If Erdogan blocks Sweden and Finland, will NATO boot Turkey?
We have reached one of the most important moments in the seven-decade history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: Sweden and Finland are set to join the alliance, just as the Russian war on Ukraine reaches its first anniversary.
Yet Turkey — alone of all the members — is slowing this vital chance to bring Stockholm and Helsinki on board. It is time to stop this exercise in unilateral obstruction and simply say “yes.” Turkish reticence, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a gift to a heinous war criminal, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In 2009, when I became supreme allied commander of NATO, the first capital I visited was not London, despite the U.K. being the strongest supporter of our collective efforts in Afghanistan other than the U.S. Nor did I choose to go to Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid — not even Athens, despite my Greek American heritage. The first place I went to was Ankara, Turkey. I wanted to recognize everything the Turks had done for NATO before and after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Turks had provided troops, aircraft and ships to every NATO mission for years — Afghanistan, peacekeeping in the Balkans, counterpiracy, cybersecurity and so on. Under my command, they provided combat capability to the 2011 intervention in Libya, something other major allies chose to avoid. Every time I asked for something, they stood and delivered.
I became good friends with Turkey’s defense chief, Ilker Basbug, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (and later prime minister). I met with Gen. Hulusi Akar, who is now Ankara’s defense minister, and toured the many Turkish bases supporting NATO missions. And I met with Erdogan, who was then prime minister, several times. He struck me as a very hard-nosed individual, determined to pursue whatever course of action that he felt was the right one for his nation.
Turkey is taking this counterproductive stance over what it sees as the Nordic nations’ support for terrorist groups among Turkey’s Kurdish minority, in particular their refusal to extradite dozens of Kurds wanted by the government. I can understand that. The governments of all three nations should be in close consultation to make sure that nothing any alliance member does is disruptive to the internal security of another member. But Sweden in particular has already given many, many concessions to Turkey during the expansion process.
The great challenge to the alliance isn’t terrorism: It is the unconscionable invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Putin continues to shadowbox at NATO-member Estonia, which has a significant ethnic-Russian population. He repeatedly talks about his “nuclear options,” seeking to frighten Europe in general and NATO in particular.
This is what has spurred the two famously neutral nations to apply for NATO membership. Both have fought against Russia over the long centuries. Both remained (at least technically) on the sidelines during the Cold War, when a brutal Soviet dictatorship threatened the free world. That they chose now to drop their neutrality should give some sense of how seriously they take the threat of Putin to the global order.
Sweden has a high-tech military and produces the fifth-generation Saab Gripen fighters, which I was thrilled to have in our operations over Libya. The Finns, a nation of only 5 million, can put hundreds of thousands of well-trained and fully equipped ground combat forces in the field in a matter of weeks. We want them on our team.
At some point soon, some NATO members are going to begin asking, “If it is a choice between Sweden/Finland and Turkey, maybe we should look at our options.” That would be a mistake. Turkey boasts the second-largest army in NATO, has important facilities including Incirlik Air Base and hosts NATO’s overall land-warfare command in Izmir.
NATO needs Turkey to continue being an active and positive member. It also needs to add Finland and Sweden. No one wants to have to choose between them. It’s up to Erdogan to ensure that doesn’t have to happen.