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New Atlanticist July 10, 2023

Experts react: Erdogan just agreed to support Sweden’s NATO bid. What does that mean for Turkey, Sweden, and the Alliance?

By Atlantic Council experts

Now that’s an opening act. On the eve of the NATO Summit in Vilnius, and after more than a year of twists and turns, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Monday that he would push forward Sweden’s accession into NATO. The announcement came after a meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, with NATO agreeing to enhance its counterterrorism work to address Turkey’s security concerns and Sweden agreeing to back Turkey’s European Union (EU) membership bid. Erdoğan, for his part, agreed to push for ratification of Sweden’s accession in its legislature. With Hungary expected to follow suit, the path to Sweden’s entrance into the Alliance could soon be clear.

Below, Atlantic Council experts weigh in on what’s behind this dramatic and consequential turnabout from Erdoğan and what to expect next.

Click to jump to an expert analysis:

Defne Arslan: Turkey comes away with major gains as it prepares to ratify in the fall

Rich Outzen: Inside Erdoğan’s calculus

Anna Wieslander: Sweden gets out of limbo as the Alliance shows a united front

Christopher Skaluba: Don’t spike the football just yet

Rachel Rizzo: Both sides gain in this geopolitical tit-for-tat

Daniel Fried: Did Erdoğan sense Putin’s weakness?

Ian Brzezinski: Sweden makes the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake—and seals the Vilnius summit’s place in history

Turkey comes away with major gains as it prepares to ratify in the fall

On July 10, Erdoğan committed to send Sweden’s NATO membership ratification to the Turkish parliament. The news was welcomed by all NATO members heading into the NATO summit in Vilnius—and will prove beneficial to Turkey, a major ally with a key role in the Alliance’s southern flank, from the Black Sea to the Eastern Mediterranean. The announcement also came right after Erdoğan demanded long-sought EU membership for Turkey in return for Sweden’s accession, in addition to Sweden taking Turkey’s security concerns seriously. Sweden eventually took steps on adopting an anti-terrorism law in June. Additionally, language regarding terrorist organizations, which pose an existential threat to Turkey, appeared in the NATO communiqué. These were important gains for Turkey. It is also encouraging to see that NATO will be establishing a terrorism coordination mechanism for the first time.

What will be the timeline for Sweden’s ratification in the Turkish parliament? It is important to note that apart from Erdoğan’s remarks, there has not been any official announcement from the Turkish side regarding Sweden’s accession yet. This tells me that Erdoğan will wait for the next steps both from Sweden and NATO, as well as from the EU before he sends the protocol to the Turkish parliament.

Erdoğan also announced on July 12 in Vilnius that Sweden’s accession will move forward once the Turkish Parliament opens in October, but not before. As the parliament opens, the ratification needs to be discussed and adopted at the parliament’s foreign affairs committee first, before it goes to the floor.   

Erdogan’s move on July 10 not only took the pressure off of Turkey during the summit, but also gave the president more time to monitor the developments in Turkey’s favor. From the EU side, a customs union revitalization and update, as well as visa liberalization will be beneficial for Turkey, and if things move fast enough, there is always a chance that Sweden’s ratification can happen in September. That said, I also would like to underline that this announcement in Vilnius will also bring obligations to Turkey to meet its side of the agreement.

Defne Arslan is senior director of the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY program. 

Inside Erdoğan’s calculus

I am mildly surprised that this comes before and not during the Summit, which convenes Tuesday, but overall it makes sense. It is a typical Erdogan move to take a maximalist position in a high-stakes negotiation, show readiness to walk, then compromise for progress on key demands.  

It’s the wrong question to ask, “What pushed Erdogan to do this?” Because it underestimates the degree of strategy he and his advisors have applied—and misreads their original intent. Erdogan and the Turks have long said publicly and privately that they favor NATO enlargement. They have supported Ukraine and Georgia in the past, approved Finland this past year, and would like to see Sweden in—if the notoriously lax Swedish counterterror laws, now amended, are fully implemented. Turkey wants a big NATO because by NATO structure and bylaws Erdogan gets a veto on the world’s most powerful security organization—as do all members. The bigger the better. Yet the nature of the enlargement matters greatly for a country with a serious terrorism threat. So the better question is: Did Erdogan get what he thinks he needs on his own security needs, regarding the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and a potential F-16 fighter jet deal with the United States, to advance Sweden’s candidacy? What was the quid pro quo? 

It’s important to remember that Erdogan’s announcement was not approval of the bid; it was a statement of intent to pass the question of approval to the Turkish parliament, which Erdogan’s party controls. Thus he retains the ability to kill or delay accession if Sweden backs off on counterterror implementation, or if the United States reneges on the F-16 deal. So all in all, he has lost no real leverage, but gained a tremendous optic of Turkey supporting the Atlantic Alliance.

This removes the question of Swedish accession from the summit’s main agenda, and places it in the category of “business successfully managed.” Thus the summit can focus on two more pressing issues: how to support Ukraine and how to implement NATO’s revised security concept. I would expect that on the first topic (Ukraine) we will see a roadmap or statement of principles that lays out robust military support for Ukraine’s defense, amounting to a security guarantee, but carefully calibrated not to constitute a near-term prospect of accession, an escalation, or an engagement of NATO as an organization in the current defensive war against Russia. On the second topic (security concept), there will be technical progress on how to divide responsibilities and resources more equitably, but this will likely be of less interest to general audiences. 

I think this has less to do with the mutiny of Yevgeniy Prigozhin and perceptions of Vladimir Putin’s standing than with the leverage game vis-a-vis NATO allies and how to ensure that if European NATO problems become Turkish problems, Turkish problems become European NATO problems. Ankara will continue to conduct a balancing act by which it maintains trade, diplomatic relations, and occasional strategic cooperation with Russia—while ensuring that together with other NATO powers Turkey disabuses Russia of its dreams of imperial revanche. Putin, Prigozhin, Wagner—in Turkish eyes these are all just layers of the Russian Matryoshka or Maskirovka, deceptive games that obscure a fairly direct power play. The Turks need a functional relationship with Russia but see more common cause with the West; the approach to Sweden should be seen in those terms, as how to prove bona fides to the Western Alliance while extracting necessary concessions to their own security. 

As to quid pro quo, for Turkey, it can be only two things—counter-PKK commitments by Sweden, and agreement on F-16s (and perhaps broader strategic engagement) by Washington. Anything else is peripheral, and if these are not obtained, the deal is a bad one for Ankara. Of course there is an escape hatch—Erdogan passed the ball to the Turkish parliament and approved nothing directly—but the pieces are in place now for a good transactional deal that helps NATO, Sweden, and Turkey in a stroke.

Rich Outzen is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY. 

Sweden gets out of limbo as the Alliance shows a united front

Finally Sweden got its green light from Turkey to join NATO. Late in the evening in Vilnius, Stoltenberg called July 10, 2023, “a historic day.” The agreement between Sweden, Turkey, and NATO that was signed on Monday evening means that Sweden will join the Alliance as its thirty-second member “as soon as possible,” given that the Turkish and Hungarian parliaments need to ratify the accession protocol.  

It is unclear how long it will take, but the agreement undoubtedly removes the risk of Sweden falling into a limbo situation—that is, being close to, but not fully in, the Alliance. Sweden´s military and political adjustments toward NATO membership can proceed with full speed, which is beneficial not only for Sweden, but for the defense of Northern Europe, in which Sweden could play a crucial role.   

The green light also facilitates Finland’s integration as a new member, since the security and defense of the two Nordics is heavily interlinked. As Finnish President Sauli Niinistö stated: “Finland’s NATO membership is not complete without Sweden.”

For NATO, the deal means that the Vilnius Summit is off to a good start. As twenty-nine allies already have ratified Sweden’s accession, NATO otherwise faced the risk of appearing fragmented and weak. Lack of progress could put the credibility of NATO’s “open door” policy at risk, since the Alliance also has to make some tough decisions on Ukrainian membership. 

Turkey managed to push Sweden and NATO to take a step forward on counterterrorism measures, and in the end, Erdoğan also put the EU into the mix. Sweden’s decision to support Turkish ambitions to get the European Commission to restart the accession process appeared to seal their NATO agreement. Whether Turkey will also get to purchase the long-sought F-16 fighter jets from the United States remains to be seen. But then, the summit has not even started and US President Joe Biden has yet to arrive. 

Anna Wieslander is the director for Northern Europe and head of the Atlantic Council’s Northern Europe office in Stockholm. 

Don’t spike the football just yet

While my instinct tells me that it would be difficult for Erdoğan to backtrack on an agreement he has seemingly made in good faith, recent history provides a cautionary tale. Just over a year ago on the margins of the Madrid Summit, glasses were clinking on what most observers assumed would be a straightforward process for admission once Turkey joined consensus in inviting Finland and Sweden to become members. Yet Erdoğan knew he had a second bite at the apple. He took the accolades in Madrid, only to run Sweden through the paces for another year before another dramatic set of negotiations in Vilnius, where he once again demanded the spotlight before conceding. If he moves with alacrity to push the ratification through the Turkish parliament, skeptics can be reassured. But there is non-zero chance that some intervening circumstance (like another public Quran burning) could serve as pretext for derailing the process again. I want to be optimistic, but worry that I have seen this movie before. NATO should not spike the football until it is over the goal line.  

Christopher Skaluba is the director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Both sides gain in this geopolitical tit-for-tat

For months, NATO leaders have been working behind the scenes to broker this agreement between Turkey and Sweden. It’s important to tip our hats to Stoltenberg, Biden, and other leaders who exerted diplomatic pressure to see this through. This is a classic example of a geopolitical tit-for-tat: Erdoğan using his strategic position—as a member of NATO but also straddling the East and West—to extract concessions from Sweden that both bolster his power at home and demonstrate to the broader NATO Alliance that they need him. It also gives both sides something they want: Erdoğan gets to look like a statesman, and Sweden appears on track to finally get its NATO membership. It will be interesting in the coming days to follow reports of what took place behind closed doors over the last few weeks, days, and even hours, and what was actually on offer for Erdoğan to create this shift. He wouldn’t have changed his tune if he didn’t see this move as in his interests. Next up: Be sure to watch the US-Turkey F-16 space closely.

Rachel Rizzo is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Did Erdoğan sense Putin’s weakness?

While it’s only speculation, the Prigozhin mutiny and the Kremlin’s uncertain response (Prigozhin at liberty in Russia, not in exile in Belarus; Prigozhin’s meeting with Putin) suggest regime weakness. Erdoğan’s reaction to the failed 2016 coup in Turkey showed no such mixed messages. Erdoğan might have concluded that betting on Putin after the mutiny seemed less wise.

We won’t know what the United States might do with respect to F-16 or other military sales to Turkey. If there were an understanding, the details will become clear in coming weeks. Whether a possible deal is a good deal depends on the details. But the practice of international relations is not an art for the purist. Erdoğan’s decision to support Sweden’s (and Ukraine’s) NATO accession is a big deal and worth advancing. If the Biden team made some understanding, I would look favorably on it.

Sweden will bring to the Alliance military capacity (though it will need to build more), political savvy, and good geography. Sweden will help with the defense of NATO’s eastern flank countries and the Baltic Sea. Having worked with Swedish diplomats for many years, I believe they will also be excellent partners in forging NATO consensus and a sustainable, strong policy toward Russia.

Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former US ambassador to Poland.

Sweden makes the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake—and seals the Vilnius summit’s place in history

Assuming Erdoğan’s announcement is followed by expeditious approvals from the Turkish and Hungarian parliaments, it will be one of the key substantive and geopolitically significant deliverables of NATO’s Vilnius summit. Sweden’s accession will bring to the Alliance real military capability, reinforce its transatlantic outlook, and above all, bring into the Alliance’s ranks a new member determined to fulfill its military responsibilities. Sweden’s membership will complete the transformation of the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake, thereby strengthening the security and military stability of North Central Europe.

​​Ian Brzezinski is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy.

Further reading

Related Experts: Rich Outzen, Anna Wieslander, Rachel Rizzo, Daniel Fried, Ian Brzezinski, and Defne Arslan

Image: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson shake hands next to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg prior to their meeting, on the eve of a NATO summit, in Vilnius, Lithuania July 10, 2023.