Nearly nine months after Sweden and Finland applied to join the NATO alliance, Turkey continues to block their accessions. Turkey’s obstruction persists even though the applicants have now met many of its demands, and in spite of sustained high-level engagement from the United States and NATO’s secretary general. Turkish presidential elections, scheduled for May, make a breakthrough unlikely anytime soon. But Sweden’s response to the recent Turkish earthquakes could provide an unexpected opportunity for renewed progress. It is in the U.S. interest, and that of Europe’s future peace and stability, to keep up the effort. The window between now and NATO’s July summit in Vilnius will be crucial for patient diplomacy, backed by pressure, to break the deadlock.
What’s the Hold Up?
When Sweden and Finland announced their intention to join NATO last spring, there was a mood of cautious optimism that their applications would move quickly. Both countries have long been among NATO’s closest strategic partners. Both have stable political systems, modern militaries and a history of effective collaboration with the alliance. Finland already spends close to NATO’s agreed minimum target of 2 percent of GDP on defense and possesses Europe’s largest artillery force. While Sweden spends less (about 1.3 percent), it boasts advanced maritime capabilities and recently upped defense outlays in response to the Ukraine war. In short, the two countries are amply qualified to become members.
Unsurprisingly, NATO support for Nordic accession was — almost — unanimous. Early on, however, Turkey set conditions on its ratification, especially pressing Sweden to take a firmer line against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a violent militant group that has been designated a terrorist entity by the United States and European Union. In Madrid last summer, Turkey, Sweden and Finland signed a trilateral memorandum that seemed to clear a path for Turkey to drop its objections. Sweden has since lifted a 2019 arms embargo against Turkey, beefed up anti-terrorism provisions in its constitution, and extradited a suspected terrorist to Turkey.
But it quickly became apparent that Turkey wanted more, particularly with regard to extraditions. The mood soured further when the Swedish Supreme Court blocked the extradition of a prominent journalist whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan named in a press conference with Sweden’s president. Following protests in Stockholm, where a Koran was burned and Erdogan was hanged in effigy, the Turkish government suspended meetings of the trilateral mechanism and canceled a planned visit by the Swedish defense minister. That’s where things stand now.
Nordic Accession: Making War Less Likely
Turkey’s continued blockage of Sweden’s membership is bad for NATO, for two reasons. First, it is denying the alliance a rare and perishable opportunity to address what has long been its chief geopolitical vulnerability vis-à-vis Russia: the precarious and semi-detached position of the Baltic States. NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania form an exposed salient that is difficult for the alliance’s forces to reach in a crisis — an invitation to opportunistic Russian aggression. Bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO gives strategic depth to the Baltic States' defense, makes the military aspect of Russia’s theory of victory in a conflict with NATO less plausible, and therefore a future war less likely.
Second, the blockage risks missing an opportunity to demonstrate the counterproductive nature of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. As I wrote last May, Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was predicated, at least in part, on his belief that a successful show of force on Russia’s western frontier would discourage other states along that frontier from aligning with the West. Finland’s and Sweden’s membership bids resoundingly demonstrated the opposite: that Russian aggression draws frontline states closer to NATO. Bringing the two Nordic states into NATO, in other words, presents an opportunity to disprove the political component of Putin’s theory of victory and, again, make a future war less likely.
The consolidation of European security offered by the Nordic states’ accession to NATO also benefits the United States. By rounding off NATO geographically and augmenting its military capabilities, Nordic expansion helps free up U.S. resources for, and strengthening deterrence in, the Indo-Pacific. Within NATO, Finland and Sweden would strengthen the growing chorus that wants the alliance to develop a serious strategy for resisting Chinese inroads in European politics and infrastructure. Seeing their applications through to completion is also important for demonstrating America’s ability to achieve a stated strategic priority involving our most vital alliance.
A point often overlooked is that adding Finland and Sweden to NATO will also benefit Turkey. Turkey has long pressed NATO to do more to address terrorism. As a 2020 task force (which I co-chaired) pointed out, NATO can do more to incorporate that issue into its structures and core tasks. At Turkey’s request, Sweden and Finland have now taken steps to address its concerns about terrorism. Including these states would strengthen those in NATO who want to see the alliance take this threat more seriously. Conversely, should the Turks continue to balk at accession after the Swedes have undertaken such difficult measures at home, they risk undermining their credibility not just with Sweden and Finland but across the alliance.
Turkey also has an interest in seeing Finnish and Swedish NATO membership strengthen the alliance’s eastern frontier, making it more difficult for Russia to concentrate military forces in the Black Sea region. It’s worth keeping in mind that Turkey has long championed NATO’s Open Door Policy and is among the most stalwart supporters of bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Here too, Turkey’s intransigence on Sweden risks undermining its credibility in the alliance.
Ultimately, including Sweden and Finland in NATO benefits everyone by making war less likely. Finns and Swedes long eschewed NATO membership because they believed that staying out would make the world a more peaceful place. But Putin’s assault on Ukraine plainly shows that major conflict is possible in the modern era. The NATO alliance has been an effective conflict-prevention mechanism for more than 70 years. Adding Sweden and Finland to NATO makes it less likely that Russian leaders will calculate that they can attack one of those two countries or a Baltic State with reasonable odds of success. As the situation in Ukraine has shown, inserting doubt into Russian decision-making early on, by way of deterrence, is far better than waiting on a war to break out and trying to compel Russia to stop.
Given the benefits that Nordic accession would bring to all parties, it’s worth sustaining pressure and persuasion to get the two applications ratified. Turkey’s position is unlikely to change prior to elections, and the impasse could go on even longer. But there are also reasons for cautious optimism. Erdogan is now hitting the limits of what can be extracted from the other parties. Sweden has an independent judiciary, and its constitution codifies freedom of speech; there simply isn’t any “give” on these matters. The U.S. Senate has also made it clear that any sale of Turkish-requested F-16 fighter jets will be contingent on Turkey’s support for Swedish and Finnish accession. In both cases, Turkish insistence on further concessions, beyond Sweden’s and Finland’s actions under the Madrid mechanism, would be, as the old expression goes, like trying to get blood out of a turnip.
Turkey’s recent earthquakes may provide an unexpected opening for progress. Sweden and Finland were among the first to pledge emergency aid and first responders, and NATO sent more than 1,400 personnel to Turkey to help respond to the disaster. Humanitarian responses of this kind can have an outsized diplomatic impact. In 1999, Greece and Turkey, which had only recently been embroiled in a security crisis, reduced their tensions after Greece sent emergency aid to Turkey following a major earthquake. The response by Sweden and NATO to the recent earthquake creates an opportunity for Erdogan to tone down the public rhetoric — if he’ll take it.
The five months until the NATO summit in Vilnius this July is the critical window for clearing the final roadblocks to accession. The trilateral mechanism has shown its value in moving the issue forward. It commits Sweden and Finland to addressing Turkey’s concerns, as they have now done, and it commits Turkey to dropping its objections. By doubling down and adding demands, Turkey risks overplaying its hand, to Putin’s benefit, as the Ukraine war enters a critical stage. It’s in everyone’s interests to allow the trilateral mechanism to resume its work, without tacking on new conditions, with a view to announcing accession at Vilnius. Doing so would be a historic accomplishment for NATO and a win for all parties, as well as for the cause of peace.