Turkey, NATO, and the Ukraine war: Why Erdogan’s grievances are about more than Sweden and Finland

The Turkish president is unlikely to veto Nordic membership of NATO – but Turkey’s bigger strategic worry is of a NATO-Russia conflict arising out of the war in Ukraine

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference following a NATO summit, in Brussels, Belgium, March 24, 2022
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Just when NATO members were about to pop the champagne in celebration of Finland’s and Sweden’s applications to join the alliance, the buzz-kill dropped: Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared on Friday that he looks unfavourably on the duo becoming members.  

“We are following developments. We currently do not have a positive [favourable] position on the issue of Sweden and Finland [joining NATO],” Erdogan told reporters after Friday prayers in Istanbul. “Scandinavian countries are like terrorist groups’ guesthouses,” he continued, referring to the presence in Sweden of exiled Gulenists and sympathisers of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which Ankara views as a terrorist organisation that has tentacles in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.  

This was an obstacle in an otherwise well-choreographed Nordic march into NATO. Was Erdogan trying to put pressure on the US Congress for those F-16s that Ankara wants to purchase? Was this really about more money for Syrian refugees in Turkey? Or did he really want Gulenists or PKK sympathisers extradited to Turkey?  

By Monday, Turkish officials had started floating the idea that they wanted Sweden and Finland to show that they had stopped “supporting terrorists” and lift export bans on Turkey.  

It is unlikely that Erdogan had one specific policy goal in mind, but he will no doubt be expecting to be cajoled, persuaded, and eventually rewarded for his cooperation, as in the past. Over the weekend, his spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, walked back the idea of a Turkish veto by saying that Ankara was not “closing the door” on Nordic entry, but that it wanted a crackdown on terrorists’ activities in Sweden.  

Indeed, Erdogan’s statement was expressed more as a complaint than as a firm veto threat. And it may not be all about Sweden and Finland. The president almost certainly sees this as an opportune moment to air his grievances about existing NATO members, especially with the Biden administration, which has kept the Turkish leader at arm’s length. In the long list of problems between Ankara and Washington, a key item might be Erdogan’s disappointment at being unable to establish the type of presidential telephone line with Joe Biden as he had with Donald Trump. “We had good relations with Obama and Trump and had no problem talking. Have we achieved the same with Mr. Biden? No, we haven’t. That wasn’t what we wanted,” he recently lamented. With dwindling domestic support at a time when Turkey is entering a critical electoral cycle, Erdogan is looking for a higher international profile to demonstrate his global importance to Turkish voters.  

Turkey’s leader is a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve – and he almost certainly would have been upset at the recent news that Washington has lifted sanctions on Syria’s Kurdish-controlled (as well as Turkish-controlled) regions, allowing the autonomous Kurdish administration to trade with the outside world. Turkey views the US-allied Kurdish administration in northern Syria, dominated by the Syrian Democratic Forces, as an offshoot of the PKK and a threat on its southern border. It is angry at Western support for Syrian Kurds.  

For the past few years, Ankara has criticised NATO for failing to be a reciprocal love-match, a relationship that overlooks Turkey’s security concerns despites the country’s decades of loyalty to the alliance. And there are occasional bouts of friction with NATO partners, most notably with Greece and France over issues such as eastern Mediterranean maritime borders and overflights in the Aegean. The Turkish air force has recently pulled out of a military exercise in Greece and tensions between the two countries are quietly brewing regarding the Aegean. 

For the past few years, Ankara has criticised NATO for failing to be a reciprocal love-match

In addition, Turkey’s position on Nordic entry to NATO is in line with its balancing act between NATO and Russia. While selling armed drones to Kyiv and supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty, Ankara has been reluctant to sever relations with Moscow and it has stayed away from Western economic sanctions. It may be using this to signal its decoupling from Western actions on Ukraine.  

Senior Turkish officials are quietly concerned that the conflict is now turning into a NATO-Russia war and that the risk of escalation is growing, fuelled by greater arms support for Ukraine and the absence of a negotiations framework. They are also disappointed with the West’s reluctance to rally behind Turkish-brokered ceasefire talks. High-level Turkish officials have accused “some NATO countries” of not wanting the war to end in order to harm Russia.  

Meanwhile, Sweden is an easy pick for any Turkish leader, but especially one in an alliance with nationalists at home. Swedish foreign policy’s focus on human rights, gender equality, and diversity is almost anathema to the male-dominated, conservative political culture in Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. Within the European Union, Swedes have championed a human rights-based approach in relations with Turkey – which has annoyed Ankara for years. As the divide between Stockholm and Ankara widened, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Cavusoglu, got into a public spat with the Swedish foreign minister Ann Linde in 2020, accusing her of double standards and of lecturing Turkey on human rights. A senior Western diplomat told me that the mood at this weekend’s NATO meeting was similar.  

The irony is that Turkey is one of NATO’s oldest members, but, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, it has been an enthusiastic champion of enlargement. Turkey has traditionally supported countries that now comprise NATO’s eastern flank – from Poland and Hungary to Albania and North Macedonia – to enter the alliance. It has also developed strong military partnerships with states on the periphery, such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.  

But that was then, and this is now.  

Europe’s strategic landscape is changing fast, and Turkey, increasingly seeing itself as a friendless loner, does not want to be caught in crossfire.  

In all likelihood, Erdogan will soften his stance in the coming weeks following pleas from NATO partners. A call from Joe Biden would help, but so too would addressing other issues, such the EU agreeing to expedite the new tranche of its migration deal with Turkey, or lift some of its export restrictions on Turkey’s defence industry.  

What would not change is the overall view in Ankara – that this conflict is heading in the wrong direction and that, despite the self-congratulatory mood among NATO partners, the risk of a wider escalation emerging from this grinding war is greater than ever.  

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

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Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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