Lack of Trust Between the US and Türkiye Sees Same Sticking Points Derailing Sweden’s NATO Bid

It’s now been five months since US President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly sealed a deal that would see Türkiye approve Sweden joining NATO in return for the US approving the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Ankara.

As the July NATO Summit in Vilnius wrapped up, however, it was clear that all the rejoicing and declarations that the deal made the summit a success were premature. The same sticking points remained and still remain.

While Sweden, NATO, and the US continue to pressure Ankara and pretend that Türkiye is on the verge of ratifying Sweden’s accession, Erdogan continues to insist it will not happen until he gets what he wants.

Just to briefly recap, Finland and Sweden both applied for NATO membership back in May of 2022 in a move widely celebrated in the West as a blow to Russia, but accession requires the approval of all NATO members, including Türkiye – probably the second most important member of NATO due its large standing army and critical location that controls access to the Black Sea. In April, Türkiye approved Finland’s bid, but continues to insist that Stockholm do more to clamp down on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has an influential presence in Sweden. Türkiye, the US, and the EU all deem the PKK terrorist group, although US military support for the Syrian branch of the PKK, is an ongoing issue between Washington and Ankara. Erdogan has also signaled he wants the US to approve the sale of F-16s to Türkiye, which was booted out of the US-led  F-35 joint strike fighter program after Ankara purchased Russia’s S-400 air defense system in 2019. The S-400 is believed to be superior to the US-made Patriot system that Türkiye had been trying to acquire (with technology transfer) for decades, but Ankara was repeatedly rebuffed.

Long story short, Erdogan still wants F16s. The US is still holding up the deal.

While the Biden administration wanted Erdogan to deliver on Sweden and promised it would then deliver the F-16s, Erdogan clearly doesn’t trust the non-agreement-capable White House (Türkiye also has its own agreement-capability issues as evidenced by its release of Azov commanders who were being held in Turkiye after Russia released 215 of the soldiers in a prisoner exchange brokered by Erdogan). Turkiye wants to see more concrete action before proceeding. Here’s Erdogan last week:

“As the president, I’ve done my part, but I have an expectation as well. The US should pass this [F-16 sales to Türkiye] from its Congress, so that we can take these steps simultaneously,” Erdogan told reporters on Wednesday, according to broadcaster Haberturk and other Turkish media.

This in-tandem approach is not new; Ankara pushed it back in October:

“Given the lack of trust over the issue of F-16s and Sweden, Türkiye is not rushing to ratify the NATO bid and looking for a sign that the United States is taking steps at the same time,” said an official from Erdogan’s ruling AK Party.

A second person familiar with U.S.-Turkish talks said a rough proposal – in which each side would take steps toward ratifying the NATO bid on the one side, and the F-16s purchase on the other – had been delayed.

That approach was delayed by US-Türkiye friction in other areas, including a PKK bomb attack in Ankara on the day the Turkish parliament opened and, shortly after, the downing of an unmanned Turkish drone by the United States in northern Syria. Protests in Stockholm that include the burning of the Quran certainly haven’t made the politics of Turkish support for Sweden any easier.

Meanwhile, the West’s unbending belief that it can simply coerce Türkiye into doing what it wants is becoming increasingly comical. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg solemnly declared last week that “the time has now come for Türkiye to finalize the accession process.”

Canada has joined the party and says it will not resume the export of drone cameras to Türkiye until Sweden gets the green light.

Sweden also continues to announce that Türkiye is about to give its nod of approval only for Türkiye to deny that’s the case.  Consider this Reuters report from Nov. 29:

“I had a bilateral with my colleague, the (Turkish) foreign minister … where he told me he expected the ratification to take place within weeks,” Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom told reporters before the second day of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.

A Turkish diplomatic source told Reuters that Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan did not comment on a timeline for Sweden’s accession to the military alliance during his bilateral talks.

At the July NATO Summit national security advisor Jake Sullivan indicated that the F-16s were part of the deal saying the following:

Sullivan said Biden “had been clear that he supports the transfer.”

“He has placed no caveats on this … He intends to move forward with that transfer,” Sullivan told reporters, without giving details on the timing.

Shortly after Biden’s reported promise, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez said, not so fast. According to the Associated Press, “in order to get Menendez on board, the U.S. offered to provide Greece with unspecified tactical weaponry to defend from any future Turkish incursion, according to a Democratic senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.”

Türkiye and Greece are currently toning down their most recent period of animosity, in which Washington played a large role, and Menendez has since stepped down from his position as chairman after being indicted on bribery charges, but opposition remains in the US Congress to sending the fighter jets to Türkiye. A February letter from 27 senators outlining their stance on any potential F-16 deal sums up the problem. The bipartisan group opposes the sale of F-16 fighter jets for as long as Türkiye held up Sweden’s accession.

Erdogan did his part a month ago, but there was no movement from the US side – despite Biden reportedly assuring his Turkish counterpart of the F-16 sale at the NATO Summit. Right after Erdogan sent the ratification protocols for Sweden’s NATO accession to parliament, the chairs and ranking members of the foreign affairs committees in both the Senate and House poured cold water on the corresponding F-16 deal. Not to mention, the US State Department must first formally notify Congress of the Türkiye F-16 sale, which it had not done at that time and still hasn’t.

There is either a disconnect between the Biden administration and the State Department and Congress, the US is hoping to win this game of chicken, or there are other issues at play. Democrat Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ben Cardin said in October that “there are other issues that we’ll be looking at.” Those could perhaps including Turkiye’s role helping Russia bypass sanctions or blocking Black Sea access for NATO warships.

The US and Sweden are already proceeding with defense cooperation deals as the NATO bid remains up in the air. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Swedish counterpart Pal Jonson signed a deal on Dec. 5 that paves the way for bilateral exercises and new joint procurements. According to Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the agreement “will enable enhanced defense cooperation, such as legal status for U.S. military personnel, access to deployment areas, and pre-positioning of military materiel. The DCA also creates the conditions necessary for U.S. military support when requested, and is, therefore, an agreement of great importance to both countries…This is going to put our close partnership even closer. It’s going to create better conditions for U.S. forces both to use Swedish territory as a staging and basing area, and also for exercising, and it’s all about also deterrence.”

Why is it so important that Sweden join NATO when it has been a virtual ally of the bloc for years? Primarily coordination and more money for military industrial complex:

Strategically, [Finland and Sweden] are now free to work seamlessly with the rest of the Nato allies to plan for collective defence. Integrating strategic plans is extremely valuable, particularly considering Finland’s massive border with Russia and Sweden’s possession of critical terrain like the Baltic Sea island of Gotland. This will increase strategic interoperability and coordination.

Nato allies also open their defence planning books to one another in unprecedented ways. Finland and Sweden will now undergo bilateral (with Nato’s international secretariat) and multilateral (with all allies) examinations as part of the Nato defence planning process. They will also contribute to the strategic decisions that undergird that process.

Their defence investments will also be scrutinised (and they will scrutinise the spending of other allies). Initial analysis suggests that while Finland and Sweden have lagged behind their Nordic neighbours’ increases in defence investment since 2014. Finland’s investment in defence leapt significantly leading up to and following its accession to Nato. While we may not know for months if the same is true of Sweden, we may expect similar increases on its part. Alliance norms and peer pressure are powerful.

Sweden’s defense spending is reportedly increasing from $8.4 billion to $10.8 billion for 2024.

As for Türkiye and the F-16s and whatever else is holding up a deal, Ankara has at least feigned interest in buying Eurofighter Typhoon jets. According to Reuters, Türkiye began the talks with European states after recognizing that its request for F-16s jets might not work out, but Germany objected to the idea. It’s very difficult to imagine Europe going ahead with such a sale without the same issues that are holding up the F-16 deal or if such a transfer were to be against the wishes of the US, although Türkiye is trying to use the possibility to pressure Washington:

“For regional power balances, Türkiye’s need for a new technology fighter jet is no secret,” defence analyst Tayfun Ozberk said. “In this context, the move to acquire the Eurofighters may have been made to pressure the Biden administration to persuade the Congress for the sale of F-16s as soon as possible.”

The Typhoons are “really the last chance to keep Türkiye in the Western defence industry”, said Serhat Guvenc, an international relations professor at Kadir Has University.

In the past, there has been smoke about Türkiye buying the Russian-made Su-35s and Su-57s, but Türkiye likely doesn’t want to over rely on Moscow for its military hardware. Such a move would also widen the chasm between Ankara and the US. But Türkiye may not have a choice if the F-16 drama gets dragged out much longer. Greece is upgrading its air force and Ankara is under pressure to do the same. Retired Turkish Air Force commander General Abidin Ünal told the Turkish daily Hurriyet earlier this year that “If our project to modernize the F-16 aircraft fails and Greece realizes its own projects, the Greek side will gain the upper hand in terms of combat fighter aircraft in 2025. Therefore, our program to procure 40 F-16 / VIPER aircraft and modernize up to 80 F-16s is vital.”

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  1. Sunny Tzu

    The situation has rotten entirely. It was impossible to Sweden to join NATO without dismantling its “services” for NATO, as a “neutral” country. Neither Sweden wants to renounce such profitable activities nor there is another place to relocate the whole thing (in fact, all Western countries are being NATOized some way or another). The US don’t trust Turkiye because it is clear it never will nod the matter, nor Turkey can extract anything from NATO.

    So, all became rotten. Turkiye is no longer a reliable partner (if ever was), but Turkiye won’t exit NATO either, it would be very dangerous. It’s funny, whatever Turkiye does, it will depend more and more in Russia, China and Iran, totally trapped within NATO. It is not possible to expel any member.

    NATO is not only braindead, it’s a zombie.

  2. Polar Socialist

    While not really the topic here, it should be pointed out that the Finnish defense expenses are more related to a couple of, shall we say, moronic procurement decisions rather than NATO membership per se. Both of them were made before NATO membership was an issue.

    First and foremost is the “replacement” of the aging F-18 fleet with F-35 fleet – plane per plane. Given the abysmal service rate, double flying cost and 1/3 of the weapons load of F-35 it’s not really a replacement (thus the scare quotes above) but diminishing the Finnish Air Force capacity to about 1/5 of what it is now. For a very expensive price tag.

    Second is the “replacement” of the aging fleet of 4 missile boats and 3 mine layers with four frigates (that Finnish Navy keeps calling corvettes, anyway) that have less firepower than the 4 missile boats, but with much bigger target surface, confusing concept of operations and a very expensive price tag (worth about 60 missile boats!).

    I’m suspecting that this relatively recent transform from utilitarian to “cool” was necessary to be eligible for NATO membership…

    1. digi_owl

      Likely it is the same transformation that Norway went through to become part of US’s NATO mercenary force, while national defense is basically left to some overdressed home guard.

  3. The Rev Kev

    Erdogan would not be in a mood for compromise and trusting US/EU promises. He released those Azov prisoners and fouled his relations with Russia and what did he get for it? Zip. Not a cracker. When a semi-deal was made for Biden to supply Erdogan with F-16s in return for giving Sweden the nod, it only took Biden two or three days to start walking back that promise. Erdogan may also want Sweden to change some of its laws concerning Turkiye’s political enemies but Sweden is assuring Erdogan that they will get right on to it – just as soon as he gives them the nod to join NATO. In any case, because of the war in Gaza having any sort of relations with the US much less deals would not be a good thing for him right now as it would be a bad look in this part of the world. So Erdogan will probably just spin his wheels and do nothing about having Sweden’s entry into NATO approved.

    1. Altandmain

      Yep – ironically American double dealing and lies have backfired very badly in this case.

      Erdogan at the very least may very well demand a “you first” approach or outright not budge.

  4. John

    Why would Turkiye trust the United States with a track record of saying, “Got your back man, with you to the end.” only to take a hike when support becomes inconvenient?

  5. Pat

    So having gained Sweden, the crack Biden foreign policy team has lost Turkiye. This truly is the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.
    If the idiots weren’t so deluded and determined to start WWIII this would be funny.

  6. tegnost

    The Typhoons are “really the last chance to keep Türkiye in the Western defence industry”

    Well there it is in black and white. I got a kick out of the z man posing with all the smiling defense corps ceos.

  7. Susan the other

    Thanks Conor for this run-down. I’ve been wondering wtf is going on with Türkiye. The YouTube headlines are all empty clickbait, I’m too irritated with them to even bother. But I really like Erdogan and I think he’s one of a handful of people who will get us safely into the future, regardless of how nutty he sometimes looks. There’s this weird reality that is emerging that all our reactionary reflexes are making our human relations fragile so that, as luck would have it, stepping back and being as honest as possible might become more useful. And then the more we do so the better it gets.

  8. Jeremy

    Why do you accede to Erdogan’s nationalist demands re the spelling of your own language? Most style guides have not yet capitulated, you’re out in front here. Doesn’t really scream trustworthiness on this issue.

  9. Rain

    I dont think either Sweden or Finland”s accession to NATO is a realistic threat to Putin, whatever arms deals are made. Both countries have long had military joint exercises with US/NATO and may as well have been NATO members all along. I expect Russia has always maintained quality intel monitoring of the Nordic countries for any potential threats. They also have excellent counter-measures with their electronic defence systems.

    Erdogan is a colourful character on the stage with his dramatic flourishes of rhetoric, but also a canny politician, and the US/EU have screwed him around enough times for him to have a healthy distrust. Turkiye was only admitted to NATO because of its geography with the Black Sea, and maintains a long historical relationship with Russia. While not genuine allies, its more of a mutually advantageous non-aggression pact style of relationship, at least in the Black Sea region. NATO has no business being in the Black Sea unless one of their members are being attacked.

    1. Polar Socialist

      The history of wars in Finland (17 or so) is mostly about Russia feeling threatened by Western power(s).

      After Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg, his troops created a “buffer zone” against Sweden 300 miles west of the new capital. In practice this meant turning the Finnish west coast into a devastated wasteland empty of people and incapable of supporting any size of Swedish army. A period know as “Greater Wrath” by the Finnish people. Cossack is still a swear word on those parts of the country.

      There’s centuries long historical record saying that when Finland is not neutral, Russia will sooner or later act to make Finland neutral. Has the geography changed somehow or what makes you think it’s different today?

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