Sweden in NATO: What’s next?

Potential contributions by Sweden to NATO, mainly because of the Arctic region’s increasing significance, will likely challenge Turkey’s balancing and profit-seeking agenda. Instability in Europe and increasing global tensions will force Turkey to choose a side. President Erdogan can indeed slow down the process. Still, the values at stake will not allow him to reject Swedish membership.

1.0. So what?

As deteriorating European stability is challenging established power structures, it is not surprising that Sweden and Finland joined NATO earlier in 2022. However, lacking Turkish and Hungarian consent, the application process is currently halted, particularly by Turkish demands and Sweden’s efforts to fulfil those demands. Following a long history of Swedish non-alignment, the ongoing process highlights the potential costs inherent in grand politics and challenges for smaller states in navigating the political landscape. Further, it highlights potential vulnerabilities inherent in international cooperation and strategic defensive alliances, including members with diverse geopolitical aspirations.

Turkey’s position is unfortunate for several reasons. First, it is a risky display of careful balancing aimed at profiting from the urgent situation, which have internal and external implications. It challenges the unity within NATO in a time demanding a solid alliance. And, it also may harm the trust towards the organisation as a legitimate protector of democratic values and human rights.

2.0. Turkey’s Drivers

2.1. Looking East?

Turkey plays a careful balancing role similar to China’s role in the Middle East through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reportedly has close personal ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, which is evident in the country’s approach towards the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In September 2022, President Erdogan signalled his ambitions to join the organisation amid tensions with the West [source].

President Erdogan’s careful balancing between the East and West is an effort to promote Turkey’s regional and global significance. However, as NATO is putting further pressure on Turkey and Hungary to accept Sweden and Finland’s applications combined with Russia’s indiscriminate violence in Ukraine, the room for playing games grows smaller. Hence, the potential profits in a continued strategy of careful balance will surely outweigh the gains.

2.2. Turkey and the PKK/YPG

Turkey has a long-standing conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its affiliate in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) [source]. Turkey’s demands on Sweden to extradite Swedish Kurds thus show an ambition to cut Kurdish ties with NATO members and push an agenda to normalise its geopolitical aspirations in its neighbourhood.

Turkish offensive operations on Syrian territory are intensifying with recent airstrikes targeting YPG positions. They claim the operations to be an act of retaliation of a bomb recently detonated in Istanbul. On November 23rd, president Erdogan stated that the ongoing offensive will continue [source]. Sweden remains passive in the matter, which is a significant difference from its position on Turkey’s operations in Syria before the NATO agreement [source].

2.3. The F16 deal

Turkey is currently pushing to realise an agreement with the US to buy F16 fighter jets [source]. However, the tense relationship towards Greece and the dispute over the Aegean Islands will most likely hinder such a deal. In addition, the Turkish discontent towards Swedish NATO membership is likely part of the country’s toolbox when seeking to pressure the US to take steps toward an agreement.

2.4. The upcoming election

Turkish general elections will be held on June 18, 2023. President Erdogan is struggling to maintain popularity due to economic deficit following covid-19 and Turkey’s implemented monetary policy. Increasing tensions and perceived threats from the PKK and YPG will force Erdogan to promote an image of stability and confidence. Hence, it is likely that his strategy in the following 6 months, to a larger extent, will abide by domestic and foreign pressure. The offensive in Syria targeting the YPG in Syria will continue with Sweden and NATO’s silent approval, and so will Erdogan’s softened approach towards the new Swedish government.

3.0. Prospects for Sweden’s fulfilment of Turkish demands

3.1. Extraditions

Following Swedish law, extraditing Kurds to Turkey is problematic. Moreover, such a move will have domestic and foreign policy-related implications, with which Sweden will face difficulties coping. 

On October 6th President Erdogan said, “As long as the terrorist organisations are demonstrating on the streets of Sweden, and as long as the terrorists are inside the Swedish parliament, there is not going to be a positive approach from Turkey towards Sweden” [source]. Turkish demands thus have severe implications for Sweden’s legal ability to meet them.

Sweden has the most prominent Kurdish diaspora in the world [source]. Further, the Swedish political system and constitution make it impossible to forbid any peaceful demonstrations on the one hand or banning politicians elected by the Swedish people.

Additionally, to give in to Turkey’s demands to extradite Kurdish citizens will have significant implications for Sweden’s role in the international system as a promoter and protector of democratic values and human rights. The price to pay for NATO membership seems to be high, but it is unlikely that Sweden will agree at any cost.

President Erdogan is most likely aware of the limits and with an upcoming election, he is not in a position to test them too far. Further on, the newly elected government in Sweden may serve as a contributing factor as it allows for Erdogan to change course without losing his face.

3.2. Sweden making moves toward Turkish consent?

On September 30th, Sweden resumed arms exports to Turkey after the ban in 2019 [source]. However, such a move differs from Sweden giving in to any demands. It is a more natural development facing a future role as aligned. What is interesting, though, is the new Swedish government, elected in September 2022 and transitioned into power in October. Recently, Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson visited President Erdogan in Ankara to discuss prospects for the ongoing application process [source]. From the meeting, Sweden disassociated itself from YPG, and the dialogue signalled not an ambition to completely fulfil the demands but to take steps in a desirable direction.

4.0. Sweden’s potential value for NATO

4.1. European security

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is highly affecting Europe. The region’s stability is under pressure but following effects such as inflation and energy crisis. After the Nord Stream sabotage in September 2022, several suspected sabotage actions have targeted infrastructure in Europe and repeated espionage operations on critical energy infrastructure in Norway [source; source]. A Swedish membership in NATO will further strengthen the alliance and its capability to counter growing threat levels.

4.2. The Arctic region

Often overlooked, Swedish membership in NATO will majorly affect the organisation’s defensive capability in the Arctic region. As Sweden and Finland made a joint application, both countries in NATO would mean that Russia is the only non-NATO member of the Arctic council. For Russia’s part, particularly the Kola Peninsula, plays a significant military role as it is the home base of the Northern fleet. Further, 80% of its gas revenues and 17% of its oil come from the region [source].

As for now, NATO’s commitment to the Arctic region has been of limited interest in the absence of any military threat. However, as alternative shipping routes are emerging and the interest of external actors, such as China, is increasing, this will likely change soon. Swedish and Finnish military capabilities and systems developed for arctic climates will most likely be of great value.

4.3. The Baltic Sea

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is highly affecting the stability in the Baltic Sea region. Sweden’s geostrategic location will serve as a key contributor to control, monitor, and promote stability in the Baltic Sea. Tracing back to the cold war, Sweden’s defensive capability on land, air and sea is developed to monitor Russian capability and counter potential aggression.

Sweden’s historical policy of neutrality has forced the country to develop its own military capability. Thus, Sweden manufactures a large part of its own air and sea capabilities. The JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets and Swedish submarines account for world leading technology with the specific purpose of being able to efficiently operate in the Baltic Sea. 

Hence, Sweden in NATO will further enhance the organisation’s ability to promote stability in Europe.

4.3.1. Gotland

The Swedish island of Gotland is centrally located in the Baltic Sea and enjoys significant strategic value. Gotland’s location enables an actor to fully control communications in the region from air and sea. The island was a demilitarised zone until Russia’s aggression on Georgia in 2008, when Sweden re-established its military presence, which is currently developing. Gotland is of great significance and strategic value to NATO member states operating in the region.

4.4. Historical support and commitment to NATO-states

Sweden is one of the most active partners of NATO, with missions in Europe and the Middle East [source]. Further, the country has long-standing military cooperation with the US and the UK [source; source]. As Sweden is facing a raised threat level following its support for Ukraine and the ongoing application process, cooperation with NATO members will likely increase further until the membership is complete. Hence, pressure on Turkey will likely increase as interdependent relationships with significant alliance members are further developed.

A Swedish infantryman during the NATO exercise Trident Juncture 2018. Image: SGM Marco Dorow, German Army.

5.0. Summary

The cost of Turkish rejection will outweigh the potential gains. Even though the application likely will continue to stall, Turkey will inevitably be forced to choose a side and at least limit its demands. Trying to utilise the situation and pressure potential partners for beneficial side agreements may work to a certain extent. However, as Turkey seeks to promote its long-term interests, Turkey will eventually be forced to accept Sweden into NATO. Potential contributions by Sweden and Finland, mainly because of the Arctic region’s increasing significance, challenge Turkey’s balancing and profit-seeking agenda.

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