The war in Ukraine transformed attitudes in both countries and sparked a wider discussion in Europe about how to defend against a more dangerous Russia. The leaders of most NATO countries have indicated that they welcome Finland and Sweden’s membership and believe it will strengthen the alliance. NATO leaders had to approve the expansion at a June summit in Madrid – or that was the plan until Erdogan’s comments on Friday.
NATO requires unanimity to approve new members, which means Erdogan’s resistance could be a significant obstacle. Russia has threatened “retaliatory measures” against Finland and Sweden if they join.
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At a minimum, Erdogan The remarks seemed to indicate a desire to extract concessions from Sweden over its willingness to host members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a group that has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey and is seen as a terrorist movement by Ankara and the United States. states.
“We are following the developments with Sweden and Finland, but we don’t have favorable opinions,” Erdogan told reporters on Friday.
While he refrained from announcing a veto on any potential membership bid, the Turkish leader accused the Nordic countries of harboring “terrorist organisations”.
The dispute has shown that there are limits to NATO’s solidarity in the face of the conflict in Ukraine, after two and a half months of fighting. Many NATO countries have funneled arms and other aid to Ukraine, and there is broad consensus that the alliance needs to strengthen its defenses against Russia. But as discussions continue over how much to boost NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe, there are divisions over exactly how to respond.
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The differences are particularly salient as Ukrainian and Western officials warn that the conflict is not headed for a quick resolution and could drag on for months or years, testing Western unity.
“We are entering a new and long phase of the war,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov wrote on Facebook on Friday. “To win it, we must plan resources carefully, avoid mistakes, and project our force in such a way that the enemy will eventually break.”
Erdogan’s skepticism was a change from previous discussions within NATO over potential candidacies from Helsinki and Stockholm, in which there was unanimous, albeit unofficial, agreement that the existing 30 members would host two. others. Erdogan will face presidential and legislative elections no later than June 2023, and his comments were likely at least partly aimed at his domestic audience, which has often rewarded a cantankerous attitude toward the Kurdish minority.
But they could also strain relations with Washington at a time when they have warmed due to Turkish support for Ukraine during the conflict. They could also increase tensions with other NATO countries. Erdogan has long used NATO’s consensus-oriented policy-making bodies to extract concessions on other issues. In this case, he could target the United States, analysts said, with potential demands related to access to high-end US-made F-35 fighter jets or US relations with the Kurds. in Syria.
“He’s done this kind of tactic before,” said retired US Navy Admiral James Foggo, dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy, a think tank. “He will use it as leverage to get a good deal for Turkey.”
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US diplomats said they would continue to talk to Turkey.
The United States is seeking to “clarify Turkey’s position”, Karen Donfried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters. “It is not clear to me that Turkey is saying that it will oppose Sweden’s candidacy.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was are preparing to travel to Germany on Saturday for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers which will include top diplomats from Finland, Sweden and Turkey.
“It will definitely be a conversation that will continue over the weekend,” Donfried said.
The Biden administration has said it backs membership bids from Finland and Sweden and will work to secure support within the alliance — assuming both countries formally apply.
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President Biden spoke Friday with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, telling them of “his support for NATO’s open door policy and the right of Finland and Sweden to decide their own future, foreign policy and security arrangements”. the White House said in a statement.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Friday for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine, calling for an immediate ceasefire and stressing the importance of maintaining lines of communication, the Pentagon said.
If Turkey can be conquered, NATO leaders are expected to formally endorse the candidacies of Finland and Sweden at their June summit. Then the national legislatures must ratify it. The entire process could take six months to a year, officials said. Hungary, which is led by a Kremlin-friendly prime minister, Viktor Orban, may also be a question mark, despite accepting previous rounds of NATO expansion.
Finland already appeared to be facing a Russian backlash over its NATO membership. On Friday, a Russian energy company, RAO Nordic, said it planned to halt electricity sales to Finland on Saturday for non-payment.
Swedish policymakers said previous talks with their Turkish counterparts about NATO membership had been positive, and they suggested they saw Erdogan’s threat as a bargaining ploy.
“We know that ratification processes always involve some uncertainties, including that you want to use the ratification for something on domestic politics,” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde told a Swedish TV channel on Friday.
She said she believed Sweden would hold the bargaining power if it decided to apply for membership.
“I think we would get very strong support from big important countries that are members, with whom Turkey also wants to have good relations,” she said.
Linde told reporters earlier Friday that she was in favor of joining.
“Sweden’s membership in NATO would raise the threshold for military conflict and thus have a conflict-preventing effect in Northern Europe,” she said. “Military non-alignment has served us well, but now we are in a new situation.”
A parliamentary report published on Friday, entitled “Deterioration of the security environment – implications for Sweden”, refrained from passing judgment on Sweden’s NATO membership, but noted that the country’s security would be “negatively affected” if Finland joined and left Sweden as the only non-Nordic country. and the Baltic regions.
The invasion of Ukraine, which is a NATO partner but not a member, showed the dangers of remaining outside the alliance’s collective defense structure, the report said.
The report also highlighted the dangers of NATO membership, acknowledging that Russia would “react negatively” to such a move. The most likely response would include “various types of influence activities” against the general public or Swedish decision-makers, he said, stressing the importance of obtaining security guarantees from alliance countries during any transition period before Sweden becomes a full member.
Sweden and Finland have remained outside the US-led Cold War alliance since its inception in 1949, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has the two nations choosing sides.
Finland’s president and prime minister said on Thursday that their country should “apply for NATO membership without delay.” The decision, expected in the coming days, should be approved by Parliament.
Sweden is likely to follow Finland’s lead, diplomats said, with formal requests sent to NATO as early as next week.
Zeynep Karatas and Kareem Fahim in Istanbul; Liz Sly in Riga, Latvia; and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.