NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, potentially among the most dramatic shifts in European security policy in decades, now depends largely on the decision of one man: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Mr. Erdogan’s decision to block a speedy entrance for the two countries into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has opened the door to complex negotiations between Western allies and the Turkish government over its stated concerns about the presence of alleged Kurdish militants in Sweden and restrictions on arms sales to Turkey.
Mr. Erdogan’s top motivation is for Sweden and Finland to address Turkish government concerns about Kurdish militant networks in those countries, say Turkish and U.S. officials. All 30 members of NATO, including Turkey must approve the entrance of any new members.
Turkey has expressed those concerns to Sweden and other European governments in the past, but Mr. Erdogan’s decision last week to publicly link those concerns to Turkey’s stance on expanding NATO surprised both alliance officials and Turkey’s own diplomatic corps, according to people familiar with the matter.
Turkey’s foreign ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment on the incident. A NATO spokeswoman declined to comment on confidential negotiations.
The Turkish president also hopes to leverage his position into gaining concessions from Washington, including hastening the sale of a proposed new fleet of F-16 warplanes, along with increased engagement with President Biden, including a potential phone call, according to three U.S. officials.
“This is not something that Turkey is raising all of a sudden,” said Alper Coskun, the former director general for international security affairs at Turkey’s foreign ministry covering relations with NATO. “There’s been an ongoing issue with Sweden. Turkey had been making those points with Sweden without necessarily linking it to NATO.”
Mr. Erdogan first raised his objections to Finland and Sweden joining the alliance a week ago in public remarks after Friday prayers in Istanbul, in which he accused the two countries of harboring Kurdish militants. He has since doubled down on his position, blocking the start of accession talks between the two countries and the alliance.
Throughout several days of frenzied diplomacy, other top Turkish officials have laid out the country’s demands for Sweden to crack down on alleged Kurdish militants operating on Swedish soil while calling for a resolution to the issue through diplomacy. Over the same time, Mr. Erdogan’s comments have grown steadily more hard-line. He said on Thursday that he was determined to say no to the two countries joining the alliance.
On Saturday, Mr. Erdogan spoke with the leaders of Sweden and Finland, urging Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson to cut what he said were the country’s ties with Kurdish militant groups. He said that solidarity among NATO members is “a fundamental value,” according to a readout of the call from the Turkish president’s office.
In a separate phone call, Mr. Erdogan told Finland’s president that disregarding threatening terrorist organizations wasn’t in the spirit of NATO, according to the Turkish president’s office.
U.S. officials have said they are confident Western countries can ultimately convince Turkey to accept Finland and Sweden into the alliance. Western officials are under pressure to resolve the issue before a planned NATO summit in late June. Even if the dispute is resolved before the summit, the process is likely to continue for weeks or months as all 30 individual members of the alliance must approve the potential expansion.
Mr. Erdogan is under pressure within Turkey as a result of a continuing economic crisis that threatens his grip on power, with an election scheduled for next year. Domestic political pressures amplify Mr. Erdogan’s motivations to secure concessions from Western countries, analysts say.
“The Americans will have to come into the room and work out a deal,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Whether that is something Europeans give, something the U.S. gives, or Sweden gives, my sense is Erdogan will not let this go without getting something in return.”
Finnish and Swedish leaders have said they are committed to resolving the issue through a dialogue with Turkey.
The dispute is reminiscent of a similar fight in 2009, when then-Turkish President Abdullah Gul blocked the appointment of then-Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO secretary-general for a day, in part of a dispute regarding Kurdish rebels.
At the heart of Turkey’s current fight is Sweden’s contacts with Kurdish militant groups, say Turkish and U.S. officials.
Finland is widely seen as collateral damage in the dispute. Turkish officials have made few specific claims about Finland, instead focusing on Sweden. Finnish leaders have said they plan to address all of Turkey’s concerns through negotiations. Turkey’s foreign minister also said earlier in May that he thought Finland had been “respectful” toward Turkey.
Turkey has objected in the past when Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde met with the leaders of a Syrian Kurdish group that is a U.S. and Western partner in the fight against Islamic State extremists.
The Syrian Kurdish militias include offshoots of another organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state for more than 40 years and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S., Turkey, and the European Union—including by Sweden. Turkey has for years objected to the U.S. military partnership with the Syrian offshoot of the group, a policy that began in 2014.
Sweden is home to a large Kurdish diaspora with a range of political views, including some with sympathy for the PKK, analysts say. The PKK says it is fighting for an autonomous Kurdish homeland and denies it is a terrorist organization. The organization’s Syrian branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), opened an office in Stockholm in 2016, sparking objections from Turkey. Sweden has responded by saying it considers the PKK a terrorist group and plans to have a dialogue with Turkey.
Turkey’s state-run news agency also said this week that Swedish-made AT4 rockets had been used by the PKK in attacks on Turkish forces, and that some of the weapons had been seized by the Turkish military. The agency didn’t say how the militant group obtained the weapons, but its Syrian affiliates have received arms from the U.S. and other Western countries.
The news agency published a list of suspected militants whom Turkey wants extradited from Sweden. The list includes suspected PKK members, including one person who died in 2015, according to his family, and an exiled Turkish author.
Ms. Linde, the foreign minister, noted in a tweet on Friday that Sweden was the first country outside Turkey to brand the PKK a terrorist group in 1984. “This position remains unchanged,” she said.
Turkish presidential communications chief Fahrettin Altun replied on Twitter: “You look us in the eye and keep lying.”
Asked about the Turkish government’s accusations, the Swedish foreign ministry said, “A series of diplomatic efforts is under way. We have no further comment.”
Amineh Kakabaveh, a Swedish member of parliament who is of Iranian-Kurdish descent, rejected Turkey’s accusations against Kurds in Sweden, saying, “Erdogan wants to have contact with Biden. He wants to have contact with EU countries.”
Turkey’s demands to crack down on media, fundraising and activities of alleged PKK affiliates within Sweden, as well as to lift restrictions on arms sales to Turkey, could be difficult for the Swedish government to sell to its own people in a liberal country where there are six Kurdish members of parliament and where sympathy for the Kurdish cause runs deep, analysts say.
“The Swedish government will have to really make it clear to Erdogan and Turks in general that they will listen to and respect and take into account Turkey’s national security interests,” said Paul Levin, the director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies.
“They will have to do that politically while reassuring the large Kurdish diaspora and the social democratic base that they will not abandon the Kurdish cause on the altar of NATO membership,” he said.