Modern Diplomacy
Turkey’s Relations with Sweden: The Puzzle of NATO’s Expansion

The process of Sweden and Finland acceding to NATO membership is not over yet. But recent developments show that a delay is inevitable due to tense relations between Turkey and Sweden, writes Hasan Selim Özertem, Ankara-based political analyst.

On January 21, far-right extremist politician Rasmus Paludan burned a copy of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. On the same day, PKK sympathizers were also protesting Turkey and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the streets of Sweden’s capital. Immediately afterwards, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the protests and defined the burning of the Quran as a “vile attack”. Later, Turkish Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar stated that Swedish Minister of Defence Pål Jonson’s planned visit was cancelled. The visit was a part of the coordination meeting between the parties to discuss the accession process. 

These developments were just harbingers of things to come. Commenting on the burning of the Quran, President Erdoğan said “Those who encouraged and condoned this perversion surely calculated its consequences. Under the protection of their security forces, they would commit this betrayal, dishonour, and meanness. And then they would ask, ‘What did we do wrong to Muslims?’ Those who caused such a disgrace will no longer expect any support from us regarding the NATO application. You’d let terrorist organizations ramp up in your streets, and then you would expect us to support your bid to join NATO. There is no such thing. Since you love and protect them [the PKK] so much, then I advise it is better to rely on them to defend your country.” 

Pekka Haavisto, speaking to the media in Brussels, said that a pause of a few weeks was needed in talks with Turkey on Finland and Sweden’s application to join NATO. Haavisto’s statement was a message to cool down the tension between Sweden and Turkey. In parallel, Turkey suspended the trilateral talks for an indefinite period. The next meeting, which was planned to take place in Brussels in February, was cancelled as well. 

It is hard to claim that the burning of the Quran was the sole reason for the emerging diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Stockholm. Combined with a backdrop of mutual disappointment over the last few months, it seems that relations have spiralled into a crisis. Considering the election dynamics in Turkey, this was also no surprise. 

NATO’s expansion: Is Turkey a gatekeeper? 

Finland and Sweden decided to apply to NATO, to become members of the alliance, when the tension in Ukraine escalated in 2022. Their applications were welcomed by the NATO member states, but Turkey voiced some preconditions for its approval of their participation.

Bringing up preconditions for NATO’s expansion was not typical behaviour for Turkish foreign policy. Turkey had been one of the pro-expansion member states of NATO, especially in the aftermath of the Cold War. Nevertheless, Turkey’s change in course was linked to the tense relations between Ankara and Stockholm. 

Asia and Eurasia
Finland and Sweden Joining NATO: The Game Is Afoot
Konstantin Khudoley
The initial stage of confrontation between Russia and the West is a process of consolidating the positions of both opposing sides. One of its most obvious manifestations is the beginning of Finland and Sweden joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, writes Konstantin Khudoley, professor at the Faculty of International Relations at St. Petersburg State University.
Expert Opinions

Sweden announced an arms embargo on Turkey following the Afrin operation in 2018. Additionally, Ankara has been complaining about European support for PKK-affiliated groups in the Middle East for a long time, and Sweden was no exception. Plus, Sweden has been one of the main destinations for Turkish people who seek asylum for decades. Turkish officials claim that there are people affiliated with the PKK, FETÖ, and the DHKP-C residing in Sweden and they actively raise funds, recruit, and lobby against Turkey. Raising these issues, Ankara demanded that Finland and Sweden implement policy changes before Ankara would let them join NATO. 

Turkey’s resistance paid back. In May 2022, Sweden, Finland, and Turkey signed a trilateral memorandum at the NATO summit in Madrid, and Turkey removed its blockade after getting some promises. In the memorandum, Sweden and Finland committed to “prevent activities of the PKK and all other terrorist organisations and their extensions, as well as activities by individuals in affiliated and inspired groups or networks linked to these terrorist organisations.” Ankara’s other demands were also in the text, like the removal of the arms embargo on Turkey, and also the “deportation or extradition of terror suspects.” A trilateral mechanism was established to follow the implementation of the decisions taken in the memorandum. 

Reading between the lines of the memorandum, some analysts (including myself) argued that it was hard to expect a smooth process due to the vague language used in the text. In return, the Turkish officials reminded that the accession process was not over and Stockholm and Helsinki would need Turkish parliamentary ratification of their accession to the alliance. 

Sweden removed the arms embargo on Turkey in September. This was a symbolic move, considering the limited cooperation between these countries in the defence sector. However, Turkish officials started to complain about the slow process and problems associated with the extradition of the “terror suspects”. In December, a PKK militant was extradited to Turkey, but Turkish president Erdoğan repeatedly stated that Turkey expected the extradition of more than 100 suspects. 

The extradition process is too complicated due to the bureaucratic and judiciary procedures in the EU and Sweden. However, Stockholm took some other steps, with the new prime minister at the helm, after parliamentary elections in September. The Swedish parliament legislated a constitutional amendment on counter-terrorism in November 2022. After the new amendment entered into force in January 2023, Turkey had expected stricter measures to be taken to control the activities of the PKK and the affiliated groups. Nevertheless, the on-going PKK demonstrations and the burning of the Quran led Turkey to question the sincerity of Stockholm in preventing these groups’ activities. 

What is next? 

28 member states of NATO, out of 30, have already approved Sweden and Finland’s accession to the alliance. The decisions are taken unanimously in NATO, and until they are ratified by Hungary and Turkey, the Scandinavian countries cannot become members. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán earlier said that the issue would be brought to the first session of the parliament in 2023. After Hungary’s ratification, there is a risk that Turkey would be labelled as the sole gatekeeper. Still, it is not likely for Turkey to hurry up ratification. In May, there will be parliamentary and presidential elections, and the issue has already become a feature of domestic politics in Turkey. Looking at the current equation, there are three scenarios before us: 

First, Turkey may decide to ratify the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO before the elections. Such a scenario would necessitate a shift in the position of Stockholm, which would include the prevention of PKK protests, measures being taken against provocative demonstrations, and the extradition of terrorism suspects to Turkey. Second, Turkey may decide to ratify the accession of Finland to NATO and leave Sweden in the waiting room. This possibility has been articulated by Turkish officials, including President Erdoğan himself. Nevertheless, the Finnish officials have declared that they would like to join the alliance together with Sweden. Still, any change in the position of Finland may push this scenario forward. Ratifying Finland’s membership to NATO can help the AK Party explain itself more easily to the alliance rather than being portrayed as a gatekeeper. The third scenario is leaving the ratification to a date after the elections in May. In this case, there is a risk that Finland and Sweden may not participate in the summit in Vilnius as full members. 

Washington attempts to pull some strings

The US has increased its political pressure on Turkey, as the accession process of these countries has taken longer than expected. In an opinion piece, former US National Security Advisor John Bolton called for Turkey’s expulsion from NATO due to Erdoğan’s blockade of Sweden and Finland’s membership to the alliance, among others. Such a scenario is not likely due to the character of NATO’s decision-making mechanisms. But Bolton’s WSJ piece is a reflection of discomfort among some circles in Washington. 

The delay in the accession may also have some consequences like complicating F-16 sales to Turkey. The F-16 issue is already a thorny one and Turkey’s resistance to Sweden’s membership in NATO complicates it further. Following his meeting with Anthony Blinken, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu said that removing Turkey’s blockade to the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO should not be a precondition for the sale of F-16s. Similarly, Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın also pointed out that Turkey would not accept any preconditions in the procurement of the F-16s and “might look for other alternatives”. Turkey plans to modernize its air force’s fleet by getting new generation F-16s from the US; it was expelled from the F-35 project following the procurement of S-400s from Russia. 


After the suspension of the talks, the Swedish government held a meeting with the opposition parties. Former Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson harshly criticized Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson’s close partnership with far-right groups and said that such a collaboration threatens Sweden’s security. In return, Prime Minister Kristersson labelled the protestors “useful idiots” and added that we have seen how foreign actors, even state actors, have used these manifestations to inflame the situation in a way that is “directly harmful to Swedish security.” This reflects a change in the discourse of Sweden, but it is not likely for Ankara to change its position before seeing concrete steps.

The elections in Turkey have appeared on the horizon now. The AK Party has a conservative constituency and the issue has already become a matter of defending the dignity of Islam and Turkey. Thus, the Turkish president will use any shift in the position of Stockholm as leverage in the elections, while the stubbornness of Sweden legitimises Turkey’s position to blockade the expansion. Looking at this picture, the dynamics of domestic politics in Turkey and Sweden have shaped the future of the North Atlantic Alliance.

Asia and Eurasia
Turkey’s Balanced Strategy in the Ukrainian Crisis
Hasan Selim Özertem
As the spirit of the Cold War haunts current global politics with the spiraling down crisis, Turkey’s position represents a unique case. From the beginning, Turkey pursued a balanced strategy and kept its dialogue channels open both with Moscow and Kiev.
Expert Opinions
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.