Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says that Turkey will veto both countries’ membership in NATO as long as Sweden and Finland do not support terrorist organizations that carry out activities against Turkey and the arms embargo against Turkey is not lifted. But while Erdoğan is saying this, Sweden is hosting Baltic Operations (BALTOPS-22), the largest NATO exercise in the Baltic Sea, in which Turkey and Finland are actively participating. Under these circumstances, could Erdoğan veto Sweden’s and Finland’s applications for membership in NATO? How important are Finland and Sweden’s membership in NATO?
Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine has changed the security concerns of European countries. Finland and Sweden simultaneously submitted their official applications for membership to NATO on May 18, 2022. The accession of these two Nordic countries to NATO undoubtedly has the potential to change the European security architecture in many ways. In the medium term, however, it could significantly impact an entirely different area, namely the Arctic.
Why is the Arctic region critical?
The Arctic region, dominated by a relatively calm and cooperative order, has become a region of great power competition due to rare metals, rich natural gas, oil deposits, and most importantly, sea lines of communications that have become active due to the ice have melted in the Arctic Ocean.
Russia has increased its presence in the Arctic to extend its political influence. The Russian military is headquartered on the Kola Peninsula, home to the Russian Northern Fleet, an air base, and a submarine facility. The military has reactivated 50 Soviet-era military buildups across the Arctic territory. Russia is also highly dependent on Arctic energy resources, with 80% of its natural gas and 17% of its oil coming from the region. In 2014, Russia’s military policy for the first time included the phrase “safeguarding Russian interests in the Arctic.”
The sanctions imposed by Western countries due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to the development of relations between Russia and China. Taking advantage of its growing relationship with Russia, China pursued a policy that would allow it to exert influence in the region through the Arctic nation of Russia. China plans to use the Northern Passage, which runs through Russia’s exclusive economic zone in the Arctic, as an alternative sea route between Asia, North America, and Europe to circumvent U.S. naval dominance over sea lines of communication such as the Strait of Malacca.
Russian and Chinese officials plan to transform the Northern Sea Route (NSR), Russia’s Arctic ship’s passage, into a ‘Polar Silk Road’ that would shorten sailing times between Europe and Asia. Arctic trade routes were formally included in the Belt and Road Initiative in 2017. Burgeoning relations between Russia and China culminated in significant investments in projects like the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas and its follow-on, Arctic-2 LNG, along with two 30-year agreements to export gas from Siberia to China. Xi and Vladimir Putin announced in a joint statement that the two countries agreed to “consistently intensify practical cooperation for the sustainable development of the Arctic” in February 2022 and called on all countries to cooperate in the “development and utilization of Arctic routes.”
The United States recognized the geopolitical importance of the Arctic and its role in great power competition and resisted Russia’s attempts to gain complete sovereign control over the NSR. While Russia was increasing its military presence in the Arctic region, there was no consensus among the members of NATO on the military measures that should be taken to counterbalance Russia’s military power in the Arctic region. Some members argued that NATO should not intervene in the region because it would increase tensions. However, Russia’s aggressive stance toward Ukraine has changed this situation.
The USA needs Sweden and Finland (in NATO) as a counterweight to Russia and China in the Arctic
The accession of Finland and Sweden will facilitate NATO’s development of a comprehensive military strategy for the Arctic region. The increasing geopolitical importance of the Arctic region and the applications of Finland and Sweden to join NATO will lead NATO to place more importance on the area. In June, NATO is expected to adopt a new Strategic Concept at the Madrid Summit. It will undoubtedly provide the guidelines for NATO for at least a decade. It is also likely to contain the basic principles that will guide actions in the Arctic region.
By expanding cooperation with Russia, China wants to effectively use the Northern Passage for trade between Asia, Europe, and North America, but only to reduce U.S. naval power control over global sea lines of communications. However, the U.S. will have more effective control by using NATO in the Arctic region thanks to the membership of Sweden and Finland in NATO. In this way, the U.S. plans to be active in the Arctic region with its naval power under the umbrella of NATO and continue its control over world sea lines of communications.
The Arctic region will give an advantage to the power that controls it in the great power competition. For this reason, the U.S. wants to be the most influential power in the Arctic region. With the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, all members of the Arctic Council, consisting of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S, become NATO members except Russia. The Arctic Council determines policy toward the Arctic region. Therefore, NATO membership of both countries is of great importance to the U.S. Turkey alone does not have the power to veto the membership applications of these countries. The U.S. and other NATO member countries know that Erdoğan’s stance aims to obtain concessions from the U.S. and E.U. countries to continue his political life. Whenever Erdoğan raises his voice and says he will not do it, there is a bargain in the background, and if Erdoğan gets what he wants, he will make a U-turn.
Fourteen NATO allies along with two NATO partner nations, Finland and Sweden, are currently participating in the exercise BALTOPS 22 with over 45 ships, more than 75 aircraft and 7,500 personnel. This premier maritime-focused annual exercise kicked off from Stockholm, Sweden, on 05 June. It takes place in the Baltic Sea region from June 5 to 17, 2022. Participating nations include Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. BALTOPS 22 takes place in Sweden and coincides with the 500th anniversary of the Swedish Navy.
If Erdoğan vetoed the membership applications of Sweden and Finland because those countries support terrorism, he would try to prevent those countries from participating in the BALTOPS-22 exercise, or Turkey would withdraw its forces because those countries participated in the exercise. Erdoğan has not done this, and Turkish aircraft are now actively participating in the BALTOPS-22 exercise with the fighter aircraft of the countries in question.
Participation in BALTOPS-22 together with Sweden and Finland shows that Erdoğan wants to negotiate; he knows very well that he will eventually vote for the membership of both countries.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.