The war in Ukraine transformed attitudes in both countries and has set off a broader discussion in Europe about how to defend against a more dangerous Russia. Leaders of most NATO countries have indicated they welcome Finnish and Swedish membership and believe it would strengthen the alliance. NATO leaders were expected to sign off on the expansion at a June summit in Madrid — or that was the plan until Friday’s comments from Erdogan.
NATO requires unanimity to approve new members, meaning Erdogan’s resistance could be a significant roadblock. Russia has threatened “retaliatory steps” against Finland and Sweden if they join.
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At a minimum, Erdogan’s remarks appeared to signal a desire to extract concessions from Sweden over its willingness to host members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a group that has fought a decades-long insurrection against Turkey and is considered a terrorist movement by Ankara and the United States.
“We are following the developments with Sweden and Finland, but we don’t have favorable thoughts,” Erdogan told reporters Friday.
While he stopped short of announcing a veto of any potential membership bid, the Turkish leader accused Nordic countries of harboring “terrorist organizations.”
The dispute showed that there were limits to NATO solidarity over the conflict in Ukraine, after 2½ months of fighting. Many NATO nations have channeled weaponry and other aid to Ukraine, and there is broad consensus that the alliance needs to strengthen its defenses against Russia. But as discussions continue about how much to bolster NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe, there are divisions about how exactly to respond.
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The disputes are particularly important as Ukrainian and Western officials warn that the conflict is not headed for a quick resolution and could drag on for months or years, taxing Western unity.
“We are entering a new, 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 strength in such a way that the enemy ultimately breaks.”
Erdogan’s skepticism was a shift from previous discussions within NATO about the prospective membership bids from Helsinki and Stockholm, in which there was unanimous agreement, if informally, that the existing 30 members would welcome two more. Erdogan faces presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023 at the latest, and his comments were probably at least in part aimed at his domestic audience, which has often rewarded a sharp attitude toward the Kurdish minority.
But they also could strain relations with Washington at a time when they have been warming because of Turkish support for Ukraine during the conflict. They also could increase tensions with other NATO countries. Erdogan has a long track record of using NATO’s consensus-driven policymaking bodies to extract concessions on other issues. In this instance, he may be targeting the United States, analysts said, with potential demands related to access to top-of-the-line U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets, or U.S. dealings with Kurds in Syria.
“He’s done this kind of tactic before,” said retired U.S. Navy Adm. 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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U.S. diplomats said they would keep talking to Turkey.
The United States is seeking to “clarify Turkey’s position,” Karen Donfried, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters. “It is not clear to me that Turkey is saying they will oppose Sweden’s application.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was preparing to travel to Germany on Saturday for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers that will include the top diplomats from Finland, Sweden and Turkey.
“Certainly this will be a conversation that will continue over the weekend,” Donfried said.
The Biden administration has said it supports Finland and Sweden’s membership bids and will work on ensuring support within the alliance — assuming the two countries formally make an application.
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President Biden spoke jointly Friday with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, telling them of “his support for NATO’s Open Door policy and for 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, meanwhile, spoke Friday with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, urging an immediate cease-fire and emphasizing the importance of maintaining lines of communication, the Pentagon said.
If Turkey can be won over, the expectation is that NATO leaders will formally approve Finland and Sweden’s applications at their summit in June. Then national legislatures need to ratify it. The full process could take six months to a year, officials say. Hungary, which is led by a Kremlin-friendly prime minister, Viktor Orban, may also be a question mark, although he has agreed to previous rounds of NATO expansion.
Finland already appeared to be facing Russian blowback over its contemplation of NATO membership. On Friday, a Russian-owned energy company, RAO Nordic, said it planned to halt electricity sales to Finland on Saturday over nonpayment.
Swedish policymakers said previous discussions with their Turkish counterparts about NATO membership had been positive, and they suggested they viewed Erdogan’s threat as a bargaining ploy.
“We know that ratification processes always involve certain uncertainties, not least that you want to use ratification for something on domestic policy,” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde told a Swedish broadcaster Friday.
She said she believed Sweden would hold negotiating power should it decide to apply for membership.
“I think we would get very strong support from large, important countries that are members, which Turkey is also interested in having a good relationship with,” she said.
Linde told reporters earlier Friday that she favored membership.
“Swedish NATO membership would raise the threshold for military conflicts and thus have a conflict-preventing effect in Northern Europe,” she said. “Military nonalignment has served us well, but we are in a new situation now.”
A parliamentary report released Friday, titled “Deterioration of the security environment — implications for Sweden,” refrained from casting judgment on whether Sweden should join NATO but noted that the country’s security would be “adversely impacted” if Finland were to join and leave Sweden as the only nonmember in the Nordic and Baltic regions.
The invasion of Ukraine, which is a NATO partner but not a member, had shown the dangers of remaining outside the alliance’s collective defense structure, the report said.
The report also outlined the dangers of accession to NATO, acknowledging that Russia would “react negatively” to any such step. The most probable response would include “various types of influence activities” against the general public or Swedish decision-makers, it said, underlining the importance of obtaining security assurances from countries within the alliance during any transition period before Sweden gained full membership.
Sweden and Finland have remained outside the U.S.-led Cold War alliance since it was founded in 1949, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is prompting both nations to pick a side.
Finland’s president and prime minister said Thursday that their nation must “apply for NATO membership without delay.” The decision, expected in the coming days, would have to be approved by Parliament.
Sweden is likely to follow Finland’s lead, diplomats said, with formal applications 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.