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Turkey's balancing act as NATO seeks to expand

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at a NATO meeting in Berlin, Germany on 15 May 2022 [Cem Özdel/Anadolu Agency]
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at a NATO meeting in Berlin, Germany on 15 May 2022 [Cem Özdel/Anadolu Agency]

The potential NATO membership of Sweden and Finland got off to a bad start late last week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying that he does not have a positive opinion of the two Nordic nations joining the military alliance. While they are both NATO partners, the two countries have long viewed membership as unnecessarily provocative of Russia, their powerful eastern neighbour. However, Moscow's invasion of Ukraine has led to a radical rethink of security policies in Stockholm and Helsinki.

Turkey, of course, has been a NATO member since 1952. Its membership of the bloc has been the cornerstone of its defence and security policy ever since. As a NATO member, Turkey has the power to block Sweden and Finland from joining the 30-member group. New NATO membership requires the approval of every member state.

A major sticking point for Ankara are the alleged ties between the Nordic states and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its various offshoots. Turkey, along with many of its allies within NATO, including the US and the EU, have designated the PKK as a terrorist organisation. The PKK has waged a rebellion against the Turkish state since 1984 that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people. Ankara claims that Sweden and Finland support the PKK, which potentially complicates any plans for their membership of NATO.

Professor Murat Yesiltas and Professor Saul Takahashi discussed Turkey's reasons for opposing NATO membership of the Nordic states with me, as well as Ankara's concerns over the bloc's expansion. Yesiltas is the author of Non-State Military Actors in the Middle East: Geopolitics, Strategy and Ideology. He is an expert on international security, terrorism, military studies, ethnic and religious radicalization, non-state conflicts and Kurdish affairs. Takahashi is a former UN civil servant and teaches Human Rights and Peace Studies at Osaka Jogakuin University.

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Yesiltas told me that Turkey is not opposed to NATO's expansion per se from a geo-political perspective, but it has specific concerns over the membership of Sweden and Finland that are completely unrelated to Russian interests. The first is Sweden's policy towards the PKK and the PYD People's Protection Units in Syria, which Ankara says are affiliated with the Kurdish terror group.

Echoing comments made by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu who on Saturday said, "The problem is that these two countries are openly supporting and engaging with the PKK and YPG," Yesiltas described how Sweden had become a "safe haven" for the PKK and its affiliates. He explained that Sweden is one of a number of European states "facilitating the PKK." With five members of parliament said to be connected to the PKK, he described the group as being very active in the country.

"Sweden has allowed the PKK to develop support, including a network of financial support," Yesiltas said, adding that Turkey also takes issue with Sweden's lax attitude to civil society groups that offer support to the PKK. "Sweden is openly supporting PYD activities in Syria even though Turkey has designated the PYD and YPJ as offshoots of the PKK terrorists." He mentioned specifically the Democratic Union Party, which is another branch of the PKK. The Swedish government is said to have offered as much as $300,000 in financial support to the PYD.

Other NATO countries also support the PYD and PKK, Yesiltas pointed out and the debate over NATO membership for the Nordic states has presented a perfect opportunity for the bloc to address Ankara's security concerns related to the PKK in a compressive manner. Article 5 of NATO states that members are duty-bound to the principle of collective defence, and an attack against one member is viewed as an attack against all members. Talking about solidarity with NATO members makes no sense as far as Turkey is concerned if the bloc ignores Ankara, as it did during the Syria war by supporting PKK affiliated groups, insisted Yesiltas.

Turkey also objects to organisations affiliated to the Fethullah Gülen movement that are granted "safe haven" in Finland. Ankara has accused the group of being behind the failed 2016 coup and has also labelled it as a terrorist organisation.

READ: Erdogan: Turkey not supportive of Finland, Sweden joining NATO

Besides the Nordic states' support for the PKK, Ankara has other general concerns over NATO's expansion at this moment, Yesiltas noted. Russia has blamed NATO expansion for its own invasion of Ukraine. Although Turkey by no means supports President Vladimir Putin's aggression, Ankara is wary about any further escalation of the war. Given Turkey's geo-political priorities, its mutual interest in maintaining good relations with Moscow, and the fact that it abuts a highly strategic region, any further instability and tension will expose Ankara to further risks. "If NATO's expansion undermines Turkey's security architecture and the geo-political landscape, NATO expansion will be a problem for Turkey," warned Yesiltas.

Moreover, Turkey is playing a "balancing role" between NATO allies and Russia. Ankara has important economic relations with Russia and enjoys relatively good relations with Moscow. If the war escalates and Russia continues its aggression against Ukraine and prevents the Ukrainians from accessing the Black Sea, it will make it difficult for Ankara to play a mediating role, as it has been doing since the start of the invasion in February.

Takahashi expressed surprise at "how overtly" Sweden and Finland have been moving to join NATO. "This seems extremely dangerous to me, given that the unfettered, openly provocative expansion of NATO is really the main impetus behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine," he said. "Finland's moves in particular seem very reckless."

In any case, he added, he is not sure that Turkey is really all that concerned about Scandinavia. "The whole 'harbouring PKK terrorists' narrative is forced and frankly not so major. Rather, what Turkey seems to be doing is a political game of chicken to increase its leverage and influence within NATO. I don't know if it would go so far as to veto the application, but it might, and certainly the US is already working to make sure that doesn't happen."

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Takahashi explained that all states need to do whatever they can to strengthen their positions, and Turkey has very good reasons to do what it is doing since it has been playing a delicate balancing act between the West and Russia. "Turkey is a major regional player, and that involves co-operation/co-existence with Russia in various forums that has to go beyond the simplistic West v Russia framework that NATO is built on and that the Americans and the British are so intent on emphasising. In general, the expansion of NATO puts Turkey in a tricky position, and it is not thrilled with the idea."

In the latest development, NATO and the US have said that they are confident that Turkey will not impede the membership of Sweden and Finland in the alliance, despite Ankara's reservations. Moreover, Cavusoglu has said that his talks with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts in Berlin had been helpful.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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