Turkey softens stance on NATO’s Nordic expansion, but wants concerns addressed

Ibrahim Kalin, foreign policy adviser to President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, clarified the country’s position on NATO expansion to include Finland and Turkey. As he said, Turkey is not opposed to the expansion as such, but want the applicant countries to deal with organisations it considers terrorists.

Following a statement by Turkish president Erdoğan made on Friday, which was understood as opposition to Finland and Sweden joining NATO, Ibrahim Kalin, Erdoğan’s top foreign policy advisor decided to clarify the country’s position on the matter. “We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” he said.

Turkish President’s statement, that Finland and Sweden were “home to many terrorist organisations”, caused some consternation. NATO expansion requires a unanimous approval of all current member states. The United States and other member states requested a clarification from the Ankara government.

Mr Kalin said that Turkey is particularly concerned with the presence of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Sweden. The organisation is considered terrorist by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, yet in Sweden in particular, according to Mr Kalin, PKK’s presence is “strong and open and acknowledged”. He clearly stated that in order to receive Turkey’s approval, NATO hopefuls must “stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organisations, individuals and other types of presence to stop [...] existing in those countries."

“NATO membership is always a process. We will see how things go. But this is the first point that we want to bring to the attention of all the allies as well as to Swedish authorities,” added Mr Kalin. “Of course we want to have a discussion, a negotiation with Swedish counterparts.”

Turkey has the second-largest army in NATO, it joined the alliance in 1952, three years after NATO was founded, in what was the alliance’s first expansion, and was previously always officially supportive of admitting new members. It has, however, long criticised Sweden and other European countries for their handling of organisations which Turkey considers terrorists.

Asked whether Turkey risked being too transactional at a time of war, and when Finnish and Swedish public opinion favours NATO membership, Mr Kalin said that “if [Finland and Sweden] have a public concerned about their own national security, we have a public that is equally concerned about our own security. We have to see this from a mutual point of view.”

Mr Kalin said that Russia's sharp reaction to Finland and Sweden’s announcement of their plans was not a factor that affected Turkey's position. Turkey has consistently criticised Russia aggression, helped arm Ukraine, and tried to serve as a middleman in the talks between the sides, i.a. by hosting the peace negotiation. Turkey does, however, oppose sanctions against Moscow. As Mr Kalin said, NATO needs “to address the concerns of all members, not just some.”

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavesto said that he will meet with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, during a meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers scheduled for Saturday in Berlin. “I am sure we will find a solution,” he told the reporters soon after arriving in the German capital, adding that he had spoken to Minister Mevlüt, whom he called his “good colleague”, by phone on Friday.

Turkish offer to evacuate Azovstal

During the same interview, Mr Kalin addressed Turkey’s offer to send a ship to evacuate the defenders and any possible civilians who are left in Azovstal, the final stronghold of Ukrainian defenders in Mariupol. He said that he discussed the matter personally with Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy two weeks ago. Kalin said, however, that the Russian position “changes day to day” making it difficult to get a “firm commitment from either side,” but as far as Ankara is concerned, the offer “remains on the table”.

According to the plan, anyone remaining in the Azovstal steel plant would be taken by land to Berdiansk, a port city some 75 kilometres west of Mariupol and currently under Russian occupiers’ control. There, the evacuees would board a Turkish vessel which would take them across the Black Sea to Istanbul. As Mr Kalin said, the Turkish ship was ready to set sail from Istanbul as soon as both Ukraine and Russia agree to the plan.