Could Turkey Be Expelled From NATO Over Blocking Finland, Sweden?

Turkey's refusal to accept Finland and Sweden's bid to join NATO has triggered a spat within the alliance otherwise united over the two Nordic countries' prospective entry.

On Thursday, Turkey blocked the start of talks around Finland and Sweden's membership over complaints that the two countries have too lax an attitude towards the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Gülenist movement, two groups Turkey identifies as terrorist organizations.

Ankara has accused Stockholm and Helsinki of hosting suspects belonging to the two groups, but the two countries have rejected accusations of supporting the Kurdish militants—the PKK is also recognized as a terrorist group by the European Union—as well as refused to extradite any suspects, as requested by Turkey.

The situation appears to be at a standstill.

Ankara's objection could prove a real challenge towards a possible Finland and Sweden entry into the alliance, as NATO requires unanimous approval from all its members to accept new members. So how's NATO going to respond to a member state that once again is proving an inconvenient, uneasy ally?

Turkey NATO
Turkey has blocked the start of talks over Finland and Sweden's NATO membership. Above, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivers a speech during his party's group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) in Ankara, on May 18, 2022. Getty

Could NATO Expel Turkey?

It's not the first time there's talks of kicking Turkey out of the alliance.

The idea was first suggested in 2016 when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cracked down on the opposition after a failed coup. It was then brought up again in 2019 when Turkey invaded northeastern Syria. NATO allies reacted with horror and concern at the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the country, with Sweden and Finland imposing sanctions on Ankara that are still in place.

At the time, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham suggested Turkey's membership in NATO should have been suspended, if Turkish troops attacked the Kurdish forces who had helped the U.S. destroy the ISIS Caliphate.

But the North Atlantic Treaty regulating NATO does not have an option to suspend or even expel members. But there's the possibility to do something to the same effect when a member state persistently violates the principles contained in the pact—by failing to safeguard the freedom of its people, the country's democracy and the rule of law. In that case, NATO members can unanimously decide to stop assisting that ally.

But would NATO go as far in response to Turkey's refusal to approve Finland and Sweden's bid for membership?

An Inescapable Strategic Partner

American historian and University of Michigan Professor of Political Science Ronald Grigor Suny thinks that it's highly unlikely NATO would take such a drastic move that would completely alienate such a strategic ally.

"Turkey has played an amazing strong hand all through the Cold War and at present because of its geographical location," Suny told Newsweek. "So its placement in Istanbul along the straits in Anatolia, south of Russia and north of the Middle East, has made it far more important a strategic partner than a lot of states of greater population or greater importance in other ways."

Suny thinks Erdoğan is well aware of the value Turkey brings to the alliance and is playing this card to obtain something out of Finland and Sweden's membership.

"[Erdoğan] isn't that serious about this," Suny says. "He will eventually agree, I think, that Finland and Sweden should be members. But he'll get something out of it, to get certain arms from the United States, or certain concessions."

"He has many, many grievances. And the main one is that he doesn't want to be criticized about his domestic policies, his arrest of dissidents, of Osman Kavala and other prominent people, or his treatment of the Kurds. So if the West keeps quiet, as it most often does, about the atrocities and the horrors and the repression of the Erdoğan regime, he'll get what he wants."

Talking at a press conference on Thursday, NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO is in close contact with Finland, Sweden and Turkey regarding the concerns raised by Ankara over the PKK.

"I don't think it will be helpful if I go into the specifics of all those conversations, but of course we're addressing the concerns that Turkey has expressed," Stoltenberg said, answering a question from a reporter. "Because when an ally, an important ally as Turkey, raises security concerns, raises issues, then, of course, the only way to deal with that is to sit down and find ways to find a common ground and an agreement on how to move forward."

Would Russia Benefit From Turkey's objection?

Turkey's objection to Finland and Sweden's entry into NATO appears to play into what Russian president Vladimir Putin wants, seeing as the Kremlin has threatened both countries against joining the alliance. But Suny said Erdoğan's historically uneasy alliance with Putin has nothing to do with the Turkish president's refusal now.

"Erdoğan and Putin are both realists. They're unsentimental about politics," Suny said. "They'll do what's necessary to enhance their own state position. For Erdoğan, that happens to include the repression of the Kurds that is domestically within first and within his interior, as well as in Syria or anywhere else. And the Russians, you know, couldn't care less about that."