saying that Ukraine is getting closer to NATO sums it up. If Russia takes more territory then Ukraine’s geographical centre will be closer to NATO by definition! So I guess he is right.

    1. cousinAdam

      I think the original term of art is S. N. A. F. U.
      Fustercluck is a 21st. C equivalent. Great post, Conor!

  5. Bill Malcolm

    A good review of the Turkiye situation, but not up-to-date. Erdogan in the last few days promised to open up a Baykar drone factory in Ukraine, plus has actually returned a dozen Azov commanders to Ukraine who were supposed, by agreement with Russia, to remain sequestered in Turkiye until the SMO was over. Add to that his standing up and spouting that Ukraine should be let into NATO immediately, plus his buzzing around trying to extend the Ukrainian grain deal for the support of Eurocows after July 17, and to say the least, Russia is pretty miffed at the moment. Let me guess that all this last minute pro-NATO stuff is to butter up the US just before the Vilnius NATO meeting.

    Erdogan always tries to play both ends against the middle, and one day he’s going to trip up and smash his head on the pavement. Too clever by half, he imagines his lordly self to be a minor genius. Nobody much therefore trusts him, either the West or Russia. So as usual, sprinting up the middle are the Chinese building factories in Turkiye while everyone else jaws and pontificates. It would all be comical if it wasn’t so serious.

    1. Yves Smith

      The Bayraketer drones were complete duds in combat, so Turkiye is getting Ukraine to help sponsor a company in Ukraine that is no threat to Russia. A win much more for Turkiye (economically) than for the West (optically).

      The Azov release IMHO is the bigger deal, but again, optically not practically. Confirms Ukraine can’t be trusted. Almost certainly Turkiye throwing NATO a bone after the much more consequential Sweden snub.

  6. Patrick

    There was an attempted coup in 2016 against erdogan by gulenists. The coup had the tacit approval by the west but the coup failed and the leaders are abroad.

    Reading between the lines, erdogan wants the west to betray the leadership of the failed coup and deliver them to erdogan so that he can have them imprisoned or executed.

    I can see why he wants this and I can see why the west doesn’t want to give them up.

  7. Sunny Tzu

    I insist if I don’t bother. It’s not an Erdogan problem, actually is a Turkish problem. Sweden was surprised, Turkish negative was and is very consistent, and it is very real. Sweden is not the country of Beings from the Light, very far from it, they work in US externalizations and they do them pretty well, like its banks washing money from the Russian mafias (through Baltic proxies or even straightforwardly) to support the Kurdish guerrillas including acts against civilians under the US instructions.

    It was the perfect country for it, since it was “neutral”. Its neutrality, well, geopolitically was very valuable, but in practice, it was not that neutral. For instance, regarding Puigdemont, his lawyer, Boye, explained many times that Sweden was a very dangerous country because it extradites with very few if any guarantee at all, and it was Sweden which first tried to lure Assange.

    These are the true colors of Sweden. The Turkish are.not stupid, they are formidably corrupts, but not stupids.

    A “neutral” country can screw Turkey as long as it wants, a partner in the NATO cannot. Firstly, this is the privilege of the USA, secondly, it automatically degradates Turkish position within NATO.

    So, IMHO the choice is made and from the very beginning. Sweden never will be a full member, and surely some people in Sweden are trying to “help” Turkey giving it an argument that can be openly discused in Göbbelsmedia like burning Corans or whatever in the line.

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