Sweden and Turkey For Members

'Perhaps Erdogan just wants to drag out the decision on Sweden's Nato bid'

The Local Sweden
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'Perhaps Erdogan just wants to drag out the decision on Sweden's Nato bid'
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) shakes hand with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson (L) during a press conference in November 2022. Photo: Adem ALTAN/AFP

Paul Levin, director of Stockholm University's Institute for Turkish Studies, tells The Local that he is starting to suspect that nothing Sweden's government offers Turkey's president will be enough to win a quick decision on Nato membership.


Ever since Turkey first threatened to block Sweden's Nato membership back in May, there has been speculation over the real motive for Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and what goals he will seek to achieve before giving Sweden the go-ahead. 

For Paul Levin, Sweden's leading Turkey expert, there are at least three possibilities, each of which suggests different strategies and likely outcomes for Sweden's ongoing diplomatic efforts.


"The most conspiratorial explanation is, you know, follow the money: who benefits from Nato's expansion being paused? Vladimir Putin," he tells The Local. "Maybe there's some kind of deal where Erdogan has agreed to put a pause on this. But there's no evidence in favour of this explanation. It's just speculation." 

The second is that Turkey is simply exploiting the situation to gain some sort of concession from the US, perhaps a delivery of F-16 fighter planes. 

"There's the possibility that Turkey really doesn't care about little Sweden or little Finland. But that really it wants something else, and people usually talk about lifting of informal arms embargoes imposed on it by a number of Nato allies or the delivery of American fighter planes. Maybe Sweden is just a bargaining chip vis-a-vis the US."

The third possibility, he says, is that the decision to block Sweden's Nato accession genuinely is about pushing Sweden to distance itself from Kurdish militia groups and to crack down on people Turkey views as terrorists. 

"Turkey recently opened up to letting Finland into Nato while withholding Sweden," he says. "And that to me is an indication that Turkey [is really concerned about the Kurdish militias]."

If Erdogan had been doing a favour for Putin or seeking to extort something from the US, he argues, it wouldn't make sense to treat Finland differently.

"I would say Finland is geographically more valuable to Nato than Sweden, so why would you give up your biggest bargaining chip?" he asks. 


According to Levin, Turkey has long struggled to get its Nato allies and other European countries to take the idea that Kurdish militia groups represent a serious security threat seriously. It did successfully lobby the US to label the PKK, one of the Turkish militias, a terror group in 1997, with the EU following suit in 2004.

"It eventually did win that diplomatic fight, but it has been less successful in getting various EU countries, including Sweden, to crack down harder on the PKK," Levin said. "And it has not been successful in getting Nato allies to stop collaborating with what Turkey, with some justification, sees as the PKK's Syrian branch, the YPG, and the political party PYD."

"Turkey have long been pushing this agenda with little success," Levin adds. "And now all of a sudden, when Sweden applied for membership in Nato, they have had some leverage."

Even if you conclude that Turkey's concerns about Kurdish groups in Sweden are the primary reason why it has been obstructing the country's accession to Nato, however, that still leaves a question over whether Erdogan has a secondary political purpose.

"This is something that a lot of Turks care about, not just Erdogan supporters. It's sort of a bipartisan consensus that the PKK is a red flag to many Turks, and they don't understand why, you know, Kurds in Sweden can wave PKK flags publicly," Levin explains.

"So this should work well in domestic politics. Erdogan is coming up to elections next year, he's not doing well in the polls, the economy is really bad, and this is an issue that's popular and that he could use."


The risk for Sweden's new government is that rather than accept any concessions Sweden makes now, however far-reaching, Erdogan will seek to keep the issue burning right up until presidential and parliamentary elections next June.

"There are two ways this could play out in domestic politics in Turkey," Levin argues.

"One is that Erdogan is serious about wanting concessions, and that if Sweden responds in the way that it has been doing, then Erdogan can say 'we pressured Sweden to make serious efforts to respond to the terrorism threat'. Then he can declare a diplomatic victory and open up for Sweden's Nato accession."

This is what Sweden is banking on, but Levin warns that another possibility is starting to look more likely.

"That is that Erdogan doesn't want concessions, that he is not interested in the content, and he wants to drag out the negotiations. In that case, it doesn't matter what Sweden does, and looking at how Erdogan two days ago responded to the quite significant moves that the Swedish government made, I'm beginning to lean towards this interpretation."

Levin says his feeling is that Turkey will eventually lift its veto once Erdogan has exploited the situation to the full, both for international diplomatic gains and domestic political ones, but he seems uncertain if anything Sweden can reasonably do will hasten this moment.

"My hunch is that the Turkish veto will be lifted, but we are now at an impasse. The Swedish government has made pretty much all the concessions it can make. It looks like the Turkish government is asking for some kind of sacrificial lamb, people to be deported. But that is not up to the Swedish government. It's up to the agencies and they should follow traditional Swedish procedures and laws and conventions."

"And that means that maybe it's time for other Nato member states to step in and put pressure on Turkey, and maybe provide something that Turkey needs if they are interested in seeing the Nato expansion." 


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