Baltic defence: Why NATO should persuade Turkey to admit Sweden

The longer that Ankara delays Swedish membership of NATO, the harder it may become to sustain public support and prepare effective Baltic defence

The Prime Minister of Sweden, Ulf Kristersson visits NATO and meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Oct 2022

It had all seemed so straightforward. When Finland and Sweden took the momentous decision to apply for NATO membership last spring, the alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, gave the impression that joining might take a matter of months. Yet as Turkey continues to block Sweden specifically – and as Ankara remains deeply preoccupied with the aftermath of the 6 February earthquake – this stalling risks undermining Swedish resolve to join, and ultimately could harm NATO’s strategic interests in the Baltic Sea.

The present stasis is down to Turkey’s refusal to ratify Sweden’s accession until it meets several conditions, including the extradition of people that Ankara labels as terrorists. Hungary has not ratified either. There is now much talk of Finland joining on its own, before Sweden, since Turkish objections to its entry are less intense.

Some experts had warned that Turkey might delay the process, and the Swedish government even failed to ask its embassy in Ankara to contribute to its security policy analysis on the matter. At last June’s NATO summit in Madrid, Sweden, Finland, and Turkey agreed on what was supposed to be a path forward. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has nevertheless delayed progress, and has used provocations such as the burning of the Koran in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm as part of his campaign for re-election this year. The rapid assistance Sweden provided after the devastating earthquake in Turkey on 6 February is unlikely to have affected Erdogan’s position.

This has not gone unnoticed in Sweden, where many are now asking why the former Social Democrat government allowed itself to be dragged into bilateral negotiations with Turkey rather than let NATO itself take the lead. Ann Linde, who served as foreign minister until last year’s general election, has said that her country’s approach was the preference of NATO’s secretary-general and major NATO states.

Crucially, in the year since Russia’s invasion, the domestic policy context in Sweden has changed dramatically. The Social Democrats, who made the NATO application, are now out of office. Instead, a right-wing government led by Ulf Kristersson of the Moderate party is in charge, and is dependent on the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats to remain in power. For now, keeping up appearances is the order of the day. Foreign minister Tobias Billstrom, also of the Moderate party, has recently maintained that the process is still on track. For the opposition, Morgan Johansson, spokesperson for the Social Democrats, said he was “very, very concerned” about a scenario in which Finland joins the alliance but not Sweden, pointing, among other things, to the potential impact on the longstanding close military cooperation between Sweden and Finland.

As for the Sweden Democrats, as part of cleaning up their neo-Nazi past, in April 2022 the party abandoned its policy of opposing NATO membership. But the party’s reaction to Turkey’s objections alters the political environment in which the question is discussed: in January, party leader Jimmie Akesson criticised the government for being too lenient towards Ankara; and anti-Muslim sentiment still pervades the Sweden Democrats, with the burning of the Koran incident partly financed by Chang Frick, a presenter on the Sweden Democrats’ television channel. Alongside other statements, this prompted the Social Democrats to repeat their election campaign warning that the Sweden Democrats are a security risk.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats themselves are trying to reconcile support for NATO membership with their traditional foreign policy of military non-alignment. The party’s programme contains a whole section setting out the reasons Sweden should stay out of NATO. In addition, major political questions such as support for human rights, including minority rights in Turkey, have long shaped the party’s identity, as well as nuclear disarmament, including criticism of NATO and other countries’ nuclear policies. Social Democrat leaders will therefore be concerned to avoid a destructive internal conflict of the kind their predecessors experienced with the question of EU membership in 1995 and the referendum in 2003 on changing from the krona to the euro. A drawn-out process now where Swedes – politicians and citizens – feel humiliated by Turkey would significantly complicate matters for party leader Magdalena Andersson. And national consensus is also important for the government.

Use of Swedish territory was always going to be needed in case of a Russian attack on the eastern side of the Baltic Sea

Yet all this is not only a question for Sweden, but for NATO as a whole: the accession of both Finland and Sweden is of major strategic interest for the alliance. When NATO started preparing defence strategies for Baltic countries more than ten years ago, use of Swedish territory was always going to be needed in case of a Russian attack on the eastern side of the Baltic Sea. Were Finland to join, but not Sweden, there would still be a strategic interest for NATO to be able to use Swedish territory to defend the new member, which shares a 1,300 km border with Russia.

It could be argued that outside the alliance Sweden’s national defence choices would differ. The country could opt to keep military assets on its own territory, and plan for the defence of its own territory and people as the primary goal. As a NATO member, in contrast, Sweden would put much of its military resources into the defence of the Baltic countries, including the stationing of troups there. At the very least, NATO defence planning would be complicated if Sweden does not fully participate in the member-only process.

Although public support for NATO membership is still strong, this could change if the process drags on for a long time. And the public is opposed to caving in to Turkish demands and restricting fundamental rights. The likeliest scenario remains that Sweden’s political elite stays largely united on this vital question. Turkey might then ratify soon after its elections, with both Nordic countries perhaps given the green light at the NATO summit in Vilnius on 11-12 July.

But history shows the need to prepare for alternatives. If Turkey does not shift soon, things might look rather different when Sweden’s next election approaches, due by 2026 at the latest – especially if there is a Trump-like president in the United States and the threat from Russia in the Baltic Sea area feels less urgent than it has this last year.

NATO has a strong interest in convincing Turkey to admit Sweden as soon as possible. Without membership in the near future, it could be harder for Sweden and NATO to develop full alignment in the military sphere – with potentially significant consequences for the strength of the alliance and any attempted defence of NATO states around the Baltic Sea.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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