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NATO ramps up pressure on Turkey to drop objections, allow Sweden to join the military organization

NATO on Thursday ramped up pressure on member nation Turkey to drop its objections to Sweden’s membership as the military organization seeks to deal with the issue by the time U.S. President Joe Biden and his counterparts meet next month.

The 31-member alliance is also looking at boosting Ukraine’s non-member status in NATO and preparing a framework for security commitments that it can offer once the war with Russia is over.

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO wants to bring Sweden into the fold by the time allied leaders meet in Lithuania on July 11-12. The allies also hope to make progress on long-term funding and the security plan for Ukraine at the same event, Stoltenberg said.

He said the allies continue to agree that Ukraine will become a NATO member one day but that in the meantime the alliance should provide it with security commitments and substantial new funding.

“Our focus today was on how we can bring Ukraine closer to NATO where it belongs,” he said. Most NATO allies agree that Ukraine will not join while it remains at war.

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“No one knows when the war will end, but we must ensure that when it does, we have credible arrangements in place to guarantee Ukraine’s security in the future and break Russia’s cycle of aggression,” Stoltenberg said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the allies were “focused on helping Ukraine to build up its medium- and long-term security capacity so that if and when the current aggression settles, Ukraine has the full capacity to deter future aggression.”

“NATO has a role in that in terms of the work it can do to bring Ukraine up to NATO standards,” he said. He did not elaborate.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, listens as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at Oslo City Hall, during a meeting of NATOs foreign ministers in Oslo, on June 1, 2023.  (Lise Aserud/NTB Scanpix via AP)

Fearing they might be targeted by Moscow after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Sweden and Finland abandoned their traditional positions of military nonalignment to seek protection under NATO’s security umbrella. Finland became NATO’s 31st member country in April.

NATO must agree unanimously for countries to join. Turkey’s government accuses Sweden of being too lenient on terrorist organizations and security threats, including militant Kurdish groups and people associated with a 2016 coup attempt.

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Hungary has also delayed its approval, but the reasons why have not been made publicly clear.

Stoltenberg said that he would travel to Ankara “in the near future to continue to address how we can ensure the fastest possible accession of Sweden.”

A NATO diplomat said that Stoltenberg and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could meet this weekend, on the sidelines of the Turkish leader’s inauguration. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity as the precise details of the talks were not finalized.

“My message is that Sweden has delivered, and the time has come to ratify Sweden,” Stoltenberg told reporters at the conclusion of two days of informal talks between alliance foreign ministers to prepare for the summit in Vilnius.

Others echoed his comments.

“It’s time for Sweden to join now,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt told reporters.

“I’m confident that also Hungary will ratify the accession protocol,” Stoltenberg said.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said it was “essential that we can finally welcome Sweden as the 32nd member.” She stressed that the Swedish government had Berlin’s “full support.”

Sweden’s foreign minister, Tobias Billström, said that “it is time for Turkey and Hungary to start the ratification of the Swedish membership to NATO.” He said that “everything (that) bars Sweden joining NATO will be seen as wine for (Russian president Vladimir) Putin.”

But speaking to national media, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said: “We are not willing to accept any pressure. The Hungarian Parliament will decide on ratification in a sovereign manner, which the government will of course support.”

For months, Sweden, Finland and Turkey held talks to try to address Ankara’s concerns. Billström said he expected things to be made clear at a new meeting of this “permanent joint mechanism” in coming weeks.

He noted that as of Thursday, Sweden had tightened its anti-terrorism laws. It is now it illegal to finance, recruit for or publicly encourage “a terrorist organization,” or to travel abroad with the intention of joining such groups.

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The time may be ripe for movement. Sweden’s NATO membership became embroiled in campaigning for Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections last month. Erdogan won reelection in a runoff vote on Sunday. He also has been seeking upgraded U.S. fighter jets, and Washington signaled this week that they might be delivered.

“I spoke to Erdogan and he still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden. So let’s get that done,” Biden said Monday.

On Tuesday, Blinken insisted that the issues of Sweden’s membership and the fighter jets were distinct. However, he stressed that the completion of both would dramatically strengthen European security.

“Both of these are vital, in our judgement, to European security,” Blinken told reporters. “We believe that both should go forward as quickly as possible; that is to say Sweden’s accession and moving forward on the F-16 package more broadly.”

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