Inside Turkey’s three dimensions for changing tune on Sweden’s NATO bid

ANKARA — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s surprise greenlight to Sweden’s membership in NATO is likely calculated to bring economic and defense gains. 

Turkey has been dragging its feet, citing the Swedish government’s perceived tolerance toward the activities of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the network of the Pennsylvania-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen on its territory. Erdogan insisted that successive Swedish governments should clamp down on pro-PKK cadres and Gulenists. A series of Quran-burning protests in the Swedish capital over the past months have further complicated the talks between Ankara and Stockholm. 

Yet in a surprising twist, after two rounds of trilateral meetings with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, Erdogan announced on Wednesday that he will refer the Swedish application to the Turkish parliament for ratification. The press release of the meeting called for the removal of restrictions on defense trade among member nations, as well as the creation of a new NATO special coordinator for counter-terrorism. Erdogan is likely to push for a Turkish diplomat in that post to increase his influence within the alliance. The statement also said Stockholm would help Turkey to update its customs union with the EU and provide visa liberalization for Turkish citizens traveling to Europe. 

Defense, economic gains

In addition to the Swedish pledges, three major considerations seem to have played important role in Turkey’s changing tune. 

The major driver seems to be the positive signals Erdogan received from Washington on a Congressional greenlight to new Turkish F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits from the Biden administration. In 2019, the United States removed Turkey from the advanced F-35 program, prompting the Turkish side to opt for the less advanced but still capable F-16s. 

Another incentive is the longtime Turkish demand for its NATO allies to lift all defense sales embargoes against Ankara. Both Sweden and Finland lifted de facto arms embargoes imposed over Turkey’s military operations against the Syrian Kurdish groups. Canada froze talks with Turkey on lifting export controls over Ankara’s military support to Azerbaijan during a 2022 war with Armenia, but it signaled this week that the talks would resume. Reuters reported this week that Canada also agreed to resume talks on lifting export controls on drone parts. Turkish Bayraktar drones proved to be a game changer in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested Nagorno Karabakh region. 

Erdogan is also trying to accumulate some goodwill to secure investments from Western countries and other cash-rich Western allies, especially Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, to help the beleaguered Turkish economy. Furthermore, Erdogan’s last-minute push to add Turkey’s EU bid to the NATO negotiations will likely oil the wheels in the customs union negotiations between Ankara and Brussels. Ankara has been pressing to expand the scope of the treaty. 

Not in clear yet

Even after this major step, Turkey, Sweden and NATO are not in the clear yet. The Turkish parliament is scheduled to go into a two-month recess soon. If Ankara does not see progress on its demands, it could slow down or halt the process once again.

As for relations between Ankara and Moscow, crisis management seems to be underway. Those ties might have cooled in the last two weeks over Erdogan’s strong endorsement of Ukrainian membership in NATO. But the Turks and Russians have too many matters over which they must continue to cooperate — the grain deal with Ukraine, Turkish exports to Russia, Russian tourists spending billions of dollars in Turkey, Turkish energy imports from Russia and ending the civil war in Syria.

At any rate, despite what pro-Erdogan media outlets at home are saying, the Turkish president is unlikely to revive his country’s EU bid. Both the EU and Turkey lost the will and interest for full membership in the mid-2010s as Ankara’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law began to weaken while mass migration from the Middle East and North Africa upset European electorates. As Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman pointed out, the latest Turkish move represents neither a rapprochement with the West nor a turn away from Russia.

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