Time is running out for Erdogan over Sweden's Nato membership bid

Amid western pressure, Turkey is in a fix due to its favourable relations with Russia

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a press conference in Ankara, where the new cabinet was announced on Saturday. Reuters
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If and when Sweden's Nato membership materialises, the Baltic Sea will effectively transform into a Nato lake, granting the alliance the ability to sever water routes to crucial Russian cities such as St Petersburg and key military and strategic sites in places such as the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. It is in Kaliningrad, where the Iskander cruise missiles capable of striking any European capital are stationed, creating a potential spark for nuclear confrontation.

Sweden's entry into Nato could present the latter with the potential to disrupt Russian oil exports, particularly from the port of St Petersburg. This is because Sweden, Finland and Poland would collectively be able to block Russia's trade corridors. Additionally, Sweden's advanced military technology would strengthen Nato's military capabilities upon its accession.

Nato member Turkey, however, has not yet agreed to Sweden's membership, with Ankara accusing Stockholm of harbouring and supporting Kurdish militants. It is telling that the Turkish foreign ministry did not send a representative to the Nato foreign ministers’ meeting in Oslo last week. But Sweden's potential membership remains non-negotiable for the broader 31-member alliance. Deals could be made with Ankara but if it opts to obstruct the bid, the US and European countries have the means to pressurise it.

Sweden's membership is likely to be determined at the next Nato summit – in Vilnius, Lithuania in July – where it appears certain that Ukraine's membership bid will not be officially endorsed. Nonetheless, significant security arrangements will be agreed for Kyiv, possibly serving as a stepping stone towards eventual membership. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is applying maximum diplomatic and strategic pressure to secure unequivocal guarantees, both in the present and the future, for his country's accession bid.

A Zelenskyy meeting with Erdogan will add to the pressure on the Turkish leader

The resistance against Sweden's membership is not the only subject of controversy surrounding Turkey’s behaviour. While it is important to note that any objection from a member state hampers the process of accepting new members, the larger issue at hand pertains to Turkey's place in Nato. This presents a significant challenge for Ankara's relationship with the rest of the alliance and carries potentially far-reaching ramifications.

The decision, at the moment, is to give Turkey until July to make up its mind, assuming Sweden will have fulfilled its obligations and requirements by then, rendering it eligible and ready (pending Turkish approval). Nato members are making every effort possible to provide Ankara with a genuine opportunity to approve the bid in good faith.

But if it remains steadfast in its stance, the US and European countries are contemplating various punitive measures that might include the following: formally closing the door to Turkey's EU accession, halting the delivery of US F-16 fighter jets, suspending projects for the Turkish army’s development, and creating economic hurdles in western relations with Turkey.

Instead of provoking a confrontation with the West, Ankara will need to focus on reassuring the Turkish public, particularly given country’s current economic challenges. It is possible that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is concerned about jeopardising his rapport and mutual dependency with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nevertheless, obstructing Sweden's membership carries a high cost for Turkey, considering its implications for European national security, and the US’s decision to prevent Turkey from impeding Sweden's entry.

If Mr Erdogan seeks concessions and additional guarantees from both Nato members and Stockholm, he will have to promptly approve Sweden's membership during the upcoming summit.

Mr Zelenskyy, who intends to visit Turkey, is an important figure in Mr Erdogan’s calculations given the Turkish president’s desire to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. But the Ukrainian president's meeting with Mr Erdogan will add to the pressure on the Turkish leader.

In his bid to extract maximum concessions from Nato, Mr Zelenskyy has hinted he might boycott the July summit unless Ukraine's membership is assured in the future. He is also seeking certain assurances, including the continuation of military supplies, the training of Ukrainian forces, the upgradation of the army to the standards of Nato armies, and the drafting of contingency plans in case its membership bid faces hurdles. The Ukrainian president is also seeking assurances from the US, akin to those extended to Israel, which encompass not only unwavering commitment from Nato to Ukraine but also from Washington towards establishing special military relations with Ukraine.

However, his requests could pose a significant predicament for Mr Erdogan, since agreeing to provide security guarantees to Ukraine would hurt Turkish-Russian relations.

Meanwhile, speculations continue to swirl around Kyiv-led offensive operations against Russian forces in the next two weeks. There is talk that it might even launch drones targeting the Russian capital, aimed at delivering a clear message to the Russian leadership that the war has reached its doorstep. While that kind of escalation could re-introduce the possibility of Russian nuclear retaliation, there seems to be a belief in the West that Moscow will not risk annihilation by resorting to the nuclear option.

Sweden's accession to Nato – were it to happen – will alter the military, technological and psychological balance of power in the region. It will serve as a crucial element in cornering Russia at sea, even as Finland, with its extensive border with Russia, exerts pressure from land if required. It is yet another reminder that Nato’s continued expansion – the very object of Russian fear – is happening in light of the Ukraine war. Moscow has inadvertently engineered the circumvention and isolation of Russia with its immediate neighbours.

The Nato summit in July is likely to present further setbacks to Russia, especially if the meeting is followed by an escalation of a war that has already expanded beyond Ukrainian soil, into Russian territory.

Published: June 04, 2023, 2:00 PM