The Russian invasion of Ukraine has posed a global security dilemma, forcing various prominent state actors to seek security alliances while putting behind their non-alignment policies. In such a situation, Northern Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) stands out as one of the most promising military alliances, with Article 5 providing “collective security” to its member states. NATO has been expanding itself now and then. However, accession to NATO’s membership is a critical step for many states, primarily Sweden at present, with 74% of Swedes supporting the country joining NATO. Sweden looks at NATO’s collective defence clause to be the most effective approach to ensuring its security.
Sweden’s military weakness was exposed in 2013 as Russian bomber planes were able to simulate an attack on Stockholm, and Sweden required NATO support to repel them. Reports that a Russian submarine was hiding in the low-lying waters of the Stockholm islands concerned Swedes in 2014. It implies that the perceived Russian threat is not new and has not arisen solely as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war. The Swedish island of Gotland is strategically located just 300 kilometres (186 miles) from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, where Russia’s Baltic Fleet is located. Therefore Sweden, like Finland, views Russia as a threat and considers NATO’s membership as an effective solution. However, another NATO member Türkiye has not always supported Sweden’s NATO membership.
Türkiye’s objections to Sweden’s membership
The global shift caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has rejuvenated NATO, with Finland and Sweden’s application to join on 18 May 2022. Finland gained membership in April 2023, but Sweden’s admission was thwarted by Türkiye, one of NATO’s 31 members and a critical strategic ally. The primary concern from Türkiye was that the Scandinavian nation of Sweden harbours members of the separatist organisation Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) based in Türkiye, which is designated as a terrorist organisation by the European Union (EU), America, and the Turkish government. Türkiye also lamented Stockholm’s leniency toward anti-Islamic activities, such as the burning of the Holy Quran in Sweden, which is rendered legal in Sweden as an expression of freedom. This appeared to be a problem caused by differing constitutional perspectives. Furthermore, Türkiye’s bid was exacerbated due to emigrant Kurds who protested against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.
Sweden has also been actively engaged in efforts to revitalise Türkiye’s membership in the EU, including modernisation of the EU-Türkiye Customs Union and visa liberalisation.
At the NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022, Türkiye finally agreed to lift its objections in exchange for Finland and Sweden lifting a partial arms embargo on Türkiye. Prior to the Summit, all three nations agreed on a trilateral memorandum, with NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg serving as a mediator. During the summit, Sweden and Finland settled to amend their counterterrorism legislation, making it illegal to affiliate with a terrorist organisation, such as the PKK, and extradite individuals (mostly Kurds) whom Türkiye suspects engaged in terror activities.
What made Türkiye change its stance?
It is critical to understand certain events that affected Istanbul’s staunch stance of bidding against Stockholm’s NATO membership following the NATO summit in Vilnius on July 11-12, 2023. In response to Türkiye’s legitimate concerns, Sweden has modified its constitution, altered its laws, substantially broadened its counterterrorism collaboration against the PKK, and continued arms exports to Türkiye. All these steps were outlined in the Trilateral Memorandum agreed in 2022, which involves Article 4 of the NATO treaty. Sweden has reaffirmed that it will not lend support to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) or the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ).
Türkiye’s position on backing Sweden stems from the agreement both countries ratified in Madrid. However, Türkiye’s acceptance into the EU and being the recipient of fighter jets suggests a different story. Some NATO allies believe that Türkiye, which sought to purchase $20 billion worth of Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-16 fighters and nearly 80 aircraft modernisation kits in October 2021, has put pressure on Washington via Swedish membership.
Moreover, Sweden and Türkiye have decided to strengthen their economic cooperation, bilateral trade and investment with the Türkiye-Sweden Joint Economic and Trade Committee (JETCO) seeking opportunities. Sweden has also been actively engaged in efforts to revitalise Türkiye’s membership in the EU, including modernisation of the EU-Türkiye Customs Union and visa liberalisation. Türkiye first applied for the European Economic Community, the predecessor to the EU, in 1987 and has been waiting for 50 years.
Expected future developments and conclusion
Sweden has an effective air force and a submarine fleet explicitly designed for Baltic Sea circumstances. In terms of strategy, Sweden and Finland can augment NATO’s deterrence in the Arctic against Russia’s commercial and military infrastructure in the region. This will allow NATO to project power into the Baltic region and enhance safety for the Baltic States that have been a part of NATO since 2004. Their membership would significantly broaden NATO’s border with Russia and deepen the geopolitical concurrence. According to NATO’s Defence Investment Pledge, Sweden must continue to invest in defence and reach NATO’s current level of 2% of GDP in defence spending by 2026.
However, Finland’s accession was a specific setback for Russia, and it arrived with a threat of unidentified “military-technical revenge”. It is important to note that now that Türkiye has permitted Sweden to join, Russia has stated that it will react with the identical measures it suggested for Finland. Russia claims to have moved tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, where they might reach Finland and Sweden. Besides, occasional airspace violations, disinformation campaigns, and cyber-attacks are more likely, as per the former Finnish Prime Minister. As a result, it is not incorrect to state that we live in times of global and massive shifts and that remaining non-aligned or neutral is a risk that no state appears willing to take. It is unclear how long the process of Sweden’s NATO accession will take, even though the NATO chief described it as a “historic step.” But one thing is clear, no lunch is free, since Sweden’s NATO membership came as a result of Türkiye’s bid for its entrance into the EU.