NATO's Second Wind
On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in what the Kremlin claimed to be a “special military operation” with the prime aim of reducing the alleged threat to Russia from Ukraine. As a further motivation, the spokesperson for the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov, stated that "Ideally, Ukraine should be liberated, cleaned from neo-Nazis, from people sharing pro-Nazi sentiment and ideas." This remark was heavily criticized in the West, as the democratically-elected President of Ukraine—Volodymyr Zelensky--is Jewish. Seeing the invasion as a little more than territorial expansion, similar to what Russia did in Georgia in 2008, both Finland and Sweden sent in their applications to join NATO. Under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, an attack on one member is an attack on all, guaranteeing allied support to both nations should Russia choose to attack. The move was seen in a positive light by nearly every member of NATO, except for Turkey, which specifically sees a foreign policy contradiction in the Nordic countries’ support for Kurdish groups in Syria. And as the two parties continue to negotiate on the matter, the matter has switched from a geostrategic one to a political one.
Map of NATO Members in Europe. Source: Economist
A Common Threat
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO has increased in membership in central and eastern Europe, most recently being North Macedonia in 2020. 30 out of 48 European countries are currently inside the NATO alliance; however that number was 16 before the fall of the USSR. This dramatic increase was one of the most significant grievances that Russia raised in its security concerns against Ukraine, which after the Maidan Revolution made it clear that it wanted to join. This revolution represented a major turning point in Russo-Ukrainian relations and its relations with the West in general. In 2014, the people of Ukraine took up arms against Petro Poroshenko, who was ardently pro-Russian, which caused nationwide protests as Ukrainians wished to be closer to the European Union and the West in general. For Russia, this marked a decline in what they considered to be their post-Soviet sphere of influence and an encroachment by the West. As Vladimir Putin alleged, after the breakup of the USSR, NATO had promised no expansion eastward—a claim denied by the US and NATO. Putin stated that Russia was “swindled” by losing its grip on Eastern Europe. It is with this in mind that Russia reacted furiously to seeing other European countries' wishes to join NATO. Russia began showing its disdain by waging a war against Georgia in 2008 and then continued to express displeasure at North Macedonia and Finland for wanting to join as well.
This rhetorical and geopolitical aggression has prompted Finland and Sweden to want to join NATO for protection. Due to Russia’s invasion of Georgia, the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, both Sweden and Finland felt that due to Russia’s belligerence against its neighbors they needed a security deterrence. For Finland, there were concerns over its 1000-kilometer border with Russia, and for Sweden, it was mainly about the security over Gotland. Eager to avoid a similar situation to Ukraine and Georgia, Finland and Sweden both sent in their applications to join NATO on May 18.
As soon as the applications were sent in, Turkey publically made its concerns clear with regard to what they expect from Sweden and Finland. Of particular concern to Turkey are the country’s large Kurdish diaspora and its population’s influence on the government. Specifically, Turkey objected to Sweden’s strong support for the Syrian YPG units, which are predominantly Kurdish and have strong US backing in their fight against Al-Qaeda in Syria. Turkey regards the YPG as an affiliate group of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK): a group that Turkey has been waging a war with across southeastern Turkey and Northern Iraq for nearly 40 years. The conflict between the two has claimed the lives of roughly 40,000 people. The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States. The YPG, however, is a different story as the US and some European nations regard it as a trusted partner against terrorist cells in Syria.
Due to the high level of Kurdish activism in Sweden, Kurdish foreign policy towards the YPG has been rather supportive. This was evident in 2019 when Turkey invaded northern Syria for what it claimed was an anti-terrorist mission, and both Finland and Sweden blocked arms exports to Turkey as a result. The face of Kurdish representation in May and June 2022 was Amineh Kakabaveh, who is a fierce supporter of Kurdish self-determination (which is strongly against Turkish foreign policy objectives) and also a loud critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was specifically this kind of loud political messaging that Turkey had objected to, as it sees Sweden’s lax authority against supporters of the PKK in Sweden and Turkish criticism to be unacceptable. In order to assuage Turkey, both Finland and Sweden had promised to increase their anti-terrorist measures, and they even began to distance themselves from Kurdish groups in the Middle East. And as a further goodwill gesture, both countries agreed to resume arms exports to Turkey.
As of now, the only two countries not to have ratified Sweden and Finland’s applications are Hungary and Turkey, with Hungary promising to do so by mid-December. As for Turkey, the main objection seems to be that of Finland, but mainly Sweden has not done enough to gain Ankara’s favor. Specifically, Turkey wants Sweden to extradite those it considers terrorists, sympathizers, and other enemies of the Turkish state and to further distance itself from the YPG. There have also been allegations, however, that the reason Turkey is taking so long is to exert pressure on the US. Turkey has long been wanting to acquire more F-16 fighter jets and repair kits, but due to its fractured relationship with the US, the sale never went through. It has been guessed that Turkey wants the sale in exchange for allowing Finland and Sweden in. Despite these suggestions, however, what is known is that Turkey believes both countries still have a ways to go before it can give the green light.
In 1952 Turkey joined NATO due to the fear that former Soviet leader Stalin might try to lay claim to Turkish territory. It was this fear of the Russia-dominated USSR that prompted its long-standing alliance with the West. And it is this same fear that is now motivating Finland and Sweden to want to join as well. Whatever their differences, the issue of the Kurdish groups in Syria is seen as a relatively small one as similar to the Cold War, there is now a resurgent common enemy with Russia.