Turkey has dropped its opposition to Finland joining Nato, paving the way for the military alliance to expand its direct border with Russia but leaving neighbour Sweden still struggling to gain approval for its bid.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan informed his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinistö that he would instruct parliament to ratify Finland’s accession to Nato.
“We have decided to begin the approval process of Finland’s protocol in parliament because of the sensitivity and progress it has shown towards easing our country’s security concerns,” Erdoğan said after talks with Niinistö in Ankara on Friday.
While agreeing to Finland’s bid, Erdoğan continued his opposition to Sweden joining the alliance. The two countries had applied together but will now join separately, after 10 months of wrangling over claims that Sweden had failed to address Turkey’s concerns.
“I have a feeling that Finnish Nato membership is not complete without Sweden,” Niinistö said, adding that he hoped the remaining barriers would be lifted by the time Nato held its summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July.
Tobias Billström, Sweden’s foreign minister, said: “This is a development we didn’t want but that we have been prepared for.”
Finland and Sweden ended decades of non-alignment to apply together to join Nato after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year increased concerns over the Nordic region’s security. While most Nato members approved the pair’s joint bid, Turkey and Hungary, which have both maintained ties with Russia, sought concessions over political disputes with the applicants.
Nato expressed greater concern over Turkey’s stance, especially its accusations that Sweden supports Kurdish militants Ankara considers terrorists and shelters members of an Islamist network blamed for trying to topple Erdoğan in a 2016 failed coup. Turkey has been criticised by human rights groups for its treatment of Kurdish and other political dissidents.
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, said on Friday: “It is absolutely inconceivable that there would be any military threat against Finland or Sweden without Nato reacting.” Erdoğan told Stoltenberg that Turkey would continue talks with Sweden “in good faith”.
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan urged Turkey to move ahead on Sweden’s accession protocols. He also pressed Hungary to move on the applications of both Finland and Sweden.
“Sweden and Finland are both strong, capable partners that share Nato values and will strengthen the alliance and contribute to European security,” he said.
Nato officials argue that the decision to include Finland and Sweden in the military alliance has already been taken and now it is merely down to Turkey and Hungary to ratify their membership. Hungary’s parliament is expected to ratify Finland’s applications on March 27, but no date has been set to approve Sweden’s bid.
Turkey, which has Nato’s second-biggest army, suspended negotiations with Sweden in January after a far-right activist burnt a copy of the Koran, Islam’s holy book. Stockholm insists it has fulfilled its side of a deal reached with Turkey at Nato’s Madrid summit last year, including a new anti-terror law its parliament is expected to soon pass.
Erdoğan’s tough stance plays well with nationalist voters ahead of May elections that are expected to be his most challenging in two decades. The government’s response to a devastating earthquake last month and a cost of living crisis has driven the ruling party’s support to historical lows.
Ulf Kristersson, Sweden’s prime minister, said this week he hoped Ankara would quickly ratify the country’s accession after the Turkish election.
“Splitting the Sweden and Finland votes . . . allows Turkey to make the case it is not doing Russia’s bidding and it’s not opposed to enlargement, per se,” said Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a fellow at Washington-based think-tank Brookings Institution.
The delays have strained ties with Nato, and the US has signalled that delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey is linked to its approval of the Nordic countries’ applications.
“Turkey would like some sort of guarantee that it will be given the F-16s if it ratifies Sweden and Finland’s applications,” said Aydıntaşbaş. “The problem is that the Turkish public has been so riled up [against Sweden], it makes it harder to back down.”
Additional reporting by Funja Güler in Ankara, Marton Dunai in Budapest and Felicia Schwartz in Washington