Transatlantic Take: Ankara, Brussels, Washington

Finland and Sweden Apply to Join NATO: What’s Next?

May 19, 2022
Photo credit: Andrzej Rostek /
Russia’s invasion of and ongoing war in Ukraine is drastically rearranging the European security architecture that has been built since the end of the Cold War.

It has forced several European countries into a fundamental reassessment of their threat environment and defense needs. An early example of this was in Germany, where Chancellor Olaf Scholz pronounced the necessity for an epochal change, a Zeitenwende, in the country’s security policy. This week has seen something considered even more unthinkable before the invasion of Ukraine with Finland and Sweden simultaneously applying for NATO membership. For the two long-standing neutral Nordic countries to seek to join the transatlantic alliance shows how deeply Russia’s aggression is transforming Europe’s security landscape. Below, GMF experts from Ankara, Brussels, and Washington give their take on what the application by Finland and Sweden to join NATO will mean for transatlantic security and alliance dynamics.

Erdoğan Will Not Walk Away Empty-Handed

Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, director of GMF's Ankara office

Sweden and Finland’s decision to apply for NATO membership is welcome with enthusiasm across the Atlantic, but Turkey may spoil the party.

In an unexpected move, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced that he does not favor the two countries’ membership to NATO on the grounds that they are havens for terrorist organizations targeting Turkey, specifically the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its offshoots. Both Sweden and Finland reject this claim but remain open to discussions with Turkey on the subject.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Erdoğan’s stance as being motivated by domestic political considerations alone or to expect him to walk back empty-handed. Turkey has real concerns and will likely delay the upcoming NATO enlargement unless those concerns are addressed by Sweden and Finland.

Erdoğan is playing a two-level game here. At the international level, he aims to further weaken the PKK. In Turkey’s view, separatist terrorism is the single most important security threat and whether others agree is not relevant for its calculus. Degrading the PKK has been, and remains, a priority for every government in Turkey since the 1980s.

At the domestic level, he aims to portray himself as a strong leader who can protect Turkey’s interests internationally in a way that his predecessors could not. According to the Turkish Perceptions of the European Union 2021 Survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, 67.9 percent of Turkish respondents believe that the European countries want to divide and disintegrate Turkey, just like they did to the Ottoman Empire in the past. Moreover, 70.1 percent believe that the European countries have helped strengthen separationist organizations such as the PKK in Turkey. As such, Erdoğan’s criticism toward Sweden and Finland will easily resonate with the Turkish people.

It would also be a mistake for Ankara to underestimate the magnitude of the decision to delay a historical NATO enlargement and the negative reaction it would face from each and every NATO ally at a time when Turkey is trying to bridge the gap between itself and its Western allies.

Turkish, Swedish, and Finnish diplomats, with support from other allies, can and should find common ground to address the concerns regarding the stance of Sweden and Finland toward the PKK and ensure that NATO enlargement can proceed without delay. The accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO is so important, for Turkey as well, that this problem will likely be resolved through dialogue and empathy. But it will not go away on its own.

A Strategic Plus—with a Few Political Twists

Ian Lesser, vice president and executive director of GMF's Brussels office

The prospect of NATO membership for Finland and Sweden is an operational blessing for the alliance. Both countries bring substantial military assets and expertise. Their membership would create much needed strategic depth, essential to the defense of the Baltic states and the air and maritime space in the region. As longstanding NATO partners, interoperability will not be an issue. By virtue of their history and geography, Stockholm and Helsinki have always been well placed as centers for intelligence and analysis on Russia. One of the many lessons of the Ukraine war so far has been that formal security guarantees matter. Having Finland and Sweden “in” removes any ambiguity about their place in Europe’s collective defense.

In broader strategic terms, too, the benefits of this new enlargement are clear. The alliance does acquire a much longer border with Russia. But set against the heightened ability to defend alliance interests in the air, maritime, and cyber domains, including in the high north, the net exposure should not be a concern. And transatlantic partners were already stakeholders in Finland’s territorial defense.

After some initial bluster, the response from Moscow has been relatively muted by Russian standards. Ironically, there has been more consequential criticism from Turkey. Ankara’s concerns have little to do with alliance strategy per se. They are driven by bilateral differences with Finland and Sweden over their generally critical view of Turkey’s approach to Kurdish rights, rule of law, media freedom, and regional policies (and a specific concern over alleged tolerance of Kurdistan Workers’ Party activities). These issues are on Turkey’s bilateral agenda with other alliance members, of course. But ratification of membership for Finland and Sweden has given it an opportunity to make its points in a highly visible way, against the backdrop of a critical presidential election next year. The Turkish challenge to a cherished—but unevenly observed—tradition of not importing bilateral issues into NATO decisions will be deeply troubling to its allies. It is a political dispute that also works against Turkey’s own interest in alliance cohesion. Looking ahead, Turkey will be heavily exposed to Russian pressure and security risks in the Black Sea, as well as the Caucasus and the Eastern Mediterranean. All sides now have a strong strategic stake in taking this political obstacle to Swedish and Finnish membership off the table.

What Can NATO Learn from Finland and Sweden?

Kristine Berzina, senior fellow and head of the geopolitics team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy

Finland and Sweden’s decisions to seek NATO membership are tremendous developments in European security, but also long-overdue steps to codify a security and defense position that has been emerging for decades. Russia may want to portray the northern Baltic in Cold War terms of neutrality, as standing apart from NATO. But Finland and Sweden are EU member states, have been close partners of NATO for years, and are members of the United Kingdom-led Joint Expeditionary Force that as recently as this year has exercised together. Finland, Sweden, and NATO view the world in very similar terms, and on many aspects of total defense and hybrid threats, the two countries have much to teach the alliance.

Why is there this alignment in security outlook? The history of Russia’s aggression is not forgotten, especially in Finland, where the success of the Winter War protected the country from the occupation that befell its southern Baltic neighbors. Russia’s threats and heavily armed presence are still very much present in the Baltic region. It may be uncomfortable for those NATO allies who focus on threats in the south, like Spain and Italy, to think about Russia’s forces and missiles in Kaliningrad, wedged between NATO members Poland and Lithuania, and to ponder the very small distance separating this Russian territory from Gotland in Sweden. But Finland and Sweden have faced down this threat for decades, vowing to protect themselves and building capabilities to counter this ever-present, untrusted neighbor.

Finland and Sweden joining the alliance will make the Baltic Sea region and all of Europe safer with new capabilities, closer coordination, and faster decision-making. The two countries have developed approaches to total defense, or comprehensive security, that draw on their societies to provide resilience, situational awareness, and cohesion in times of peace, tension, and war. The willingness to break down barriers between government institutions and use the resourcefulness of their populations are lessons all NATO members should learn.