It was a nailbiter, NATO’s welcome of Sweden and Finland into the alliance with just a few hours to spare before the opening of the alliance’s Madrid summit.
Yet most people had stopped paying attention to the sluggish negotiations between the applicants and the lone ally blocking their invitation. The surprise unanimity was made possible by giving Turkey a lot of what it wanted—including attention to its unique status within the alliance.
The second half of May began on a thrilling note for NATO: Sweden and Finland, for so long confirmed in their military non-alignment, submitted their applications for membership of the alliance. Pundits predicted that the alliance would welcome the pair as prospective members at its end-of-June summit. But Turkey swiftly quashed the jubilation by withholding its crucial assent and complaining about the two countries’ – especially Sweden’s—support of Kurdish groups.
And now, peace and harmony. What happened? In their trilateral June 28 memorandum—which NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the Biden administration had no small part in bringing about—the three countries agree that “as prospective NATO Allies, Finland and Sweden extend their full support to Turkiye against threats to its national security. To that effect, Finland and Sweden will not provide support to YPG/PYD [Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units and the associated Democratic Union Party], and the organisation described as FETO in Turkiye.” It went on: “Finland and Sweden unambiguously condemn all terrorist organisations perpetrating attacks against Turkiye, and express their deepest solidarity with Turkiye and the families of the victims.”
This was a victory for Turkey. Last November, Sweden’s governing Social Democrats had promised to deepen their cooperation with PYD, a left-wing Syrian Kurdish party that is also an affiliate of Turkey’s PKK. Why would the Social Democrats promise to deepen their cooperation with this unlikely partner? Because they were trying to find a parliamentary majority for their minority government, and to reach the already-precarious position of a one-vote parliamentary majority, they had to assuage Amineh Kakabaveh, a member of parliament who had been sacked from the Left Party and was sitting as an independent. And Kakabaveh, a former Peshmerga fighter, made maximum use of the leverage by demanding support for Kurdish causes. In fact, she seemed to take delight in her sudden power.
“Everyone is bowing to Erdogan just because of the problem with Putin,” she said in one of numerous interviews with international media. But in late June, the Swedish parliament completed its term; it will resume after the country’s parliamentary elections in September. Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson no longer owed anything to Kakabaveh, who can’t be reelected, and could sign the memorandum with Turkey. So, of course, could Finland, which was never really a concern of Turkey’s in the first place.
Although the devil of every intergovernmental agreement is in the implementation, the Swedish-Finnish-Turkish memorandum was a certainly a victory for Turkey. In addition to denouncing support for the PYD, Sweden and Finland promised to lift their suspension of arms exports to Turkey and to “address Turkey’s pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously and thoroughly, taking into account information, evidence and intelligence provided by Turkey.”
What that means was explained by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkish media: Sweden will have to extradite 73 suspected terrorists to Turkey, he announced. Washington, meanwhile, signaled that it’s willing to sell Ankara new F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits for its existing F-16s.
Many members of Sweden’s large Kurdish minority—who have arrived in Sweden as refugees over several decades—were aghast at the agreement. But as a senior official in a NATO member state told me, “Sweden and Finland have learned their first lesson in collective defense”: some members of the collective may be difficult, obnoxious even, but for the benefit of enhanced security for all you have to work with them.
Sweden and Finland can, of course, try to minimize their implementation of the memorandum. But in the end, Erdogan’s block of their succession wasn’t the ploy many originally suspected—a ploy, we thought, to get F-16s. It really was about Kurdish terrorism, a very real national-security concern for Turkey. With Sweden and Finland wanting to join the alliance, Erdogan got the opportunity to push for concessions he’d been wanting for a long time.
This is a sad turn of events for the Kurdish community—but Sweden had to weigh its national-security interests against the interests of a community that mostly resides in the Middle East. And at its Madrid summit, NATO got to demonstrate unity. Vladimir Putin was certainly paying attention.