How activists shaped Sweden’s NATO debacle

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Elisabeth Braw is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an advisor at Gallos Technologies.

Sweden’s process to join NATO should have been the easiest accession in the alliance’s history — then Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to play hardball, mixing legitimate fears about terrorism with electoral opportunistic politicking.

Unfortunately, various activists in Sweden, some Kremlin linked, then decided to exploit this highly fraught situation, and by aggravating Erdoğan and Turkey, they’ve now helped turn the country’s NATO accession from virtually guaranteed to one that’s now in serious jeopardy — and other countries should learn from this mess.

When NATO leaders had assembled for their Madrid Summit last July, there was a buzz in the air: Allied countries were looking forward to welcoming two new members — and doing so within months rather than years. It was certain they would approve and swiftly ratify the membership applications from Sweden and Finland — two countries that were already extremely close NATO partners and would also bring significant military assets to the alliance.

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Alas, there was also the matter of Turkey’s presidential elections.

“I’d advise future NATO applicants to check member states’ election schedule before submitting their application,” an exasperated Swedish legislator told me last year. But by then, Erdoğan had made clear that Turkey wasn’t going to ratify the application from Sweden – and as a result Finland — any time soon, possibly not until after Turkey’s presidential elections, now tentatively scheduled to take place this May.

All throughout, the Turkish president, as well as officials speaking on his behalf, have kept communicating via news media that Sweden hadn’t fulfilled the obligations to which it had committed in the memorandum it signed with Finland and Turkey last June. The agreement was designed to allay Turkey’s fears about Sweden — and to a much lesser degree Finland — hosting Kurdish activists Ankara sees as a national security threat.

And this is where activists opposed to Swedish NATO membership seem to have spotted an opportunity.

Last week, a tiny pro-Kurdish group calling itself the Rojava Committee of Sweden turned up at Stockholm’s City Hall with an effigy of Erdoğan. The dummy was then hung by its feet. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson called the act sabotage, while Erdoğan spokesman Fahrettin Altun tweeted: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the targeting of Türkiye and its democratically elected president by members of the terrorist organization PKK in Sweden . . . That PKK terrorist[s] can challenge the Swedish government at the heart of Stockholm is proof that the Swedish authorities have not taken necessary steps against terrorism — as they have been claiming in recent days.”

Four days later, a group of far-right activists led by the Danish provocateur Rasmus Paludan gathered in front of Turkey’s embassy in Stockholm and burnt the Quran. Ankara responded swiftly: “This incident has once again shown that Sweden has not given up on supporting terrorism,” Numan Kurtulmuş, deputy chairman of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, told reporters, adding that as a result, Turkey may never ratify Sweden’s NATO application.

Meanwhile, these turbulent developments have now led Finland to float the heretofore inconceivable idea that it may join NATO without Sweden.

This means that Sweden’s virtually perfect application was sabotaged — potentially fatally so — by a minuscule number of activists with wildly divergent agendas, and now it looks like Russia may well have been stirring the trouble.

When NATO leaders had assembled for their Madrid Summit last July, there was a buzz in the air: Allied countries were looking forward to welcoming two new members – Sweden and Finland | Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

The Quran-burning protest was partly organized and funded by Chang Frick, a journalist who once worked for Kremlin-controlled news outlet Russia Today. Frick runs a contrarian website, Nyheter Idag, and has in the past sported a T-shirt emblazoned with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s face — though more recently he’s supported Ukrainian refugees.

“It’s incredibly difficult to discern who’s behind such activities in a liberal democracy and which activities are partly or wholly manipulated by foreign actors,” said Anton Lif, a crisis management consultant with the Swedish firm Combitech. “Until there’s proof showing malign influence, I’ll assume that these protests were simply part of free speech in Sweden, but obviously such activities can also be exploited by malign actors,” he added.

 Indeed, one might ask whether Russia actually had a hand in the spectacle, and whether the activists are simply useful idiots. Either way, other countries should take note.

The first lesson here is to secure an ironclad agreement from other countries before launching a major foreign-policy initiative. The reason Erdoğan’s opinions matter at this stage is because Sweden hadn’t secured such a commitment from Turkey before formally submitting its application. To be sure, Turkey’s foreign ministry had signaled a green light, but in authoritarian-leaning countries, it’s the voice of the leader that matters.

The far more important takeaway, however, is that even tiny groups of activists can scupper crucial foreign-policy decisions with gross insults and street theater.

Authoritarian leaders share a certain degree of vanity and an unwillingness to tolerate ridicule. For example, imagine the harm activists could do to foreign-policy initiatives relating to China by turning up, say, in front of China’s Washington embassy, pretending to hang an effigy of Xi Jinping. Or if Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appeared close to joining the West’s camp in the Russia-Ukraine war, but then activists opposed to cooperation with Saudi Arabia did the same.

Such activists may have honorable intentions, or they may not. They may be aided by foreign powers, or they might not. Indeed, such provocative activities offer enormous opportunities for amplification through misinformation and disinformation, and the targeted government will see the scenes and react angrily.

Unlike the old-fashioned regimes of the Cold War era, which responded to protests by submitting complaints to the foreign ministry, today’s authoritarian regimes have no compunction about disregarding the rules of polite behavior in international diplomacy and retaliating against — admittedly tasteless — expressions of free speech.

Finally, there’s also the procedural matter of permissions for such protests, which are typically granted by police agencies. And though they issue their yay or nay on law-and-order grounds, they obviously don’t take foreign-policy implications into account when doing so. Given the potency of even minuscule protests today, perhaps governments should have some sort of say in whether protests that risk causing great harm to the country be allowed to take place.

That means: Western governments, beware.

Authoritarian-leaning countries are tricky to handle in the first place — and sometimes you need them.