Foreign Policy

Sweden Learns That NATO Has Strings Attached

Turkey takes advantage of its new leverage.


Sweden wants to join NATO to protect itself from Russia. Unfortunately, NATO admission will require Sweden—and the U.S.—to make significant concessions to Turkey.

On July 7, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to "ensure ratification" of Sweden's application to join NATO in Turkey's parliament, according to NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg. 

This deal comes amid additional reports of acquiescence to Turkish demands, including Swedish support for the country's European Union (E.U.) accession process and the U.S. working to provide Turkey with $20 billion worth of F-16s and 79 modernization kits for existing aircraft.

Joining NATO requires each of its 30 member states to vote in favor of Sweden's accession, allowing Turkey to hold the process hostage. 

"Turkey has a weak hand to play in all of this, but they've tried to play it to the point where they can extract the most out of this situation," says James Ryan, director of research and Middle East programs at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "I really think there's an understanding between Biden and Erdogan that it's a quid pro quo, and probably the Swedish accession will go through and the sale will go through shortly thereafter."

Since confirming their intention to join NATO over a year ago, Sweden has had to conform to Turkey's complaints—which include claims that Sweden harbors member of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), issues with anti-Islam protests in Sweden, and the lack of arms exports—to gain its support for joining the alliance. 

To accommodate these concerns, Sweden has passed a new stricter anti-terror law, extradited a supporter of the PKK, and reversed a ban on exporting military equipment to Turkey. "Sweden has amended its constitution, changed its laws, significantly expanded its counterterrorism cooperation against the PKK, and resumed arms exports to [Turkey]," said Stoltenberg in a press release.

However, these reforms raise questions about the humanitarian consequences of appealing to Turkey due to the Erdogan regime's poor human rights record and erosion of judicial independence

"I would be concerned about extradition deals with Turkey universally; in part because the Turkish justice system has been by and large politicized and co-opted by Erdogan," explains Ryan. "The likelihood that anyone who Turkey sees as a terrorist could get a fair trial is very low."

This fact especially applies to Kurds, who have faced discrimination as part of crackdowns on the PKK.

"More broadly, Erdogan has a habit of labeling any Kurds not under his thumb as PKK: Bomb a Yezidi village and kill women and children? No problem, they were PKK operatives. Attack a Kurdish farm in Sinjar? The farmers were PKK," wrote Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "It is a Turkish fiction in which neither Sweden nor any other NATO member should indulge, especially as Turkey continues to indulge, harbor, and arm real terrorists."

Turkey has also proved to be an unreliable ally to U.S. interests in the region. In 2020, the U.S. sanctioned Turkey for purchasing S-400 missile systems from Russia after it barred Turkey from receiving F-35s over concerns about the missile systems' intelligence collection. Turkey has used F-16s to bomb hundreds of civilians and over 1,000 American-allied Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

"While the White House pressures its allies in Congress to allow an F-16 sale to Turkey to move forward, it has done little to stop Turkey's far more destabilizing and destructive behavior toward its neighbors," explained Rubin in a 19FortyFive article. "Not only does Erdogan openly threaten Greece, but Turkey's occupation of Cyprus nears its 50-year mark, Turkish forces and proxies occupy chunks of Syria and Iraq, and Turkey continues an unjustified blockade against Armenia."

Unfortunately for Sweden, protecting itself from one authoritarian military regime will require placating one farther away.