Finland to Join NATO Before Sweden: How to Deal with Erdoğan

By Aaron Mehta

After almost a year of positioning themselves as a package deal, it appears Sweden and Finland may be splitting up in order to ensure the latter’s acceptance into the NATO alliance.

All NATO nations except Turkey and Hungary have voted to ratify Swedish and Finnish membership. Hungary has indicated it will hold a vote in the near future, but Turkish President Recep Erdoğan has steadfastly refused to back off his opposition to Swedish membership. Ankara views Stockholm as too soft on what Turkey calls terrorist organizations, including ethnic Kurds who are living inside Swedish borders.

Erdoğan has for months noted that Finland has done what it needed to do for his approval, but until now both Stockholm and Helsinki have resisted the idea of breaking up the joint bid. The two nations have spent the post-World War II era as militarily neutral nations, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed them to finally make the move to join NATO.

That dam seems to burst Wednesday when Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson made public comments effectively blessing Finland getting into NATO without Sweden by its side, saying “it’s not out of the question that Sweden and Finland will be ratified in different stages,” according to the AP.

“We don’t hide at all that we preferred to be ratified together, to make the whole journey hand in hand,” Kristersson was quoted as saying. But “I’ve always also expressed the fact that every … country in NATO makes their own ratification decisions and we have full respect for that.”

Shortly afterwards, Finnish president Sauli Niinistö announced he would be traveling to Turkey on Thursday to meet with Erdoğan and indicated he expected to receive acceptance from Turkey for Finland’s NATO bid.  Erdoğan himself made public comments indicating he is hoping to move forward with Finland’s membership.

The importance of looming May elections in Turkey cannot be understated in this process. Erdoğan is trying to rally nationalist fervor in support of his third term in office. Stirring up emotions against Sweden — especially after a notable incident where an activist burned a Quran outside of Turkey’s embassy in Sweden — seems to be part of that strategy. What is unknown is if Erdoğan will relax his opposition to Sweden after the election concludes.

NATO leaders both in Washington and Brussels have been trying to pressure Erdoğan to cave on the NATO membership issue for both Finland and Sweden, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg saying during a February visit to Ankara that “now is the time” for the move to happen.

This article was published by Breaking Defense on March 15, 2023.