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Sweden’s Stalled NATO Bid, Explained
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Sweden’s Stalled NATO Bid, Explained

Turkey and Hungary resist mounting pressure to approve Sweden’s membership in the alliance.

Officials from Finland, Sweden, Turkey, and NATO meeting in Ankara, Turkey on June 14, 2023. (Photo by Ahmet Okur/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dashed European leaders’ hopes last week that his May reelection would soften his opposition to Sweden’s accession into NATO. “Sweden has expectations,” Erdoğan said Wednesday after meetings between officials from Sweden, Turkey, Finland, and NATO in Ankara. “It doesn’t mean that we will comply with them.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and President Joe Biden now have their work cut out for them ahead of a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, next month where the leaders hope to announce Sweden as their newest ally. Admitting the Nordic country will require the unanimous approval of all 31 member states, but convincing Turkey—and a recalcitrant Hungary—is an obstacle.

When did this saga begin?

As tanks rolled into Ukraine in February 2022, Sweden and Finland began to worry that their decades-long official position of “non-alignment” wouldn’t be a guarantor against Russian aggression. Three months later both countries launched joint applications for membership in the defensive alliance. 

“Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is not only illegal and indefensible, it also undermines the European security order that Sweden builds its security on,” said then-Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson. “Should Sweden be the only country in the Baltic Sea region that was not a member of NATO, we would be in a very vulnerable position. We can’t rule out that Russia would then increase pressure on Sweden.”

But now Sweden is perhaps more exposed than ever, as NATO members Turkey and Hungary continue to thwart its entrance into the alliance more than a year after its initial request to join. (Finland was accepted as the alliance’s newest member in April after decoupling its application from its Nordic neighbor.)

What are Turkey’s objections?

Ankara has a history of rocky relations with Sweden over the latter’s policy of granting asylum to dissidents fleeing Turkey. When Sweden requested to join NATO last year, Erdoğan rebutted with a list of demands, including that the Nordic country extradite 130 people he accused of terrorism. 

Kurdish activists living in Sweden are a particular target of Erdoğan’s ire. Despite entering the national political scene more than two decades ago promising to solve Turkey’s “Kurdish problem,” the president turned on the minority group after 2015 peace talks broke down and erupted into destructive clashes. The same period also witnessed several deadly terrorist attacks across the country by the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). By granting Kurdish dissidents asylum, Erdoğan argues, Sweden is effectively aiding and abetting attacks against Turkish civilians.

“If they stop their support for terrorist organizations, of course, we are willing to work with them,” Muhammet Şerif Aydın, an official with Erdoğan’s AKP party, said from the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakır last month. “It is not us. It is the political powers in the United States and Sweden who decide with whom they are going to have healthy relations. They will choose us, or they will choose terrorist organizations like the PKK.”

Since launching its bid, Stockholm has taken steps to placate these concerns. The Swedish parliament ratified a new anti-terror law this month, instating prison sentences of up to four years for people who cooperate with extremist organizations and up to eight years for people convicted of more serious crimes, like providing ammunition and supplies to terrorists. Sweden also agreed this month to extradite a 35-year-old Turkish citizen and avowed PKK supporter, who had been arrested by Turkey in 2013 on drug charges.    

“We know that Turkey has major problems with terrorism and we take this seriously as the Swedish government,” Swedish chief negotiator Oscar Stenstrom said last week. Still, Erdoğan’s objections remain. And he’s not alone.

What are Hungary’s grievances? 

Like Turkey, Hungary is taking out its broader frustrations at the transatlantic community on Sweden. The European Union—of which both countries are members—has in recent years criticized and threatened to withhold funds from Hungary over democratic backsliding under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Budapest has in turn accused Stockholm of meddling in its domestic affairs.

Hungary has had to “listen constantly to criticisms, accusations, and allegations coming from Sweden, [its] politicians. They’re saying that Hungary will not be a democracy, it will be a dictatorship,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told Turkish media last week. “Such an accusation gives a reason to put this issue on hold for a while.”

This isn’t the first time Hungary has made life difficult for the EU and NATO. As European countries fall in line with the U.S.-led response to Russia’s invasion, Orbán has moved to stall security assistance to Ukraine and thwart economic sanctions against Moscow. In the same interview with a Turkish outlet, Szijjarto blamed the ongoing conflict on weapons shipments to Ukraine and “the very deep involvement of the Americans.”

It’s rhetoric like this that leads many to conclude Orbán is in Vladimir Putin’s pocket. Hungary still gets some 80 percent of its gas from Russian gas producer Gazprom and is currently working with Russia’s nuclear energy company, Rosatom, on the construction of nuclear reactors. 

But as with the case with Finland’s NATO bid, Hungary will likely cave to diplomatic pressure if and when Turkey does. “This is really about Orbán’s ongoing fights with the EU. He’s just taking advantage of the fact that Turkey is objecting to see if he can extract something as well by drafting behind the Turks,” says Eric Edelman, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Finland, and under secretary of defense for policy. “As soon as the Turks folded their tent on Finland, then the Hungarians said ‘OK, we’ll ratify it as well.’”

What can Washington do about it? 

The U.S. is hoping a combination of carrots and sticks will get the hold-outs to fold. Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, moved to hold up a $735 million arms package to Hungary on Wednesday. The weapons transfer reportedly included 24 HIMARS batteries and more than 100 rockets. (Hungary later denied its plans to purchase the weapons.)

Meanwhile, Turkey’s desire to purchase F-16 fighter jets from the U.S. may be the best way to secure Turkey’s approval for Sweden’s NATO membership. Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has thus far blocked the Biden administration-supported sale. Erdoğan’s likely also angling for a meeting with Biden at the upcoming NATO summit. 

“Turkish President Erdoğan is very good at making what is good for Erdoğan into what is good for Turkey,” says Dr. Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey analyst with the Washington Institute. “Erdoğan has realized that he benefits greatly from his strongman image globally in domestic politics, and if he can use this—both in terms of grandstanding to get a major European country to go down on its knees and beg Turkey for admission, and also leverage to get a better rapport and understanding with President Biden—it can benefit him.” He estimates there’s a 50 percent chance that Turkey will assent to Sweden’s admission by the summit next month.

“If we don’t sell them the F-16, they’re going to go buy a high performance fighter from China or Russia, and I would much prefer that we keep them in the American supply chain. Selling them the F-16 makes sense, but not unconditionally,” Edelman tells The Dispatch. “Everything’s gotta be seen with Erdoğan, unfortunately, as a transaction. Nothing can be done on the basis of alliance solidarity, which we’ve done a lot of things with Turkey over historically. But I think that era is over.”

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.