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You Can’t Sit With Us

Original illustration by Cara Wang '24, an Illustration major at RISD

It would take Russian forces 60 hours to reach all three Baltic capitals. In less than three days, NATO members Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are cut off at Kaliningrad, strangled for resupply, and cannibalized. In this war game, the combined forces of NATO are on the back foot, faced with the prospect of an escalatory counteroffensive or a temporary concession. Put another way: They either defend the mission of NATO, potentially with nuclear weapons, or weaken it, sidestepping the nuclear question.

This scenario is one of many imagined by a range of experts who set out to explore the most vulnerable parts of the NATO alliance back in 2015. And in any game involving the Baltic states, one common factor turns the tide: NATO membership for Sweden and Finland. Based on NATO’s collective defense clause, an attack on the Baltics means an attack on all NATO members. Finland shares a 830-mile border with Russia, and the Swedish island of Gotland would be an ideal staging point for a forward posture over Baltic airspace. In a scenario involving the two Nordic countries, the Finnish front draws Russian troops away from a Baltic assault, and Gotland acts as an unsinkable aircraft carrier, strategically positioned to aid the protection of the Baltic coast. Despite their expressed desire to join the alliance, however, Finland’s membership was held up for ten months, and Sweden’s is still up in the air. Both were blocked by Türkiye. As the board is currently set, their membership might appear inconsequential. In the case of an escalation, it might make all the difference.

This article is not about war plans or counter invasions—it’s not even about the Baltics. Instead we’ll be asking a simple question: Given what’s at stake, why has Türkiye been so resistant to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership? And perhaps more importantly, why did it ultimately cave on Finland? To analyze the Turkish interests at play, we will return to three different maxims: 1) Foreign policy as domestic; 2) Every crisis an opportunity; and 3) Security in the status quo.

The first maxim says there is no such thing as ‘foreign’ policy. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s immediate actions, even those on the international stage, are mostly targeted toward his domestic audience—whether that is to his base, or to avoid alienating potential voters. Right now, the Turkish economy is racked with inflation. Ankara’s push to service foreign investment with lower and lower interest rates has exacerbated the issue, sending its economy spiraling. Given his domestic anxieties, we might expect Erdoğan to distract the public with a common enemy—much like Argentina did with the Falklands in the 1980s, or Russia did with Crimea in 2014.

This has been his public posture: justifying his veto with claims about Swedish and Finnish leniency toward the PKK, a longtime bogeyman for Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party. Despite the fact that both Nordic countries have designated the PKK as a terror group, this connection to a domestic threat might boost his approval ratings. Assent to Finland’s bid is most obviously explained through this lens—Erdogan has made a show of his acceptance of Finland, framing it as a case of lessons learned and Finnish adherence to his anti-PKK standards. By contrast, Turkiye’s cold-shoulder to Sweden serves as a demonstration of what happens when another nation disobeys. Above all, this situation has allowed him to act as a significant player in geopolitics—someone who can bend the rules to his will in support of the Turkish people. Türkiye has taken steps back from democracy, but they still have popular elections, and Erdoğan still needs to win in May. 

These concerns aside, his posture has major geopolitical implications. And no matter how much Türkiye benefits, Erdoğan’s decision helps Russia far more than Türkiye. So what does Türkiye gain from this political grandstanding? Historically, Türkiye has acted as a geopolitical axis, positioned on an important waterway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean—and, more broadly, the ‘East’ and the ‘West.’ Erdoğan’s messaging reveals a pride in this historic role and a desire to return to centrality. To that end, he was instrumental in brokering a contentious grain deal between Ukraine and Russia in July 2022, and some believe that when the war ends, Erdoğan is angling to act as peacebroker. If both Nordic countries join NATO tomorrow, Türkiye suddenly becomes a far less important player in the conflict, not to mention the fact that Russia might begin to see Türkiye as overtly antagonistic, stifling their future cooperation. 

In terms of immediate gains, the trade benefits of leaving the Russian relationship intact are apparent. This is straight out of the Turkish playbook with Iran, when they were able to exploit American sanctions to increase bilateral talks. If few others are willing to buy Russian gas, Türkiye possesses a lot of leverage in negotiations. Erdoğan’s grandstanding also leaves the door open for the Americans to sway him in their direction, potentially offering concessions in exchange for Türkiye’s vote. One bargaining tool could be the sale of weapons—particularly the F-16 jets whose sale the United States currently bars—and another, a withdrawal of American support for the YPG, a Kurdish rebel group currently fighting ISIS which Erdoğan sees as a threat. 

In his recent reversal on Finland, we might be seeing one half of such a compromise. If concessions were made, they would likely be kept quiet for months, washing U.S. hands of a backroom deal that might be unpopular to the American public. In the meantime, such an arrangement could allow Erdogan to boast about his diplomatic chops in ‘reforming’ Finland, biding his time before the other shoe drops. In answer to the question “why veto?”—it might simply be that Erdoğan doesn’t want to trade something for nothing. 

But these explanations only go so far. Erdoğan’s potential gains from disrupting Swedish and Finnish membership wouldn’t matter if they hurt Türkiye’s strategic position. In other words, he must see some benefit to slow-walking the admission of new members, and some detriment to rapid NATO expansion. This is the non-glamourous motivation that both detractors and hardline supporters of Erdoğan’s public messaging sometimes leave out. It’s not all exploitation or populist rhetoric—there is a genuine concern that if the conflict becomes more one-sided, Russia might act out again, igniting conflict closer to Türkiye’s border. The issue of a potential nuclear detonation over the Black Sea has even been raised, which would affect Türkiye as much as Ukraine. 

If the conflict escalates, that means more blowback sanctions, more spillover into Türkiye’s backyard, and more refugees. Given the risks to Türkiye, balancing might appear to make the most sense. Maybe Erdogan’s recent policy change regarding Finland is just that—his way to give NATO a substantial win while keeping the lines of communication with Russia open. But for Erdogan to prefer an open door with Russia over strengthening his own alliance, he would need to believe that the Russian threat stops at Ukraine—a prospect that is far from a given. So too would he need to believe that admitting Sweden to NATO would provoke broader war, not discourage it.

It is America’s job to convince him otherwise. Finnish membership might not be enough to deter Russian aggression, but in a world where both Nordic powers are treaty-bound to protect the Baltic, Russia might never decide to invade. Whatever has convinced Erdogan to move is a good start, but if Sweden’s bid is stalled indefinitely, the scenario at the start of this article can still play out. No Gotland means no air support means no true defense for the Baltic—leaving NATO backed into a corner, forced once again to consider the nuclear option.

Detractors of this argument might say that we cannot make concessions to an international bully. But, given the stakes for NATO and the West, it would be better to work with Erdoğan to find a solution, rather than kick the can down the road until the issue really matters.