Berlin (CNSNews.com) – Finland has welcomed decisions by Turkey and Hungary – the last holdouts – to move forward on ratifying the country’s entry into NATO, even though neighboring Sweden’s bid remains in limbo due to tensions with Ankara.
“We feel in Finland that Sweden is our closest partner. We applied together for NATO membership and we hope to achieve the goal to be members of NATO before the Vilnius summit, together with Sweden,” Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
“We feel that our membership is not complete until Sweden is part of NATO as well.”
In January, Haavisto said Finland and Sweden would join the alliance at the same time, “irrespective of all current objections and obstacles.” But a prolonged stand-off over Turkey’s demands that Sweden extradite wanted individuals appears to have brought about a change of heart.
On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto in Ankara that Turkey would ratify Finland’s NATO application before parliament goes into recess in mid-April, ahead of May 14 parliamentary and presidential elections. He made clear however that it would not do the same for Sweden.
In an interview Sunday with Swedish public broadcaster SVT, Niinisto defended the reversal in his country’s position.
“Should we have refused Turkey’s offer to ratify? That sounds a bit crazy,” he said. “It would have been a terribly difficult situation if we had said no to Ankara.”
Niinisto also said that Finland, Sweden, and Denmark were now each in separate talks with the United States about forging bilateral military pacts, similar to one Norway concluded with Washington earlier.
“I think that is a big change, almost bigger than NATO membership,” he said. “It means a lot if we all have a direct and quite similar [military] agreement with the United States.”
Hungary remains the only other NATO country yet to ratify both Finnish and Swedish applications to join the alliance, although the governing Fidesz parliamentary group said at the weekend it will “unanimously” vote for Finland’s entry on March 27.
“In the case of Sweden, the delegation will decide later,” said the group’s leader, Mate Kocsis.
Kocsis provided no reason for the delay on Sweden, although critics have accused Hungary of using the issue to pressure the E.U. over its withholding of funding due to rule of law concerns.
“How can they expect a quick and fair decision when all we hear about is how in Hungary there’s no democracy, rule of law, media freedom and judicial independence, which are all lies,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said last month.
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the announcements by Turkey and Hungary about the Finnish ratification, and downplayed the fact that the Turkey-Sweden impasse remains in place.
“The most important thing is that both Finland and Sweden become members as soon as possible, not that they join at exactly the same time,” he said alongside Haavisto in Brussels. “We will continue to work hard – it will be a top priority – to ensure that Sweden will also become a full member in the near future.”
Stoltenberg noted that Finland’s accession to NATO will mean the alliance’s border with Russia will more than double in length. Finland and Russia share an 800-mile border. Current NATO members with territory bordering Russia’s are Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, and Norway.
Finland and Sweden last May jointly applied to become NATO members in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Turkey immediately raised objections, complaining that the Nordic countries tolerate the presence of exiled Turks wanted on various charges at home – supporters of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or of Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed for a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Turkey, Finland, and Sweden signed a trilateral memorandum designed to resolve the disputes, but Ankara continues to demand the extradition of around 130 individuals. Sweden has extradited some of the wanted individuals but its courts blocked the extradition of others.
Incidents such as a Qur’an-burning protest in Stockholm then added to tensions in the relationship.
Christopher Skaluba of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security said that Finnish membership in NATO was the more pressing of the two, with Sweden being able to contribute to the alliance even without being a member.
“Finland’s long border with Russia paired with memories of the Soviet-Finnish Winter War makes joining NATO a national security consideration that trumps even solidarity with its close neighbor,” he wrote.
“A delay in Swedish membership likely matters very little for practical purposes,” Skaluba said. “Should a crisis erupt in the Baltic Sea region, Sweden could operate seamlessly alongside NATO allies. Informal workarounds would be needed for NATO to operate from Swedish territory or vice-versa, but it is likely such protocols have already been worked out and exercised.”
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the U.S. welcomed Erdogan’s announcement on Finland, but encouraged Turkey “to quickly ratify Sweden’s accession protocols as well.”
He also urged Hungary to ratify both countries’ NATO applications “without delay.”
“Sweden and Finland are both strong, capable partners that share NATO’s values and will strengthen the alliance and contribute to European security,” Sullivan said. “The United States believes that both countries should become members of NATO as soon as possible.”
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