What did Turkey get for greenlighting Sweden's NATO bid?

A "historic step" for the Cold War era alliance — and a major win for President Biden's foreign agenda

Sweden, Turkey, and the future of NATO
Sweden, Turkey, and the future of NATO
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

After more than a year of obstinance and obstruction, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan abruptly dropped his longstanding objections to Sweden's effort to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, just hours before a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, was set to begin on Tuesday. Speaking with reporters to announce the move, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called Turkey's decision "a historic step that benefits the security of all NATO allies at this critical time. It makes us all stronger and safer."

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While Sweden's ultimate ascension into NATO's ranks is far from complete, the Turkish about-face portends a major shift in the balance of European power, and marks a major victory for President Biden, who has pushed for a NATO expansion in the face of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. But what led to Erdogan's change of heart? And where do Turkey, Sweden and the whole of NATO go from here?

What are the commentators saying?

The Turkish leader's pivot "follows a series of moves in recent days that signal a potential easing of strained ties with Western countries during the war in Ukraine," reported The Wall Street Journal. In particular, "Sweden agreed to support expanding the E.U.'s free-trade arrangement with Turkey," The Washington Post said, adding that "Erdogan's most important ask has long been clear." That ask — a multi billion-dollar purchase of F-16 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin — seemed poised to move forward in light of the Sweden decision, with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan telling reporters that Biden "supports" and "intends to move forward with" the deal.

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As part of the agreement, Sweden also committed not to support the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, a longtime antagonist toward Turkey, which has been labeled a terrorist group by the United States since the mid-1990s. Moreover, in exchange for Turkey's cooperation, Stoltenberg reportedly "agreed to create a new post of 'Special Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism' at NATO," according to Politico.

Like much in Europe over this past year, the NATO announcement is closely tied to the Ukraine war. "Erdogan had already signaled this weekend that he can be a critical partner for Europe by showing solidarity regarding Ukraine," the Post said, highlighting a series of aid and reconstruction agreements signed between the two countries, as well as a repatriation agreement for some Ukrainian military leaders, which has particularly "angered the Kremlin."

Crucially, alongside Finland (which joined the alliance earlier this year), Sweden's impending entry into NATO "essentially turns the Baltic Sea into a NATO-dominated waterway," and "enhances NATO's ability to protect its most vulnerable members: the Baltic nations," The New York Times explained. Both Sweden and Finland had previously held staunchly neutral positions in Europe, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted each nation to conclude that "membership in the European Union alone was not security enough."

What comes next?

Despite the momentous nature of this week's announcement, Sweden's official entry into NATO is still a ways away. According to the agreement, Turkey's next step will be to "transmit the Accession Protocol for Sweden to the Grand National Assembly, and work closely with the Assembly to ensure ratification." Notably, Turkey has not been alone in opposing Sweden's effort to join the alliance — Hungary's conservative government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has also stonewalled the bid, although, Politico says, Stoltenberg stressed that Orbán had "promised that his country would not be the last holdout against Sweden's membership."

The White House, meanwhile, has spent the day following the Sweden announcement trying to frame itself as a supportive partner, rather than key participant in the agreement, with one administration official telling Politico that "while we were not direct parties to the negotiations here, we were heavily encouraging and supportive of them and obviously very heavily engaged diplomatically in conversations with everyone involved." Those conversations included "a telephone call between Biden and Erdogan on Sunday, in which the American president appears to have made his position crystal clear," CNN reported.

Regardless of the degree to which the White House was hands-on involved in the actual drafting of the agreement itself, "Erdogan's decision before an expected bilateral meeting with Biden is a significant diplomatic victory for Biden," The Hill said. In particular, it comes amid the 2024 presidential race, in which Biden has "sought to live up" to his 2020 campaign pledge to serve as a "steady hand in foreign policy."

Similarly, while the agreement has secured a number of assurances regarding Turkey's continued relationship with the E.U., "all of these steps – while possibly giving Erdogan political cover back home for his shift of position – hardly seem like big breakthroughs for Turkey," CNN said. Rather, they may represent more broadly "a significant break" between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"But," CNN cautioned, anyone who expects Erdogan "to quit playing multiple sides of the great geopolitical game will likely be disappointed."

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Rafi Schwartz

Rafi Schwartz is a Politics Writer with The Week, where he focuses on elections, Congress, and the White House. He was previously a contributing writer with Mic, a senior writer with Splinter News, and the managing editor of Heeb Magazine. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GOOD, The Forward, and elsewhere.

Rafi currently lives in the Twin Cities, where he does not bike, run, or take part in any team sports. He does, however, have a variety of interests, hobbies, and passions.