NATO Expansion? That’s (Maybe) Gonna Be a No From Turkey, Dawg

Foreign Policy situation report,May 19, 2022

After months of flirting with it, Finland and Sweden have finally decided they want to tie the knot with NATO and join the military alliance. (Thanks again, Russian President Vladimir Putin.) The two countries are meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday morning.

Joining NATO, however, isn’t a simple process, even for two developed democracies with strong militaries that seem like just the right fit for the alliance.

It takes unanimous consent from all 30 NATO members, ratified by votes in parliaments (and in the United States’ case, the Senate) across Europe and North America.

Almost everyone is fully on board with expanding NATO to include two new Nordic friends, especially in the wake of Putin’s brazen invasion of Ukraine. We say almost because there’s a tiny handful of NATO members that smell a bit of opportunity in the game.

Spoiler alert. And by opportunity, we mean signaling they won’t support Finland and Sweden joining the club unless (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) the rest of the current or incoming members just do them a few solids first. Enter Turkey and Croatia, our first two spoilers on the NATO expansion train.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled this week he won’t support Finnish and Swedish membership because they’re not hard enough on Kurdish separatist groups that Turkey considers terrorist organizations. Oh, and Finland and Sweden slapped an arms embargo on Turkey in 2019 over its incursion into Syria. So maybe—and we’re doing some educated speculating here—Turkey could be signaling that it will change its tune on NATO expansion if those two aspirant members make some changes of their own.

Balkan surprise. Then there’s Croatia. After initially pledging full support for NATO membership last month, Croatian President Zoran Milanovic threw a curveball and decided that, no, maybe Croatia shouldn’t be supporting Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership unless European countries support some election law changes in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina.

He wasn’t exactly subtle. “Turkey certainly will not move away from the table before it gets what it wants,” Milanovic said, according to Total Croatia News. “How are we fighting for our interests?”

Playing hardball? Does that mean Finland and Sweden’s membership is dead in the water? It’s not impossible, but it’s still highly unlikely, according to six European officials who have spoken to SitRep about the process. Their read on the situation is that these announcements are just transactional negotiating tactics, designed to extract a few national policy or political gains from the rest of the alliance. Once those are sorted out, they’ll get on board with NATO expansion.

You can call it opportunism, underhanded extortion, or simple hard-nosed realism in the callous world of international relations. We’ve heard it referred to as all of the above from various officials tracking the behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

The irony is that the more the rest of NATO—particularly some of its most powerful members, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and France—want Finland and Sweden to quickly join, the more other NATO members may decide now is the time to raise a fuss over X or Y issue before signing off on NATO expansion.

The consensus among officials we’ve spoken to is that the train has left the station; now that Finland and Sweden formally requested to join, it’s only a matter of time—and sorting out some diplomatic headaches—before they do.

The clock is ticking though. In the eyes of Finland and Sweden as well as most other NATO members, time is of the essence. Right now, they’re in this awkward, vulnerable in-between period, where they’ve declared they want to join NATO but haven’t yet joined and received the extension of NATO’s full mutual defense protection umbrella. If Russia were to try some underhanded effort to derail Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership, now would be the time.

It’s unclear how likely that is, given how Russia has basically accepted that Sweden and Finland are already basically on team NATO and how overstretched and bogged down its military is in Ukraine right now.

Some countries have pledged interim security guarantees to Finland and Sweden to ward off any plans Moscow may have to try and interrupt the Finns and Swedes from joining NATO. And Finnish policymakers have been consistent in their messaging that they’re not too worried; their military can hold its own, and they’re used to dealing with their big neighbor to the east.

But suffice to say there could be a few more bumps on the road to NATO expansion.

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