The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Turkey backs Finland for NATO membership, snubs Sweden

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, on Friday. (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)
5 min

BRUSSELS — In May 2022, when Finnish and Swedish officials announced their intention to join the NATO alliance, in a historic shift for both countries, there was talk of a “quick ratification.”

But the path to membership has been more difficult than initially envisioned. This week, Finnish officials traveled to Turkey to try to seal the deal, while Swedish officials stayed home.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has played spoiler for much of the past 10 months. On Friday, he announced that Finland’s membership request was being sent to Turkey’s parliament for ratification, paving the way for the alliance to grow.

But Erdogan will not sign off on Sweden’s bid without additional steps, meaning the Nordic neighbors who vowed to join NATO “hand in hand” will not, in fact, join together.

At a joint news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto on Friday in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, Erdogan credited Finland with taking “sincere and concrete steps” to fulfill security commitments it made to Turkey nearly a year ago at a NATO summit in Madrid.

“We decided to start the approval process of Finland’s NATO accession protocol in our parliament, based on the sensitivity and distance achieved by our country in addressing our security concerns,” Erdogan said, adding that talks with Sweden would “continue on the basis of the principles of our alliance and our approach to the fight against terrorism.”

“At this point, how the process will progress will be directly tied to the concrete steps that Sweden will take,” he said, citing what he said was Sweden’s refusal to extradite “terrorists” affiliated with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

In recent months, Turkey has expressed anger at street protests held in Stockholm against Erdogan, including a demonstration in January that included the burning of a Quran.

For Erdogan, splitting Finland from Sweden also appears to be a domestic political play — an appeal to nationalist voters as he lags behind his main opponent in some polls ahead of a planned May 14 election.

For NATO, Erdogan’s antics are something between an ill-timed irritant and a dangerous distraction. NATO insists that both countries will join eventually, making the alliance stronger.

But until they do, officials will continue to spend time and energy shuttling between capitals to cut a deal — while Russia wages war.

This week, Sweden’s prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, seemed to concede that Finland would go first. “It is not excluded that Sweden and Finland will ratify in different steps,” he said.

The question now is what comes next. Turkey has been the main holdout, but not the only one.

Hungary has signaled support for Finnish and Swedish membership, but keeps delaying a parliamentary vote on the matter, leading to speculation that it could be using the issue as leverage in its battle with the European Union. Still, NATO officials say they are confident that Hungary will ratify both bids soon.

Assuming Hungary comes ahead, Sweden will still need to negotiate with Turkey.

Friday’s meeting was the latest twist in what’s been an unexpectedly dramatic — and revealing — story.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland started to rethink its policy of military nonalignment. It nudged Sweden to do the same.

How Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine pushed Finland toward NATO

The 30-member alliance welcomed their interest, saying that the addition of the two countries, who are already close partners, would strengthen NATO’s posture. Finnish and Swedish membership would bring the full force of the alliance to the far north and bolster a stepped-up presence around the Baltic Sea.

After a few months of debate and diplomacy, representatives from both countries formally submitted their bids together in a carefully choreographed display.

“I warmly welcome the requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news conference in Brussels that day. “You are our closest partners, and your membership in NATO would increase our shared security.”

After the cameras stopped rolling, however, Turkey objected to the bids.

Erdogan had called out Sweden’s granting of asylum to members of the PKK, and he hinted that he might push back. The extent of Turkey’s resistance appeared to catch the alliance by surprise.

In the weeks that followed, leaders, diplomats and NATO officials worked feverishly to move things forward. Ahead of a NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022, the three countries cut a deal: Turkey agreed to drop its opposition in return for concessions on what it calls Kurdish militant groups and arms.

Turkey drops opposition to Finland and Sweden joining NATO

“Welcoming Finland and Sweden into the alliance will make them safer, NATO stronger and the Euro-Atlantic area more secure,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference after the signing ceremony. “This is vital as we face the biggest security crisis in decades.”

As the months passed, Stoltenberg was increasingly clear that Finland and Sweden had met Turkey’s demands. Turkey continued to push back.

Through the fall, as Turkey dug in, Helsinki and Stockholm insisted that they would stick together. “We have been taking every step hand-in-hand and none of us have any other ambition,” Kristersson said in October.

But Turkey did not budge. And in January, Finland’s foreign minister for the first time floated the idea of moving forward without Sweden.

On Friday, Niinisto thanked Erdogan for moving Finland’s membership application forward. “It is very good to hear this news,” he said.

“But we have a neighbor, Sweden,” he added, saying that the countries shared common interests, as Baltic Sea states, and excellent relations. “I have a feeling that Finnish NATO membership is not complete without Sweden,” he said.

Fahim reported from Istanbul.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.