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Sensemaker: Nato sandwich

Sensemaker: Nato sandwich

What just happened

Long stories short

  • A powerful earthquake killed more than 1,000 people in Syria and Turkey.
  • US navy divers searched for hardware from a Chinese spy balloon shot down over the Atlantic on Saturday (more below).
  • Beyoncé won four Grammys, making her the most Grammy-winning artist of all time.

Nato sandwich

Finland and Sweden want to join Nato to strengthen their security against Russia. Turkey has an effective veto over their applications and says it may approve Finland’s but turn down Sweden’s. The two countries insist they will join together, and the US Congress is threatening to torpedo a $20 billion arms sale to Turkey unless it signs off on both. 

So what? The losses from this morning’s terrible earthquake across Turkey and Syria will be mourned and the international community will rally to send aid (see Planet, below). But the question of whether Nato expands to the north, and how fast, will define its posture against Russia for decades to come – and the answer depends on Turkey. 

Opportunity. Swedish and Finnish Nato membership would end their long-standing non-aligned status and represent a huge strategic boost to the alliance.

Cost. Turkey has been insisting that both countries take stronger action against groups that it considers terrorists, particularly the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a religious group it blames for a failed coup in 2016. The three countries reached a deal last June that included:

  • Finland and Sweden lifting arms embargoes imposed on Turkey after it invaded Syria in 2019; and 
  • agreement on a series of steps to cooperate with Turkey on anti-terrorism measures. Last week Sweden introduced a new law banning all activities that support terror organisations, which required a change to its constitution. 

Turkey has also been pushing Sweden to extradite dozens of people it accuses of terrorism, some of whom Sweden considers political asylum seekers. Sweden is home to around 100,000 Kurds. In Finland the figure is closer to 15,000. 

It gets worse. Last month, a pro-Kurdish group hung an effigy of Erdogan outside Stockholm’s city hall. A week later, Rasmus Paludan, a notorious Danish far-right provocateur, burned a copy of the Koran in front of the Turkish embassy, prompting outrage in Turkey and across the Muslim world. Erdogan suspended accession talks.

What Erdogan wants (part 1): To stay in power. Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development (AK) party face elections in mid-May. That means keeping voters’ attention off

  • the economy, as households face official inflation of 60 per cent, and 
  • the polls, which suggest a tight race despite Erdogan and allies controlling around 90 per cent of the country’s media.

In these circumstances, a row with Sweden is “a convenient issue for Erdogan to have on his plate,” says Jamie Shea, a former Nato director of policy planning. Defending the Koran and demanding Nato pay more attention to Turkey’s security interests is smart politics. 

What now? Finland and Sweden’s accession has been ratified by 28 of Nato’s 30 members. Hungary says it will ratify soon, leaving Turkey the only holdout. Defence officials want to make plans: Finland and Sweden’s joint membership would turn the Baltic into a “Nato lake” and make it easier to defend Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. 

Finland could technically join without Sweden, but “it’s massively easier in terms of Nato’s military planning to have the two countries join together,” Shea says. 

What Erdogan wants (part 2): 40 new American-made F-16 fighter jets, part of the arms sale that members of the US Congress have explicitly linked to Sweden and Finland’s Nato membership. It’s a good bargaining chip. But Paul Levin, director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies, says it’s still “a guessing game” on when Turkey could ratify. 

“Sweden will have to show concrete results from implementing the tougher antiterrorism laws that will likely enter into effect in the summer,” he says. “And then there is the risk that Erdogan feels personally offended and holds a grudge. That he can do for quite some time.” 

One person who benefits from the delay is… Putin.


Not with a bang, but a simper

Matthew d’Ancona

Liz Truss’s 4,000-word “comeback” essay is both preposterous – and yet another symptom of the approaching end of the long Conservative era


Truss’s long tail
Remember LDIs? Liz Truss does. Downing Street’s 49-day wonder has blamed her short stint there partly on Treasury officials’ failure to warn her about the small print attached to billions worth of pensions built on liability-driven investments. When her September 2022 mini-budget sprang a mountain of unfunded borrowing on the markets, some LDI contracts required pension managers to sell assets at any price to meet collateral calls from their counterparties. Truss can’t blame officials for not warning her about something they had no idea was coming, but five months on that’s ancient history. More worrying now is advice to BlackRock and others to get out of LDIs for the sake of future stability. LDIs were designed to help pension funds meet future liabilities. What if they can’t?


Spy fall
The question posed by the Chinese spy balloon alarum isn’t “why?” but “why now?”. The balloon spent most of last week drifting across the US, peering down at missile silos. Having shot it down with a Sidewinder from an F-22 on Saturday, the Biden administration is trying to head off criticism that it didn’t act sooner by hinting that similar balloons went unchallenged in the Trump years. This is entirely plausible and recalls the U2 affair of 1960, when Eisenhower had to pretend his spy planes were on weather missions when it was clear to all they weren’t. Now, as then, a summit has been cancelled. Was this China’s intention? There are two other possibilities: that backchannels between Chinese and US intelligence agencies that used to give warnings of stray balloons have become clogged; and that Xi Jinping’s intelligence people have stopped talking to his foreign policy people. Either one would be more worrying than a mere balloon.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

No reply
Today, England faces the biggest day of strikes in NHS history as nurses and ambulance staff walk out. This week, there will be industrial action across the NHS every day except Wednesday. Impact on non-emergency care is inevitable as an already stretched and depleted workforce becomes more so. Could it have been avoided? Physio, midwife and nurses strikes in Wales were suspended on Friday after the Welsh government put a 3 per cent pay offer on the table. In Scotland, widespread action was put on hold in mid-January as the Scottish health secretary negotiates with unions on 2023 pay. The Royal College of Nursing head Pat Cullen strongly insinuated in a letter to Rishi Sunak on Saturday that if the RCN had a similar offer to Wales from Westminster they would have brought it to members and cancelled their strike. As of this morning, Sunak had given no reply. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Terrible tremors
Millions of people across multiple countries were shaken awake as the buildings started to tremble at 4:17am. The epicentre of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, one of the most powerful recorded quakes to ever hit the region, was near the city of Gaziantep in southern Turkey but was felt as far away as Israel and Cyprus – with one of the many aftershocks as strong as magnitude 6.7. More than 1,000 deaths have been reported so far in Turkey and Syria and that number is rising quickly, with hundreds of people trapped under rubble. The epicentre region is home to millions of Syrian refugees and rebel-held northwestern Syria has no state rescue service and has been battered by years of war. It’s hard to imagine a more vulnerable area; or a more difficult one in which to deliver urgently needed aid.


Pogrund v the Met
In a modern monarchy, it’s surely obvious that the monarch shouldn’t be above the law. So Gabriel Pogrund’s complaint in the Sunday Times is worth repeating: it is that 18 months after he revealed the then Prince of Wales’s staff had promised to help a Saudi businessman get an honour in exchange for a seven-figure donation to the Prince’s Foundation, the Met police has promised an investigation but nothing has happened. Officers haven’t spoken to the (now ex) staffers, nor to the ex-prince (now king), and Pogrund’s Freedom of Information requests to the Met go unanswered. So what did King Charles know and when about promises to Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz of honours in return for cash?

The week ahead


06/02 – Nurses and ambulance workers walkout in biggest strike day in NHS history; sentencing hearing for former Metropolitan police officer and serial rapist David Carrick; Church of England general synod begins; Liz Truss interview with the Spectator airs 5pm, 07/02 –Nurses remain on strike; John Healey, shadow defence secretary, outlines Labour’s plans for defence and security at RUSI think tank, 08/02 – Supreme Court ruling on legality of Northern Ireland protocol arrangements, 09/02 – University staff begin two-day strike; West Lancashire by-election to replace Labour’s Rosie Cooper MP, 10/02 – GDP figures released; ambulance workers on strike.


06/02 – National security trial of 47 democracy activists begins in Hong Kong; all Covid travel restrictions removed between mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, 07/02 – Joe Biden delivers State of the Union address; mass strike action in France to protest plans to raise retirement age, 10/02 – EU summit; New York Fashion Week; Biden hosts Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

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Jessica Winch

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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