Sweden's de jure Nato membership is a litmus test for Turkey

Several member countries are monitoring the relationship between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, but believe confrontation with Ankara to be unwise

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish army camouflage their armoured vehicles. Sweden already enjoys active participation in Nato's military and technological initiatives. AFP
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Ahead of this week’s Nato summit in Lithuania, the alliance’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, delivered a pragmatic message. He said Sweden would not be able to accede to the alliance during the summit due to Turkey's continued opposition, but added: "Hopefully we can find common ground to make a positive decision on the completion of Swedish accession into Nato” and stressed that more needs to be done to realise this outcome.

Turkey opposes Swedish membership because it claims Stockholm harbours around 120 alleged members and supporters of the PKK, a terrorist group spread across southern Turkey and northern Iraq. Ankara is demanding Sweden extradite them back to Turkey. It also accuses Stockholm of harbouring figures allegedly involved in an attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016.

Mr Stoltenberg cautioned that any delay in Sweden's accession to Nato would be welcomed by both the PKK and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet negotiations between Ankara and Stockholm are ongoing. Moreover, Nato’s leadership, the US administration, and European leaders appear to have prioritised giving the negotiations a chance instead of adopting a confrontational approach with Turkey and threatening consequences if Sweden's accession is further obstructed.

Nato countries are closely monitoring the relationship between Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan, who was re-elected this year. Some Nato leaders perceive Mr Erdogan as unpredictable and harbouring a resentful attitude towards the EU, given the obstacles to Turkey's accession bid. But the statements made by Mr Stoltenberg indicate that Nato leaders believe confrontation and estrangement with Turkey to be unwise for two significant reasons.

First, Sweden has, in a sense, become a de facto and unofficial Nato member anyway. Indeed, Sweden's affiliation with the Nato military umbrella is as much a European and American desire as it is a Swedish one. It already enjoys active participation in Nato's military and technological initiatives, and the Swedish military-industrial complex plays a crucial role in bolstering Nato's military capabilities. Wars are lucrative for military-industrial complexes and technological industries, and the Ukrainian war has led to 2 per cent of Nato member countries' GDP being allocated to defence, not to mention new opportunities for testing new weapons and for countries to develop their militaries.

The fundamental question is not only about confronting Russia but also about what the changing identity, trajectory and fate of the Nato alliance mean

Consequently, Sweden's de jure membership serves as more of a litmus test for Turkey rather than a practical necessity for the alliance. Nato leaders have made the decision to provide Turkey with a timeline to address its reservations with Sweden's membership, opting to avoid exacerbating European estrangement with Turkey and the potential consequences and repercussions that all parties can, at this particular moment, do without.

Second, Nato leaders worry about the relationship between Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan, which has helped Russia to bypass American and European sanctions. But at the same time, Nato does not want to completely shut the door on the role that Mr Erdogan wants to play as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. That role is useful not only for a potential political settlement, but also in the context of the now-expired agreement to export Ukrainian grains via the Black Sea.

Another complication is what Swedish association with Nato signals. Mr Putin will closely monitor the outcomes of this week’s Nato summit, particularly regarding any steps that could officially cement Ukraine's position within the alliance. This would be final proof of the failure for the ultimatum he issued on December 17, 2021, cautioning Nato against considering Ukrainian membership or expanding its membership. The first blow, in Russia’s eyes, came when Finland, a country located on the border with Russia, officially joined Nato. And Sweden’s unofficial, but still very real, relationship with Nato may imply that although Ukraine will not officially become a member soon, it, too, is, in practical terms, already part of the alliance.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Istanbul on Friday for the first time since the start of the Ukrainian war, focusing on the grain export agreement as well as Ukraine's aspirations for the Nato summit in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. Mr Zelenskyy launched a charm offensive targeting the capitals of Nato member states, emphasising the need for tangible steps by Nato leaders towards committing to Kyiv’s accession to the alliance during the upcoming Nato summit. He said that Ukraine needed a clear signal that it will eventually be allowed into the alliance, not just being told that the door is open for it.

Russia will inevitably be the focus of this Nato summit. But the fundamental question is not only about confronting Russia but also about what the changing identity, trajectory, and fate of the Nato alliance mean. It is lost on no one that the relationship between the US and European countries under President Joe Biden has become stronger and deeper, evolving into a new era of military and strategic co-operation for Nato that goes beyond what may show on the surface.

Published: July 09, 2023, 2:00 PM