Turkish President Erdogan is clear: Sweden cannot expect any support for joining NATO. The reason is a right-wing extremist demonstration in Stockholm where a Koran was burned. From there there are connections to Russia.

In lockstep into NATO, that was the declared goal of Finland and Sweden when both countries applied to join the military alliance last year. To this day, both of them stick to it. “We started this journey together and we will walk the journey to membership together,” said Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson alongside his Finnish counterpart Sanna Marin at today’s meeting in Stockholm.

But the blocking attitude of Turkey, which is the only member besides Hungary that hasn’t yet ratified the enlargement, is throwing this step in stumble – and could ultimately end it entirely if it were to unilaterally ratify Finland’s accession.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted last week that he could prevent Sweden from joining NATO: “If you don’t show respect for the Turkish Republic or the religious beliefs of the Muslims, then you can’t get any support from us when it comes to NATO ” he said in Ankara.

The clear words were preceded by a rally in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, at which the well-known right-wing extremist Rasmus Paludan burned a Koran, the holy book of Islam. The action caused numerous protests in the Muslim world. The German federal government condemned the action as “disrespectful and highly inappropriate”. The Swedish government also distanced itself.

For Erdogan, who likes to portray himself as the protector of Islam, it was the last straw. Since the beginning of accession talks, he has blocked the admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO – for which unanimity in the alliance is required – and attaches conditions to this. It is about arms deliveries, but especially about the extradition of people that Ankara regards as terrorists: members of the Kurdish PKK, which is also on the terrorist list in the EU, and the G├╝len movement, which Ankara blames for the 2016 coup attempt .

This demand applies above all to Sweden, which has been a haven for people persecuted in Turkey for decades. Although Stockholm has now announced that anti-terror laws will be tightened, it refuses – with reference to constitutional principles – to extradite people to the Turkish judiciary. This has already strained relations with Ankara, and the tone has escalated since the beginning of the year after several incidents: First, a doll with Erdogan’s face was hung up in the Swedish capital, followed by the burning of the Koran at the end of January.

However, reports about the background of the right-wing extremist rally shed a new light on the event. The Swedish media write that the burning of the Koran was organized by the journalist Chang Frick. He had paid the registration fee for the demonstration, he said in advance of the Swedish television station SVT. However, he had no direct contact with Paludan and was reimbursed the money, it said.

Frick recently told Die Zeit that after a cartoon competition critical of Turkey, he wanted to hold a demonstration against Turkey’s influence on Sweden in a small Swedish newspaper. Because he is a journalist and not an activist, he was looking for someone to protest for him. Frick came across Paludan through an acquaintance.

Paludan, who has both Swedish and Danish passports, has repeatedly sparked angry protests by burning Korans. In April 2022 he staged it almost as a tour through Sweden. Protests were also to be expected this time because his participation in the demo was announced in advance. Frick said in various interviews that he himself had never intended to burn the Koran and had not asked for it. Paludan, on the other hand, told the Guardian that a few Swedes had asked him to burn the Koran in front of the Turkish embassy. According to the Israel-based news channel i24news, he also mentioned the name Frick.

The participation of the two men in the momentous action is particularly piquant because Frick used to work for the Russian state broadcaster RT and the Ruptly news agency, which belongs to the RT network. According to him, this was last the case in 2014 and he has therefore no longer supported the Russian position since the annexation of Crimea in the same year. However, in 2019 he posted a selfie that he apparently took in the RT editorial team. He apparently wrote ironically: “Carries out counter-espionage against RT. Behind me sits the troll factory that produces propaganda.” In 2014, Frick also founded the online newspaper “Nyheter Idag”, which is close to the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats (SD), who support the current minority government of the conservative Ulf Kristersson and for whose web portal Riks he also works regularly.

There is currently no evidence that Russia initiated or even ordered the burning of the Koran in Stockholm through Frick. There are only clues that point to a connection. But maybe there is no need for a direct order, after all, Russian interests are obvious. The political consequences of the burning of the Koran play perfectly into the Kremlin’s hands; after all, NATO expansion, which got underway with the Russian attack on Ukraine almost a year ago, would be a security policy nightmare.

Moscow already criticized the planned accession last year and warned of the consequences for European peace. So far, however, there have been no open, major disruptive attempts by Moscow against Finland and Sweden. However, the fact that the Kremlin is trying to reach its goal via detours fits in with the well-known practice of creating unrest and dividing societies with disinformation and the support of right-wing extremist or right-wing populist groups. It’s a form of hybrid warfare.

And Finland? Maintains to this day that it wants to join the alliance together with Sweden. Even if Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto hinted at going it alone last week. It is the absolute first option to move forward together, he said. However, one must be ready to reassess the situation if it turns out that the Swedish NATO application is stuck in the long term. In a survey published on Thursday by the Finnish newspaper “Ilta-Sanomat”, a majority of those questioned said that Finland should not wait if the ratification of the Swedish application took longer.

There is still time to wait. In April there will be elections in Finland – then there could be a change of government. It is unclear whether a new government would stick to the common path with Sweden. Presidential and parliamentary elections will follow in Turkey in May. Observers hope that Erdogan will then give up his blocking stance and that NATO expansion can be completed by the July summit. If it doesn’t come to that, patience could run out in Finland.