Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced skepticism Friday about Sweden and Finland potentially joining the NATO defense alliance, a sign of dissension in efforts to revamp Europe’s security architecture following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Turkish warning came a day after a landmark recommendation from Finland’s leaders that the country should join NATO and as Swedish leaders appeared ready to follow their lead this weekend — a geopolitical earthquake following decades in which the countries resolutely stayed neutral.
The war in Ukraine transformed attitudes in both countries and has set off a broader discussion in Europe about how to defend against a more dangerous Russia. Leaders of most NATO countries have indicated they welcome Finnish and Swedish membership and believe it would strengthen the alliance. NATO leaders were expected to sign off on the expansion at a June summit in Madrid — or that was the plan until Friday’s comments from Erdogan. At minimum, his remarks appeared to signal a desire to extract concessions about Sweden’s willingness to grant asylum to members of Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish minority, whose main political group Turkey has banned.
‘’We are following the developments with Sweden and Finland, but we don’t have favorable thoughts,’’ Erdogan told reporters Friday.
While he stopped short of announcing a veto of any potential membership bid, the Turkish leader accused Nordic countries of harboring ‘’terrorist organizations,’’ in reference to groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The group is outlawed in Turkey, and it is classified as a terrorist organization by that country, the United States, and the European Union. But Sweden has long tolerated it.
The dispute showed that there were limits to NATO solidarity over the conflict in Ukraine, after nearly three months of fighting. Many NATO nations have channeled weaponry and other aid to Ukraine, and there is broad consensus that the alliance needs to strengthen its defenses against the Kremlin. But as discussions continue about how much to bolster NATO’s presence in eastern Europe, there are divisions about how exactly to respond.
Erdogan’s skepticism was a shift from previous discussions within NATO about the prospective membership bid from Helsinki and Stockholm, in which there was unanimous agreement, if informally, that the existing 30 members would welcome two more. Erdogan faces presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023 at the latest, and his sharp attitude was likely to be at least in part aimed at his domestic audience, which has often rewarded a sharp attitude toward the Kurdish minority.
But it would also strain relations with Washington at a time when they have been warming because of Turkish support for Ukraine during the conflict. It also could increase tensions with other NATO countries.
The United States is seeking to ‘’clarify Turkey’s position,’’ Karen Donfried, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, told reporters. ‘’It is not clear to me that Turkey is saying they will oppose Sweden’s application.’’
The remarks come as Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares to travel to Germany on Saturday for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers that will include the top diplomats of Finland, Sweden — and Turkey.
‘’Certainly this will be a conversation that will continue over the weekend,’’ Donfried said.
The Biden administration has said it supports Finland and Sweden’s potential membership bid and will work on ensuring support within the alliance — assuming the two countries formally make an application.
If Turkey can be won over, the expectation is that the NATO leaders will formally approve the application at their summit in June. Then national legislatures need to ratify it. The full process could take six months to a year, officials say. Hungary, which is led by a Kremlin-friendly prime minister, Viktor Orban, may also be a question mark, although he has agreed to previous rounds of NATO expansion.
On Friday, Sweden foreign minister Ann Linde argued that joining the alliance would help prevent conflict.
‘’Swedish NATO membership would raise the threshold for military conflicts and thus have a conflict-preventing effect in northern Europe,’’ Linde told reporters about a report about membership that was sent to parliament. ‘’Military nonalignment has served us well, but we are in a new situation now.’’
Sweden also released a parliamentary report Friday arguing that NATO membership would ‘’raise the threshold for military conflicts and thus have a deterrent effect in northern Europe.’’
The document, titled ‘’Deterioration of the security environment - implications for Sweden,’’ refrained from casting judgment on whether Sweden should join NATO but noted that the country’s security would be ‘’adversely impacted’' if Finland were to join and leave Sweden as the only nonmember in the Nordic and Baltic regions.
The invasion of Ukraine, which is a NATO partner but not a member, had shown the dangers of remaining outside the alliance’s collective defense structure, it noted.
The report also outlined the dangers of accession to NATO, acknowledging that Russia would ‘’react negatively’' to any such step. The most probable response would include ‘’various types of influence activities’' against the general public or Swedish decision-makers, it said, underlining the importance of obtaining security assurances from countries within the alliance during any transition period before Sweden gained full membership.
Sweden and Finland have remained outside the US-led Cold War alliance since it was founded in 1949, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is forcing both nations to pick a side.
Finland’s president and prime minister said Thursday that their nation must ‘’apply for NATO membership without delay.’’ The decision, which is expected in the coming days, must be approved by parliament.
Sweden is likely to follow Finland’s lead, diplomats said.