The Turkish Move: Finland in Exchange for F-16s?

Finland and Sweden are reported to have applied to join NATO in May 2022, ostensibly because they fear a military danger from Russia as Russian-Ukrainian military-political relations deteriorate. Yet in truth, neither then nor now, has Russia been a military danger to the Scandinavian nations. However, in case they join the alliance, Russia will have to take adequate measures along its northwestern borders including the deployment of strategic deterrence forces.

Ankara, which is an active mediator in Russian-Ukrainian ties and has maintained its alliance with Moscow, originally presented to the two new NATO candidates its demands about Kurdish separatist and the extradition of some members of that ethnic movement to Turkey. Certainly, Russia had nothing to do with these intra-NATO conflicts. At the same time, Turkey’s current position on the fact that it might block Finland and Sweden from joining NATO was in Russia’s interests.

In fact, the entire Russian special military operation in Ukraine began with Moscow’s unequivocal warning to NATO and the USA in particular in December 2021 about the unacceptable nature of the Alliance’s policy of its eastward advance, which poses obvious threats to the Russian Federation’s security interests. As the reader may be aware, the issue concerned Ukraine and the violation by NATO of its verbal promises to refrain from trying to expand the North Atlantic Alliance in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the USSR.

Turkey, whose energy security is inextricably tied to Russia and which has a number of interesting economic partnership projects with Russia, has maintained respectful relations with Russia even after the start of the special military operation. Ankara has refused to participate in large-scale anti-Russian collective Western actions (with the exception of UN-approved sanctions), has taken peacemaking initiatives to end hostilities, authored the “grain deal,” and has repeatedly participated in prisoner exchanges.

In this regard, the position of President Erdoğan to block Finland and Sweden from joining NATO (at least in the situation of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian military crisis) would, of course, not only correspond to the interests of Russia, but also fall in line with peacekeeping logic and responsible initiative of Turkey itself. In other words, with this approach, Ankara would counteract the tactic of “war to the last Ukrainian,” which is so zealously advocated by US President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, with the course towards reducing military tension and beginning direct negotiations between the conflicting parties.

Turkey is still unable to resolve a set of problems and contradictions with the United States, associated with Washington’s refusal of military supplies (in particular, the Patriot missile defense systems and F-16 fighter jets). At the same time, Russia, as in the case of the sale of its S-400 air-defense system, would not refuse the Turks another deal on modern Su-30SM, Su-35 or Su-57 air defense fighters, which are even more superior to the same class of American fighters. Ankara has often publicly allowed such a possibility, arguing that it has an alternative choice and a favorable price, but in reality it has not moved from words to deeds (as in the case of the S-400).

Despite the acute financial and economic crisis, the devastating scale of the earthquake, and the upcoming May 14 general (presidential and parliamentary) elections, Turkish authorities decided to minimize the problematic relations with the USA, and made some concessions to Washington on the “Finland in exchange for the F-16” formula.

During the February visit of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Ankara, the American side apparently linked the decision to resume military supplies to Turkey (in particular, the same F-16 fighter jets and spare parts for them) with the question of Ankara’s consent for the new members to join NATO at the forthcoming summit of the alliance in Vilnius in summer 2023. It was noted that the final decision of the administration will depend on the opinion of the US Congress. It cannot be ruled out that Antony Blinken in his talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also mentioned other issues of the US-Turkish agenda (including the topics of profitable investments, economic aid, relations with Russia, anti-Russian sanctions, the upcoming presidential elections, etc.).

As a result, President Recep Erdoğan announced a change in Turkey’s position on Finland’s accession to NATO after a short disagreement (saying that Helsinki had fulfilled its obligations to Ankara). Accordingly, the Commission on the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) adopted a protocol on Finnish membership in NATO on March 23 this year (exactly one month after Blinken’s visit to Ankara). The corresponding positive decision was signed by President Recep Erdoğan and the document was submitted to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey for final approval. On the same day, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö signed the law on the country’s accession to NATO.

At the same time US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on March 23 that Turkey should receive an upgraded version of the American F-16 fighter jets because it is important for the defense capabilities of NATO as a whole. Such synchronous actions of the Turkish and US authorities once again convince of a preliminary agreement of the parties.

Hence, Finland’s accession to NATO creates a new line of military tension in Europe, 1325.8 km long (the length of the Russian-Finnish border). Of course, every government leader, when making certain decisions, proceeds, first of all, from the interests of his or her country. However, how Finland’s membership in NATO will benefit Turkey’s interests is still unknown. The near future will show whether such a curtsey in favor of the United States will help Recep Erdoğan to retain his power at the end of the coming elections.

On March 24 this year, a number of media outlets widely publicized populist statements by one of Turkey’s presidential candidates and leader of the Patriotic Party, Doğu Perencık, who positions himself as a “great friend” of Russia and an advocate of strengthening the Turkish-Russian alliance. In particular, the emphasis is made on such theses of Doğu Perencık’s pre-election program as “Turkey’s withdrawal from NATO,” “NATO’s eastward advancement is a threat to Turkey’s security,” “Turkey’s accession to the EAEU,” “The USA is an enemy of Turkey and Russia,” etc. All this would be nice, but the realities of Turkish politics are somewhat different. Ankara and Moscow are well aware that the author of such utterances is an outsider rather than a genuine candidate for the Turkish presidency, and he can say anything he wants whenever he wants, but his claims will have little impact.

Turkey is not going to leave NATO, otherwise it would not be playing lots called “Finland” or “Sweden.” In reality, Turkey remembers very well that its accession to NATO was a complex process of two years and was associated with acute geopolitical issues of the fate of the Turkish territories. Accordingly, Turkey’s withdrawal from the alliance could have a painful impact on its territorial integrity, given its pressing internal and external problems. NATO, one way or another, has so far guaranteed the strategic security of Turkish statehood. At the same time, Turkey itself participates in the American strategic course of NATO’s eastward expansion in relation to the Turkic countries of the post-Soviet space. In Azerbaijan, for example, Ankara has already implemented the formula “One nation, two states,” has actually integrated the armed forces of the two countries, and is now trying to expand its zone of influence in Central Asia through the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) and the “Turan Army” project.

Turkey has always been and remains a difficult partner for both the West and Russia. Yet, Moscow wishes to continue its alliance with Ankara while reducing real and potential difficulties. It appears that the Russian-Turkish collaboration will have a situational nature rather than a strategic one. The latter is subject to alter according to a variety of objective and subjective factors.

By Aleksandr Svarants, PhD
Source: New Eastern Outlook

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