Russia’s invasion of Ukraine expedited NATO expansion plans. They should have been one of the most straightforward geopolitical consequences of the war, as well as one of its most important, but this has not been the case.
The application of Sweden and Finland – two traditionally neutral countries – to join the West’s main defence pact has not been as straightforward as observers expected.
While Finland joined the alliance as its 31st member in April after some delay, Sweden is still not in the club. What should have been a matter of procedure became a complex political problem, and it has yet to be fully solved.
Before a nation can join the alliance – which considers an attack on one member to be an attack on all – every one of its existing countries must approve the application.
On its part, NATO member Turkey has set conditions for its backing for expansion. It called for Sweden and Finland to prevent financial and political support for two organisations that Ankara says are terrorist groups: the pro-Kurdish PKK party and the movement linked to the failed coup attempt in Turkey of 2016, known as Feto.
The conditions came even as Sweden and Finland are among the few countries supporting Turkey’s long-standing and stalled bid to join the European Union.
But both the NATO candidate countries have also been vocal over their concerns about the standards of democracy in Turkey. And they both had restrictions on arms sales to a country they were seeking to join in a mutual defence pact.
The delays come even after Sweden and Finland were invited to attend the NATO Summit in Madrid in the summer of 2022 when Access Protocols were signed, and they agreed to help support Turkey with any threats to its national security in a trilateral memorandum of understanding reached between the nations.
But Sweden remains outside the alliance at Turkey’s behest. The Nordic nation amended its constitution to clear arms exports to its potential new ally. But PKK sympathisers continue to vocally support the group on Sweden’s streets.
And some extreme right-wing groups continue to burn Muslim holy books in Swedish demonstrations, provoking anger in Turkey and the wider Islamic world.
Nonetheless, on 23 October, President Erdoğan forwarded the accession protocol of Sweden to the Turkish Parliament for debate and potential approval via the government coalition’s working majority.
But obstacles remain, not least after the outbreak of war in Gaza. The timing of the bill's referral to parliament may be connected to the war in Gaza.
Amid disagreements between NATO allies Turkey and the United States over the conflict, Swedish accession could be used by Erdoğan as a political bargaining chip with the US over the Turkish president’s very different stance over Hamas.