Sweden and Finland consider joining NATO as Turkey voices opposition

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed skepticism on Friday about Sweden and Finland potentially joining the NATO defense alliance, a sign of dissension in efforts to revamp Europe’s security architecture after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Turkish warning came a day after a historic recommendation by Finnish leaders that the country should join NATO and as Swedish leaders appeared ready to follow their example this weekend – a geopolitical earthquake after decades in which countries have remained resolutely neutral.

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. At a minimum, his remarks seemed to signal a drive to obtain concessions over Sweden’s willingness to grant asylum to members of Turkey’s Kurdish ethnic minority, whose main political group has been banned by Turkey.

“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 possible application for membership, the Turkish leader accused the Nordic countries of harboring “terrorist organisations”, in reference to groups such as the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan, or PKK. The group is banned in Turkey and classified as a terrorist organization by that country, the United States and the European Union. But Sweden tolerated it for a long time.

The dispute has shown that there are limits to NATO’s solidarity in the face of the conflict in Ukraine, after nearly three 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 the Kremlin. But as discussions continue over how much to boost NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe, there are divisions over exactly how to respond.

Erdogan’s skepticism was a change from previous discussions within NATO over the potential candidacy of Helsinki and Stockholm, in which there was unanimous, albeit unofficial, agreement that the existing 30 members would host two. others. Erdogan faces presidential and parliamentary elections no later than June 2023, and his acerbic stance was likely to be aimed at least in part at his domestic audience, which has often rewarded a caustic attitude toward the Kurdish minority.

But it would also strain relations with Washington at a time when they have warmed due to Turkish support for Ukraine during the conflict. It could also increase tensions with other NATO countries.

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.”

The remarks come as Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares to travel to Germany on Saturday for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers that 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 the potential candidacy of Finland and Sweden and will work to secure support within the alliance – assuming both countries formally apply.

If Turkey can be conquered, NATO leaders are expected to formally endorse the bid 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.

On Friday, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said joining the alliance would help prevent conflict.

“Sweden’s NATO membership would raise the threshold for military conflict and thus have a conflict-preventing effect in northern Europe,” Linde told reporters of a membership report that was released. sent to parliament. “Military non-alignment has served us well, but now we are in a new situation.”

Sweden also released a parliamentary report on Friday saying NATO membership would “raise the threshold for military conflict and thus have a deterrent effect in northern Europe.”

The document, titled “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 “affected negatively” if Finland joined and left Sweden as the only non-member country. in the Nordic and 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, he noted.

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 forces the two nations to choose sides.

Finland’s president and prime minister said on Thursday that their country should “apply for NATO membership without delay.” The decision, which is expected in the coming days, must be approved by parliament.

Sweden is likely to follow Finland’s lead, diplomats said.

Zeynep Karatas and Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.