NATO officials are in a race against time to avoid the embarrassment of seeing the alliance miss its own stated aim of admitting Sweden to the alliance by July 11.
Both Sweden and its neighbor Finland stated their intent to join NATO through its open-door policy in May last year, just weeks after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Finland was finally accepted in April of this year, doubling the alliance’s border with Russia, but Sweden’s accession is currently blocked.
It is generally accepted that Sweden’s armed forces are compatible with NATO. Sweden has a permanent delegation at NATO and is considered a close partner to the alliance, meaning joining should be relatively straightforward.
So why can’t Sweden join?
The problem is Turkey – a strategically important NATO member due to its geographical location in both the Middle East and Europe, and the alliance’s second-largest military power – which is blocking Sweden’s accession for a number of reasons.
Most importantly, that nation claims that Sweden allows members of recognized Kurdish terror groups to operate in Sweden, most notably the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Sweden changed its terrorism laws earlier this year, making it a crime to be part of these groups, though it’s still unclear if this is enough for Ankara.
Turkey also claims that the Swedish government has been complicit in far-right protests where people burned copies of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. Most recently, Turkey has said it wants Sweden to act after Swedish lawmakers projected the flag of the PKK onto the parliament building in Stockholm in protest at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election on Sunday. A spokesperson for the Swedish parliament acknowledged that people had projected images onto the side of the building, but had no specific evidence about what was projected or who was responsible, according to Reuters.
Finally, there are concerns at how willing Erdogan is to describe himself as a friend of Putin’s. Shortly before he was re-elected, he told CNN that he and Putin share a “special relationship.”
NATO officials and people within the Swedish government are now becoming concerned that missing the July 11 deadline – the date of its next official summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius – would send a dangerous message to the alliance’s adversaries. These include Russia, and although nowhere near the North Atlantic, North Korea and China.
“If it’s missed, it tells people like Putin that there is a weak link in the Western alliance. It gives them time and space to cause trouble,” one NATO diplomat told CNN. “That could be anything from cyber attacks to funding and encouraging more Quran burnings to cause division in Sweden.”
An Eastern European diplomat told CNN that as well as “emboldening the enemies” of NATO, any delay risks “giving the the sense of Erdogan’s power over the alliance.” The diplomat added that “Erdogan will use the moment to squeeze every drop from this situation and will throw the ball to Sweden – making them hostage of their (own) anti-terrorist laws.”
Officials from most NATO states are optimistic that a deal can be done before July, but are aware it could come with a price attached.
Multiple officials point to the way that Erdogan struck a deal with the European Union that saw it hand Turkey 6 billion euros ($6.4 billion) among other perks in exchange for Turkey hosting Syrian refugees who were en route to Europe. Erdogan, European officials have repeatedly said, knew that he had Brussels over a barrel as he could effectively “flood” Europe with refugees at will.