Erdoğan's Change of Heart: Three Reasons for Türkiye’s Greenlighting of Sweden's NATO Membership

July 21, 2023
After months of playing hardball, and on the eve of the Vilnius summit, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Türkiye gave the green light to Sweden’s NATO accession during a meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Three aspects of Erdoğan’s foreign policy approach under similar situations can explain why he lifted his veto now.

First, Erdoğan almost always plays a two-level game—at the international and domestic levels—in the foreign policy realm. With the elections in over in Türkiye, the domestic game became less important.

Second, Erdoğan has long displayed a transactional approach to foreign policy. Although Stockholm may not have met Erdoğan's expectations to the extent he desired, as an experienced politician, he recognized that the Swedish government had reached the political limit of what it could offer.

More significantly, the Biden administration needed leverage to overcome Congress’ opposition to selling a new fleet of F-16s to Türkiye, and it seems that Erdoğan’s greenlighting of Sweden’s NATO accession has served the purpose. As a State Department communication to Congress explained, the Biden Administration approached F16 sales to Türkiye as a matter of US security interests and NATO unity. However, bipartisan opposition in both the Senate and the House prevented the Biden Administration from formally notifying Congress of the sale. Senator Robert Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has vowed to block the sale of F16s to Türkiye based on its tensions with Greece, its military incursions into Northern Syria, and its poor record on human rights. Just before the Vilnius summit, Menendez told journalists that he was talking with the Biden Administration about F-16 sales to Türkiye. After the NATO summit US President Joe Biden said, “I'm confident that [Türkiye] will continue to support Sweden getting into NATO, and I'm confident that we'll be able to sell F-16s,” implying a linkage between the two issues.

Third, as a master of brinksmanship, Erdoğan must have discerned that the point had come when the risks associated with prolonging NATO enlargement would become untenable. NATO allies did not pressure Ankara publicly until the Vilnius summit simply because they did not want to become involved in the election campaigns in Türkiye. However, with the elections over, pressure from allies regarding Sweden’s NATO accession increased. Moreover, with the Turkish central bank’s foreign currency reserves depleted and a huge current-accounts deficit, Erdoğan has, naturally, become more risk-averse.

One surprising element of Erdoğan’s withdrawal of his veto of Sweden’s NATO membership has been his expressed desire for improved EU-Türkiye relations. While he established a connection between Sweden's NATO membership and Türkiye's EU accession, with Sweden pledging to help reinvigorate Türkiye’s application to the EU, Erdoğan is undoubtedly aware that Türkiye's goal of accession to NATO is presently unattainable. Turkish democracy has been backsliding for at least a decade, and the country is nowhere near meeting the Copenhagen criteria. However, if Erdoğan is sincere about his desire to see Türkiye’s EU accession process revitalized, it is possible that we will see a new wave of democratic reforms in the country. Many will see this expectation as naïve, yet this opportunity is too good to miss if the allies are serious about supporting democracy in Türkiye.

The ratification process at the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM) is pending. The parliament is in recess until October, but the president or the speaker can call it back into session if they see a need to do so. Erdoğan commands the majority needed to ratify Sweden’s accession to NATO. Even if some of the deputies in Erdoğan’s alliance defected and voted against, affirmative votes from the opposition parties would more than make up for this defection. As an indication of this, Namık Tan, former ambassador to the United States and a deputy of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has said that CHP would vote in favor of Sweden’s NATO membership just as it did in the case of Finland. When the odds of ratification in the Turkish Parliament are good, why, then, did President Erdoğan display uncertainty after the summit? Probably because he wants to ensure that some of the concrete commitments made to Türkiye are upheld before he lets go of his major piece of leverage.

The timing of the ratification vote in the TBMM will likely depend on the White House's formal notification of the US Congress about the F-16 sales to Türkiye, and the absence of a congressional joint resolution of disapproval concerning the sale within 15 days of the notification. Once this threshold is passed, the Turkish parliament’s ratification of Sweden’s accession to NATO would probably follow soon after.

These developments are significant, and Türkiye, Europe, and the United States can leverage them to generate momentum for further enhancing Türkiye's relationship with its transatlantic allies. The next goal in the Türkiye-US relationship should be finding a mutually agreeable resolution to the S-400 dispute in a way that opens the way for Türkiye’s return to the F-35 program. Within the context of the EU-Türkiye relationship, foreign policy engagement is an issue that the parties could address swiftly, whereas substantial endeavors such as visa liberalization and modernization of the customs union would require more time.

An interesting question is how Türkiye’s improving ties with Europe and the United States might impact its relationship with Russia. The Türkiye-Russia relationship, an example of competitive cooperation, is heavily influenced by the two countries’ respective ties with the West. When both perceive themselves as targeted or excluded by the West, they tend to draw closer to each other. However, when either or both enjoy a strong relationship with the West, they drift apart, with competition prevailing over cooperation. The failed coup attempt in 2016 left Türkiye with a prevailing sense of exclusion from the transatlantic community, amplified by President Erdoğan's perception that Western powers were targeting him personally. This led the Turkish president to seek rapprochement with Russia, and eventually Ankara and Moscow became closer.

If the circumstances were to change, however, and Türkiye's relationship with the West were to improve, its reliance on Russia would soon diminish. Erdoğan's measured response to the Wagner mutiny, his reaffirmation of Ankara's support for Ukraine's NATO membership, and the decision to return commanders of the Azov Battalion held in Türkiye as part of a previous Russia-Ukraine prisoner exchange could all be early indications of such a shift. Whether this will lead to a greater rift between Türkiye and Russia or to yet another recalibration of their relationship based on new circumstances remains to be seen.