Sweden's path to NATO membership. Should a breakthrough be expected at the Vilnius summit?

Photo. Joe Biden/Twitter

The leaders of the NATO member states will gather on July 11-12 in Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, to discuss the most urgent issues, including, above all, the strategy for further assistance to Ukraine and the process of formally incorporating Sweden into the structures of the Alliance. The second issue raises the most questions, as it is related to the continued failure to ratify the Swedish application on the part of Türkiye and Hungary.

Sweden, which for years avoided membership in any military alliances, officially applied for NATO accession on May 18, 2022, together with neighboring Finland. It was directly related to the increased sense of threat as a result of the start of a full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war at the beginning of 2022. However, it should be emphasized that despite the lack of formal participation in the alliance, this country is already quite well coordinated with NATO, which is related not only to joint exercises in the past, but also to military involvement during joint operations, including those conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As a result of the growing threats in the region, Sweden abandoned the policy of neutrality and began to seek formalization of this partnership, which, however, is blocked by the Turks.

At present, two fundamental issues remain unresolved. The first one is Stockholm's stance towards Kurdish groups, in particular the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which are recognized by Ankara as terrorist organizations. For a long time, Stockholm used to hide behind the freedom of speech and views, thus allowing protests and marches in support of the Kurds to take place. In addition, Türkiye is demanding the extradition of dozens of suspected „terrorists" linked to Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of carrying out an attempted military coup in 2016. Both Turkish policymakers and NATO officials, including NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, agree on the fact that the Swedes have taken some steps to adapt their national legislature to Turkish expectations. The country's legislation has been amended accordingly by introducing new anti-terrorism laws, lifting restrictions on arms exports imposed on Turkey, as well as strengthening cooperation with Turkey in the fight against terrorism. Ankara is afraid, however, that these will only be empty declarations that have no bearing on the real situation. For example, the lifting of restrictions on arms exports does not mean that the Swedes will be interested in an immediate increase in sales. The situation was further exacerbated by the burning of a Muslim holy book by a man outside the main mosque in the Swedish capital, Stockholm. As a result of this provocation, Muslim-majority countries have taken several steps to express their disapproval. Morocco, for example, went beyond a statement of condemnation and recalled its ambassador to Sweden indefinitely. In the capital of Iraq, the Swedish embassy was attacked by protesters shouting "Yes to the Koran". It should be emphasized that protests involving the burning of sacred books should be approved in advance by the Swedish Police. It has recently received three requests for permission to burn books of various religions - including two in Stockholm and one in Helsingborg. In a statement from the police, it can be read that each application will be assessed on a case-by-case basis in terms of meeting the necessary conditions, in line with national law, and whether the intended acts do not exceed the rights of citizens.

Referring to the application in Helsingborg, the Northwest Skane police chief said: „In our view, this may not be against a specific religion, but it is part of free speech and the ongoing debate". The Swedish authorities recognize the seriousness of the situation and that permission to burn the Quran delayed Sweden's accession to NATO.

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Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan told reporters at a news conference in Ankara that he was concerned that Sweden was unable to prevent such provocations, despite the government's official position being close to Türkiye's.

"On the first day of Eid-al-Adha, I curse the wicked act committed in Sweden against our Holy Book, the Holy Qur'an! It is unacceptable to allow such actions under the pretext of freedom of expression. Consenting to such horrible acts means complicity in them," wrote Hakan Fidan on his Twitter account.

Fidan said Türkiye expects Sweden to fulfill its obligations under the agreement reached at the NATO summit in Madrid last year in order to join the military alliance. Thus, he repeated the position of President RT Erdoğan that Sweden is still far from membership in NATO structures.

Despite Ankara's clear message, it seems that representatives of the other NATO countries are still optimistic about the course of the Vilnius summit. Both Stoltenberg and Joe Biden are convinced that Sweden's accession process can be completed quickly. The allies have apparently become accustomed to Erdoğan's way of conducting politics and realize that they can reach a consensus with him, and the only thing that can change is the price for his concessions. It will come as no surprise that, next to Sweden, it is the United States that will have the greatest influence on Ankara's decision. It is possible that American F-16 fighters and modernization kits will be a bargaining chip here, which the U.S. Congress refused to sell. While not long ago this topic was frozen, now there are comments from American politicians allowing for such a possibility, if only Türkiye changes its position on Sweden's membership. This is the most likely bargaining chip that the US will want to use, even though Türkiye itself is aware of "injustices encountered in the context of the F-35". Thus, it has opposed attempts to link Turkish F-16 requests to Swedish membership, claiming that it would harm NATO itself and its security rather than Türkiye.

Mitch McConnell, who leads the Republicans in the U.S. Senate, said, „I am one of those who are noting favor of the F-16 sale to Turkey until the admission of Sweden gets behind us". McConnell thus endorsed the position of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez on the sale of F-16 to Türkiye and the opinion of SenatorJim Risch, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who blocked a new arms sale to Hungary last month on the grounds that they have not yet ratified Sweden's membership to NATO.

While the Russian occupation of Ukraine continues, it is vital for the Biden administration that Sweden joins NATO as soon as possible. In other words, this means that we can expect some proposals from the US towards Türkiye. Nevertheless, it is most likely that these talks will be conducted in a highly narrow group of countries just before the Vilnius summit, so as not to undermine the credibility and position of any of the countries. While Sweden's official membership will certainly not be granted at the next summit, the allies are keen to hear a "yes" from Türkiye and Hungary. Given that President Erdoğan himself is known to make decisions during face-to-face meetings, this will be a key moment for the Alliance.

As for Hungary's position, it is not given as much attention, because Viktor Orbán has explicitly stated that he will not oppose any position of Ankara and will continue to support its decisions in any case. Budapest is aware that it cannot influence the decision of the entire NATO on its own, and without coordinating its actions with Ankara's strategy, sooner or later it would have to bow to the pressure of its allies. It can therefore be concluded that Turkey's decision will in fact be a decision of both countries that have so far abstained from ratification

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Beyond issues related to Sweden's NATO membership, the collective West continues to face Russian aggression in Ukraine. The latest Türkiye's statement, which was made during Friday's meeting between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Volodymyr Zelensky in Ankara, may come as a surprise. For the first time since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the Turkish president openly advocated granting NATO membership to Ukraine as soon as possible. However, it is unlikely that this will happen shortly, mainly because many members of the alliance fear an escalation of the conflict between Russia and the West. For this reason, Erdoğan is not afraid to come up with such a bold proposal, realizing that his words will not change anything and he can only gain from the situation. When the issue of Sweden's accession is raised, he will most likely turn his attention to Ukraine's membership and the West's „double standards" approach. In addition, he thus presents himself as a leader who does not oppose the enlargement and strengthening of the North Atlantic Alliance.

It is also not surprising that both the Turkish president and the Turkish foreign minister stand by their views. Ankara is aware that not only the enlargement of the alliance depends on it, but also the future of the grain deal, which expires on July 17. It is worth noting that extending this agreement every few months is beneficial for Türkiye itself, which is undeniably the main intermediary in Kyiv-Moscow talks. This means that interested parties must carefully follow any changes in the country's domestic and foreign policy, and thus pursue a policy towards Ankara that is as least offensive as possible.