Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been playing spoiler for most of the past 10 months. On Friday, he is expected to announce – finally – that his country will ratify Finland’s membership, likely paving the way for the alliance’s growth.
But it appears that Erdogan will not sign Sweden’s bid without additional steps, meaning that the Nordic neighbors who have vowed to join NATO “hand in hand” will in fact not unite.
For Erdogan, splitting Finland from Sweden appears to be a domestic political game – an appeal to nationalist voters as he trailed his main opponent in the polls ahead of elections scheduled for May 14.
For NATO, Erdogan’s antics are a cross between an ill-timed annoyance and a dangerous distraction. NATO insists that both countries will eventually join, strengthening the alliance.
But until they do, officials will spend time and energy shuttling back and forth between capitals to strike a deal — while Russia is at war.
This week, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson appeared to admit that Finland would go first. “It is not excluded that Sweden and Finland will ratify in different steps,” he said.
The question now is what comes next. Turkey has been the main holdout, but not the only one.
Hungary has expressed support for Finnish and Swedish membership, but continues to postpone a parliamentary vote on the issue, leading to speculation that it could use the issue as leverage in its battle with the European Union. Still, NATO officials say they are confident Hungary will soon ratify both bids.
Assuming Hungary leads the way, Sweden will still have to negotiate with Turkey.
Friday’s encounter is the latest twist in what has been an unexpectedly dramatic – and revealing – story.
In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Finland began to reconsider its policy of military non-alignment. It urged Sweden to do the same.
How Putin’s ruthless war in Ukraine pushed Finland towards NATO
The 30-member alliance welcomed their interest, saying the addition of the two countries, who are already close partners, would strengthen NATO’s stance. Finnish and Swedish membership would bring the full strength of the alliance to the far north and bolster a reinforced presence around the Baltic Sea.
After a few months of debate and diplomacy, representatives from both countries formally submitted their bids together in a carefully choreographed exhibition.
“I warmly welcome Finland’s and Sweden’s requests to join NATO,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference in Brussels that day. “You are our closest partners, and your membership in NATO would enhance our shared security.”
However, after the cameras stopped rolling, Turkey objected to the bids.
Erdogan had called for Sweden to grant asylum to members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and hinted that he would strike back. The size of the Turkish resistance seemed to take the alliance by surprise.
In the weeks that followed, leaders, diplomats and NATO officials worked feverishly to make progress. Ahead of a NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022, the three countries struck a deal: Turkey agreed to drop its opposition in exchange for concessions to what it calls Kurdish militant groups and weapons.
Turkey drops opposition to Finland and Sweden joining NATO
“Welcoming Finland and Sweden into the alliance makes them more secure, NATO stronger and the Euro-Atlantic area more secure,” Stoltenberg said at a press conference after the signing ceremony. “This is vital as we face the biggest security crisis in decades.”
As the months passed, Stoltenberg became increasingly clear that Finland and Sweden had complied with Turkey’s demands. Turkey continued to push back.
During the fall, when Turkey dug in, Helsinki and Stockholm insisted they stick together. “We have taken every step hand in hand and none of us have any other ambition,” Kristersson said in October.
But Turkey did not budge. And in January, the Finnish foreign minister first came up with the idea of continuing without Sweden.
Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.
A year of the Russian war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago – in both big and small ways. They have learned to survive and support each other in extreme conditions, in bomb shelters and hospitals, devastated apartment complexes and devastated marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Struggle of Exhaustion: Over the past year, the war has evolved from a multi-front invasion, including Kiev in the north, to an attrition conflict largely centered along a vast area in the east and south. Trace the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian troops and see where the fighting is concentrated.
Living separately for a year: The Russian invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law that prevents men of fighting age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to make painful decisions about how to balance security, duty and love, shattering lives that were once intertwined. were intertwined, have become unrecognizable. This is what a train station full of farewells looked like last year.
Deepening the global division: President Biden has proclaimed the strengthened Western alliance forged during the war a “global coalition,” but a closer look reveals that the world is far from united on issues raised by the war in Ukraine. There is ample evidence that the attempt to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions have not stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.