NATO poised to expand with Finland, Sweden

NATO welcomed decisions by Finland and Sweden to seek membership in the military alliance as foreign ministers met to discuss fast-tracking an expansion.

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German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appear at a joint news conference in Berlin (AN/NATO)

NATO officials welcomed the decisions by Finland and Sweden to seek membership in the military alliance on Sunday, as foreign ministers met in Berlin to discuss fast-tracking the possible expansion.

“Their membership in NATO would increase our shared security, demonstrate that NATO’s door is open and that aggression does not pay,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

Stoltenberg also said it appears “Russia is not achieving its strategic objectives” as its forces retreat around Kharkiv and its offensive weakens in the eastern Donbas region. “President Putin wants Ukraine defeated, NATO down and Europe and North America divided. But Ukraine stands, NATO is stronger than ever. Europe and North America are solidly united. Ukraine can win this war,” he said.

Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin confirmed their nation will seek NATO membership. The Finnish Parliament is expected to support it, paving the way for a formal membership application.

Sweden’s governing Social Democratic party also expressed support for joining the military alliance, setting up a discussion in Sweden’s parliament and expected decision. Stoltenberg indicated NATO’s 30 member nations could move to expedite the prospective expansion, which would lead to a dramatic change in Europe’s security apparatus.

The two Nordic countries, long militarily nonaligned, significantly shifted their thinking in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia strongly opposes any NATO expansion and calls it a threat to its own security.

Already, Finnish and Swedish soldiers are participating in NATO’s large-scale military exercises in Europe this month and next, including one called “Hedgehog” that begins on Monday in Estonia with 15,500 troops. The exercises involve more than a dozen nations, including the United States.

Preparations for the “long-planned military exercises” began well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February but show that NATO is ready to deal with “any threat,” according to NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu.

‘Confident’ of consensus

NATO member Turkey voiced concerns about Finland and Sweden joining, saying the two countries back Kurdish militants that fought Turkey’s government for decades. Unanimous agreement is needed for NATO to accept a new member.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said his nation supports the idea of expanding NATO, but believes “countries supporting terrorism should not be allies in NATO.” He said his nation is particularly concerned about Swedish arms supplies to Kurdish militant groups.

Stoltenberg said Turkey “made it clear that their intention is not to block membership,” but rather to have its concerns aired.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said he was optimistic all NATO members would accept applications from Finland and Sweden. “As to the differences between Turkey, Finland, and Sweden that have been talked about, there’s an ongoing conversation, and the bottom line is this: When it comes to the membership process, I am very confident that we will reach consensus,” Blinken said.

The possible expansion is a major turnaround from NATO’s tensions at its 70th anniversary in 2019, when leaders worried over spending and strategies towards Russian and Chinese geopolitical ambitions.

The alliance was formed to enforce the North Atlantic Treaty, signed in Washington on April 4, 1949. Its aim was to prevent the Soviet Union from trying to invade Western Europe and, after the Soviet Union’s demise in December 1991, to also protect the former Warsaw Pact nations of Central and Eastern Europe.

NATO now has about 20,000 military personnel engaged in operations and missions around the world. It leads operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Mediterranean, and it also supports the African Union, conducts air patrols over the Baltic and provides air defense in Turkey. It says it also has an advisory and capacity-building mission in Iraq and carries out disaster relief operations and missions.

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