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What Turkey Wants

Erdogan could force Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO bids to the wire—and perhaps beyond.

As published by Foreign Policy by , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.

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U.S. and European officials expect Turkey’s challenge to Finland’s and Sweden’s accession into NATO to go down to the wire at the alliance’s summit meeting in Madrid this week, with leaders potentially working toward an eleventh-hour meeting.

“Turkey saw great leverage in the Finland and Sweden request,” said a European official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about sensitive diplomatic talks. “They are trying to maximize this in the way that they always do.” Turkey’s desire is to keep the West guessing, multiple officials said, and the Biden administration has been reluctant to intervene.

“The Americans do not want to put themselves in the middle of this because the price then goes up,” the European official added. Turkey’s typical diplomatic strategy is to avoid concessions until the last possible moment, such as a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Madrid summit.

Turkey is trying to advance a number of requests for the NATO summit, officials said, including loosening defense export controls. Erdogan sees the Western restrictions as too restrictive and has called for the suppression of Kurdish-linked groups in Scandinavia. Turkey has previously used a number of strategies to strong-arm NATO, which requires unanimous consent of all 30 member states to take most decisions.

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Turkey has been at loggerheads with Washington over the purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems and, as a consequence, was frozen out of the U.S. supply chain for the manufacture of the F-35 fighter jet. The United States and Turkey also butted heads over the Syrian civil war, with Washington supporting forces that Ankara saw as a threat.

“Turkey is taking their position in NATO as something to be used for their own benefit even if it isn’t about the actual issue at hand,” Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration, told Foreign Policy in a text message. “Hopefully they will not block Finland and Sweden because of the F-35/S-400 issue or in an attempt to force the U.S. out of the partnership with the [Syrian Democratic Forces].”

Erdogan’s stand against Finland’s and Sweden’s membership requests—bucking most of the rest of the 30-nation alliance—has also proved popular for him politically ahead of the likely 2023 presidential election. The Kurdish issue has become a flash point in Swedish politics; Turkey, Finland, and Sweden are set to hold an in-person meeting on Tuesday ahead of the summit.

But Erdogan has his own political considerations to worry about at home that could be driving his calculus. Inflation has risen to more than 70 percent amid global market fluctuations from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine—and some economists fear it could rise to triple digits by the end of the year, the worst during his 20-year rule. Those economic woes are cutting into the heart of Erdogan’s political base ahead of likely 2023 elections, leaving the mercurial Turkish leader needing a political win.

“He knows that because NATO functions on unanimity, the Swedes will have to satisfy parts of Turkey’s demands or come close to it,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So he knows it’s a fight he can win, which is why he took it into the open. He’s like, ‘If I win this behind closed doors, I don’t get a bump in my popularity.’” 

Erdogan has several desires. He wants European states to name the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), the backbone of the U.S.-led counter-Islamic State force in Syria, as a terrorist group. He has also asked Sweden to prevent fundraising and recruitment for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been running a low-level insurgency in Turkey’s south since the 1980s and which the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist group. That could push back the accession process into 2023, Cagaptay said. Turkey has also been eager to get Sweden to lift an informal defense export ban slapped on Ankara over its 2019 incursion into Syria, to get NATO to focus more on security along its southern flank, and to get F-16s from the United States that were promised after the Trump administration kicked the ally out of the F-35 program for buying the Russian air defense system.

“He sees this as a way to polish his nationalist credentials,” said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey who served as the State Department’s top Syria envoy until 2020. And ahead of the summit, some U.S. officials have tempered expectations for how quickly Finland and Sweden could enter the NATO alliance.

Speaking to reporters traveling with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this month, a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said the Biden administration is not focused on a specific date for NATO accession but remains confident that the expansion of the alliance is a question of when, not if. The European official said that in six months, Sweden and Finland will either be in NATO or on the verge.

“If I were a Russian military planner, I’d be looking at … Finnish territorial defense capabilities, and that’s a planning nightmare for the Russian military,” the senior U.S. defense official said.

Both countries are major investors in U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets, but some European officials are worried that they lack sufficient air defenses to deal with the Russian threat on the long borders with Finland and Norway in the high north to deal with the ongoing Kremlin missile threat from Murmansk.

But support for both countries to join the alliance appears to be growing with tensions over Kaliningrad, Russia’s military exclave that abuts the Baltic members of the NATO alliance, on high alert after Lithuania banned the transit of some goods to the area, pursuant to EU sanctions.

One thing that Erdogan has really been missing from the Biden team that he got consistently from former U.S. President Donald Trump is high-level attention. The two leaders have engaged infrequently. And that’s making it more difficult for the White House to get a clear read on what’s driving Erdogan—and who’s got his ear.

“It’s always hard to know what Erdogan’s bottom line is because he’s not predictable,” Jeffrey said. “He shoots from the hip, he changes his mind, and he keeps listening to very nationalistic forces on the one hand and what you would consider rational people who have a good idea of how Turkey should fit into the Eurasian security realm.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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