HELSINKI — Finland and Sweden have adopted a common “future ally” approach with Turkey in an attempt to fast-track their NATO membership — something hindered by the Ankara government.
Turkey has refused to ratify Finland’s and Sweden’s membership applications until preconditions are met. Furthermore, Ankara has accused the two unaligned Nordic states of hostility toward the country’s record on human rights, and for refusing to license defense companies in the two applicant countries the ability to export weapons to Turkey.
Twenty-eight of the alliance’s 30 member states have already ratified the NATO membership applications submitted by Sweden and Finland. Hungary is expected to formalize its ratification in the first quarter of 2023.
Government officials in Helsinki and Stockholm claim the ongoing, intensified membership discussions and political bridge-building have helped create a greater level of trust to significantly improve relations with Ankara.
In particular, both Finland and Sweden have managed to advance talks with Turkey by agreeing to revise their restrictive approach to arms sales by domestic defense companies. The Turkish government has identified arm sales reform as a precondition for its support for Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO applications.
Neither Finland nor Sweden imposed a formal ban on arms exports to Turkey. However, the two Nordic states have a policy of not issuing new export permits for weapons sales to the country, a position that was influenced by ground attacks launched by Turkey against Syrian Kurds from 2016 to 2019.
“Little by little we need to reach a position where we can consider Turkey as a future ally. We need to take into account, as part of the overall consideration relating to arms exports to Turkey and the issuing of export permits, how best to develop a new mindset to achieve improved relations with Ankara,” said Finnish Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen.
Sweden’s Defence Ministry is adopting a stance similar to Finland. Stockholm also enforces a technical ban on the export of defense equipment to Turkey, but the ministry is examining what changes in policy are required, including legislative action, to allow Sweden’s defense groups to obtain export licenses to deliver weapons to Turkey.
Finland and Sweden are pursuing what officials have described as an organic solution to the arms export issue. This would involve permitting Finnish and Swedish defense companies to compete for Turkish military contracts, and for the governments to process defense materiel export applications under criteria reserved for so-called premier tier export countries.
Meanwhile, Turkey has used the membership ratification process as an opportunity to pursue concessions from other NATO member states. For example, Turkey wants the U.S. government to approve the modernization of its F-16 fighter fleet and for alliance members to lift de facto arms embargos against Ankara.
“Negotiations with Ankara are complicated for various reasons, but importantly we are moving together in the right direction,” said Tobias Billström, Sweden’s foreign affairs minister. “We are confident a positive outcome will happen, and that the continuing talks will ultimately lead to the full ratification of Sweden’s membership of NATO in 2023.”
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö told reporters on Dec. 11 that Finland’s and Sweden’s membership of NATO would take time.
“Hungary has told us it will not be the last one to ratify. In Turkey, the solution lies with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The timing of ratification is unfortunately intertwined with internal politics in Turkey,” Niinistö said.
A series of high-level, bilateral talks have been in motion between the Turkish government and representatives from the Finnish and Swedish governments since the beginning of winter.
Kaikkonen visited Ankara in early December. Despite advances and a visible “warming in relations,” the Finnish defense minister said he could not confidently predict when Turkey might ratify Finland’s NATO application.
Turkey’s delay is also influenced by internal politics and parliamentary elections due to be held there in June 2023. NATO expansion is expected to emerge as a major issue in the elections, a development that could postpone a decision on ratification until the third or fourth quarter of 2023.
There are also differences on regional security issues that remain unresolved. In particular, before the NATO applications process kicked off, Sweden and Finland had questioned Turkey’s plan to establish an 18.6-mile-wide security zone in northern Syria.
In soliciting Turkey’s support for NATO membership, Sweden and Finland have also found themselves defending their positions and policies toward the Kurdish PYD Democratic Union Party and its armed militia, the Syrian Kurdish YPG.
The PYD has links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which the U.S. and the European Union, including Finland and Sweden, consider a terrorist organization. Turkey has accused Sweden and Finland of harboring “PKK terrorists” and failing to cooperate with Ankara on extradition warrants.
Gerard O'Dwyer is the Scandinavian affairs correspondent for Defense News.