STOCKHOLM, Jan 25 (Reuters) – Hopes of Sweden and Finland to quickly join NATO have hit a snag in the form of objections from Turkey, which has veto power over joining the military alliance.
The three nations reached an agreement on how to proceed in Madrid last June, but Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Sweden in particular was not keeping its side of the bargain.
This week, Erdogan put the accession talks on hold indefinitely.
Of NATO’s 30 members, only the parliaments of Turkey and Hungary have yet to ratify the acceptance of Sweden and Finland, which are worried about their security after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
WHY IS TURKEY OPPOSED TO SWEDISH AND FINLAND MEMBERSHIP?
Turkey claims that Sweden, in particular, harbors what Ankara says are fighters from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984.
The PKK is designated as a terrorist group in Turkey, Sweden, the United States and Europe.
Turkey wants Stockholm and Helsinki to take a tougher stance against the PKK and another group it blames for the 2016 coup attempt.
In Madrid, Finland and Sweden agreed to work harder to fight terrorism, including stepping up work to extradite and deport suspected extremists.
But Swedish courts have blocked some expulsions.
Tensions between Sweden and Turkey have also increased over the Stockholm protests, which Ankara says are hate crimes but are covered by Swedish free speech laws.
“Sweden has responded to many of Turkey’s concerns and will continue to implement this tripartite memorandum … but it is clear at the moment that this is not enough,” said Paul Levin, director of the Institute for Turkish Studies at Stockholm University.
DOES TURKEY HAVE OTHER OBJECTIVES TO BLOCK JOINING?
Elections are held in Turkey in May. Some commentators see Erdogan’s stance on NATO as an attempt to distract voters from the cost-of-living crisis and project an image of an international statesman.
Other commentators say he may want to use NATO ratification as part of a deal with the United States. Relations with Washington have been strained by Turkey’s conflict with Syrian Kurdish fighters who have US support in the fight against Islamic State.
Turkey also wants to buy F-16 fighter jets from the United States, but faces objections from some members of Congress.
WHY DO SWEDEN AND FINLAND WANT TO JOIN NATO?
Sweden and Finland have long followed policies of formal military non-alignment, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a rethink.
Finland has a 1,300 km (810 mi) border with Russia, and the Swedish island of Gotland is just 300 km (186 mi) from the Russian Baltic Fleet headquarters in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
Countries on both sides see NATO, with its collective defense clause, as the best way to ensure their security.
WHY DOES NATO WANT SWEDEN AND FINLAND?
Both have relatively strong militaries. Finland has the capacity to mobilize 285,000 personnel and 650 tanks. Sweden has a strong air force and submarine fleet suited to the conditions of the Baltic Sea. Strategically, the two countries are plugging a hole in NATO’s front line against Russia while allowing the alliance to project power in the Baltic area.
CAN FINLAND JOIN WITHOUT SWEDEN?
Technically yes, but defending Finland without strategic land access through Sweden would be difficult for NATO.
Sweden and Finland want to continue together, but with Turkey’s anger directed mainly at Sweden, Finland may eventually lose patience with the process. Finland’s foreign minister and Sweden’s prime minister said joint membership was a priority and that Finland would consider a different path only if Sweden’s membership was permanently blocked by Turkey.
COULD NATO KICK TURKEY OUT ALLOWING SWEDEN AND FINLAND TO JOIN?
There is no formal mechanism in NATO’s founding document to suspend or expel members, and Turkey is considered a vital strategic ally.
WHAT’S GOING ON NOW?
Analysts expect the accession process to remain at a standstill until at least the Turkish elections are lifted.
Even then, progress can be slow. Full implementation of the Madrid accord could take years, and Sweden has said some of Turkey’s other demands are impossible to meet.
Turkey’s national security concerns will not be easily assuaged, and the ability of Sweden and Finland to influence developments is negligible.
But Sweden, Finland and NATO want to avoid a lengthy drawn-out process.
“Turkey’s actions now benefit Putin and … that should be problematic for the alliance as a whole,” Levin said.
Reporting by Simon Johnson in Stockholm, Hüseyin Hayatsever in Ankara, Anne Kauranen in Helsinki Editing by Timothy Heritage
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