Turkey risks becoming more isolated from the West by blocking the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO. Ankara tries to balance its strategic partnerships with the Alliance and Ukraine with its difficult but important relations with Russia.
By Christoph Bluth
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has united the west in opposition. NATO member states have cascaded weapons into Ukraine, taken in Ukrainian refugees, and imposed severe sanctions on Russia.
The enlargement of NATO was cited by Russian President Vladimir Putin as one of the key threats to Russian security that prompted the invasion of Ukraine. So the announcement by Sweden and Finland that they would abandon their long-held military neutrality and join NATO is another blow to Russia.
NATO members generally have welcomed this development and the Baltic states, in particular, signaled enthusiastic approval. In order for new NATO members to be accepted, all thirty existing members have to agree to accept them. But Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has objections to Sweden and Finland joining the alliance.
President Erdoğan likened the Scandinavian countries to “guesthouses for terrorists.” For some time Turkey has accused Sweden of giving shelter to supporters of the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen. Gülen is accused by some critics of being behind a coup to overthrow Erdoğan, which Gülen denies.
Another issue is Sweden’s suspension of arms sales to Turkey, which began in 2019, because of Turkey’s military incursions into Syria. It also cites Sweden’s failure to extradite 33 alleged members of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK ), which is listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union.
Turkey’s regional anxiety and Russia relations
As well as its domestic agenda, Turkey finds itself in an ambivalent situation internationally. It has to balance its strategic partnerships with NATO and Ukraine with its difficult but important relations with Russia. Turkey and Russia have some economic and regional cooperation, especially around Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.
They may be rivals for influence in the region, for instance in supporting opposing sides of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. But they share a common interest in economic stability and, possibly, in reducing military conflict.
This is partly why Turkey has put itself forward as a potential mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Turkey refused to support Russia’s exclusion from the Council of Europe and also has not joined other NATO countries in imposing economic sanctions on Russia. At the same time, it has contributed significantly to Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself and has declared what Russia calls a “special military operation” to be a war.
Russia has shown increasing strategic assertiveness in recent years in its invasion of Crimea in February 2014 and its significant military intervention in Syria. This precipitated a serious crisis in Turkish-Russian relations when Turkey shot down a Russian SU-24 fighter plane that allegedly entered Turkish airspace and Russia imposed sanctions on Turkey. However, subsequently, Putin and Erdoğan have repaired their relations.
Turkey’s collision course with NATO
Turkey maintains an important economic relationship with Russia, relying on Russian natural gas. The TurkStream pipeline that started operating in 2020 is an alternative export route for Russian gas via the Black Sea and circumvents Ukraine as a transit country.
It has also developed military cooperation between the two. Turkey purchased Russia’s S-400 air defense system and has been considering purchasing Russian military aircraft.
This element of the Turkish-Russian relationship put Erdoğan on a collision course with NATO and has provoked US sanctions against Turkey since the first of the missiles were delivered.
But Turkey is also close to Ukraine. In the run-up to the Russian invasion, Turkey signed a free trade agreement with Ukraine, establishing itself as a key partner.
Turkey is also engaged in significant military co-operation with the country and established a joint production and training center for the Ada-class corvettes, anti-submarine ships, and long-range Bayraktar drones. This amounts to a significant military technology transfer to Ukraine. The ships are an important addition to Ukraine’s navy while the UAV has played a significant role on the battlefield already, destroying Russian armored vehicles.
Turkey also took various measures that hampered Russia’s operational logistics during its military operations in Syria, such as limiting the passage of warships from the Black Sea through the Bosporus straits (as it has done again over Ukraine) and prohibiting Russian military aircraft from passing through its airspace.
As Sweden and Finland moved towards an official application for membership, the United States and other NATO members clearly affirmed their support for the Scandinavian countries to join.
Even Russia has softened its previous opposition that was accompanied by various threats. The United States and Britain have said that while the applications for membership were in process, Sweden and Finland would be given security assurances.
Although Erdoğan has rejected a visit of delegations from the two countries to discuss their membership, Sweden and Finland remain optimistic, as Turkey has hinted that it would be open to negotiations.
It’s likely that Erdoğan is just being opportunistic and hoping to use the moment to achieve concessions from the Nordic countries. Significantly, already, Sweden has reaffirmed that it considers the PKK to be a terrorist organization.
But if Turkey does not show flexibility, it risks a situation where Sweden and Finland become de facto members of the alliance (enjoying security guarantees without full membership).
Meanwhile, Turkey could become more isolated within NATO and risk losing all the political benefits it has gained for its current military support for Ukraine after years on the edge of the alliance.
Christoph Bluth is a Professor of International Relations and Security at the University of Bradford.
The article was published in The Conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons License.