- When Finland and Sweden applied to join the NATO alliance, Turkish President Erdogan was the only one to block their accession.
- Erdogan emphasised a list of demands to be met in order for the two nations to join NATO – all of them but one were conceded.
- The Madrid NATO Summit leaves Erdogan hot as his influence over Kurdistan and other regional affairs reach an all-time high.
Why is Erdogan’s heat level Hot?
Answer: Erdogan’s diplomatic demands have been conceded by Finland and Sweden in order to integrate within NATO.
As a response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). However, their integration faced a possibility of denial as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to veto their application. The reason behind Türkiye’s refusal to integrate Finland and Sweden into NATO comes from the President’s accusations that both nations actively supported the People’s Defence Units (YPG), as well as other pro-Kurdish militias linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Türkiye, Syria, and Iraq.
While Finland has been accused by Turkish intelligence of serving as a refuge for PKK and YPG sympathisers and veterans (and has not denied these allegations), Sweden has denied having offered any direct support to these groups. Nonetheless, the existence of the Kurdiska Röda Halvmånen – a pro-Kurdish association within Sweden — has been sufficient for Erdogan to make these accusations. Türkiye, alongside the European Union and the United States, classifies the PKK and the YPG as terrorist organisations and Ankara has long considered these insurgencies to be a threat to national security. Moreover, both Scandinavian nations had imposed an arms embargo on Türkiye.
Due to these two factors, Erdogan’s conditions for Finland and Sweden’s integration involved the halt of support to Kurdish militias, as well as the lifting of the arms embargo between both parties. Although he also aimed to force NATO members to lighten economic sanctions on Türkiye, this concession was not attained in the final agreement. This signifies that the Turkish state will not be relieved of its current bans on all US export licences nor of the frozen assets and visa restrictions imposed on all Presidency of Defence Industry (SSB) officers. These sanctions were initially introduced as Türkiye purchased the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Rosoboronexport – Russia’s largest arms manufacturer.
All three nations have now agreed to the creation of a ‘Permanent Joint Mechanism’, whereby all three parties have agreed to complete cooperation on counter-terrorism in Türkiye. In addition to halting their support for the aforementioned groups, Finland and Sweden agreed to help Türkiye fight disinformation, share intelligence regarding these groups, and have also accepted a strengthening of their own laws to criminalise ‘terrorist activity’ even further.
Essentially, Erdogan is now hot as his desired conditions were conceded by Finland and Sweden during the Madrid NATO Summit. This has made his political and diplomatic agenda succeed. He now finds himself in a relative position of power over NATO affairs as he significantly conditioned (and dictated) the integration of Finland and Sweden. Additionally, he may once again resort to similar political delay strategies in the future.
Despite his current rising heat level, Erdogan remains hot rather than blazing. This is because it must be recognised that not all of his demands were met; economic sanctions on Türkiye remain. There has also been ambiguity regarding Türkiye’s procurement of F-16 military jets from the US. Although the military deal will most likely go through, high-ranking US and Turkish officials deny the deal had any influence over the NATO integration of Finland and Sweden.
Who is changing Erdogan’s heat level?
Answer: Erdogan is taking advantage of NATO’s institutional structure is gaining him significant diplomatic power.
Türkiye’s national interests and values do not align with NATO’s – neither historically nor contemporarily. As an equal member of the NATO alliance, however, Türkiye possesses a veto power. This signifies that NATO’s expansion can be delayed by Türkiye alone in order for Erdogan to pressure the alliance to concede to his personal and national interests. This is what happened at the Madrid NATO Summit and his heat level has increased through these coercion tactics.
Although Erdogan’s popularity is decreasing among other NATO leaders, Türkiye remains a pivotal ally. Having the 11th largest army in the world, the country’s military capability is very influential. Türkiye’s military drones, in fact, have been very influential in countless global conflicts (such as in the Tigray region). If Türkiye allies with Russia, for instance, this would be a very big loss for NATO and would influence the balance of power in the region. Moreover, the Turkish state offers a very important geostrategic location for the West, as its proximity to the Middle East and Russia has already been taken advantage of by the US to expand its military outreach.
As Türkiye’s foreign policy conflicts with those of Finland and Sweden, Erdogan’s position of power enabled through Article 10 is what fueled the initial veto. However, Sweden and Finland’s preoccupation with national security (due to the Russian offensive in Ukraine) has driven their willingness to concede to his demands.
What is driving Erdogan?
Answer: Erdogan is using foreign policy to distract the Turkish population from its domestic problems in order to regain popularity in light of the upcoming presidential elections.
As aforementioned, Türkiye views the YPG, the PKK, and other pro-Kurdish militias as terrorist organisations. He aims to suppress Kurdish efforts for self-determination, especially given the prominence of anti-Kurdish sentiment within the Turkish population. The separatist nature of the Kurdish movement especially raises fears of losing territory and control for the Turkish President. In the context of him running for re-election earlier this month – the next Turkish elections are less than a year away – making concrete progress to weaken these Kurdish insurgency groups increases Erdogan’s chances for reelection. Notably, Turkish media outlets (many of which are controlled by the state) have praised his suppression of Kurdish movements.
However, his domestic popularity is falling (it recently hit its lowest point since 2015) due to hyperinflation and increasing unemployment. Erdogan is trying to distract the Turkish population from its domestic problems by using foreign policy to project Turkish strength appealing to his voters’ national pride. This is an easy task for the Turkish President as the failed coup d’état in 2016 has given him complete control over Türkiye’s foreign policy; following the attempt, Erdogan has completely reinforced his influence over the MENA region.
What does this mean for you?
Answer: Erdogan’s manoeuvre places NATO’s core values at risk.
Although NATO’s continuous expansion has often been deemed as a potential hindrance to the alliance’s integrity, the conflict in Ukraine has united NATO. This means that despite NATO’s integrity not being at risk, its values are.
Türkiye’s authoritarian leadership style and lack of democratic guidance showcase the weakness of NATO in upholding its own values. By conceding to the President’s demands, NATO has shown little regard and has attributed minor importance to a nation’s commitment to democracy. For instance, Ankara’s refusal to sanction Russia displays the lack of alignment between Türkiye’s national interests and those of other NATO member states. Despite these discrepancies, Erdogan still managed to dictate NATO affairs.
Another similar instance involves the Libyan conflict, where he experienced tensions with French president Macron due to his direct support for the GNA (the Western government based in Tripoli which is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood). All in all, Erdogan’s chess-play with his veto power in NATO shows that there is no structural guarantee within the institution to the upholding of democratic values.