Alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Monday in Vilnius that Turkey would ask its parliament to advance Sweden’s membership in NATO “as soon as possible.”
The change comes after months of tortuous negotiations over Turkey’s demands and on the eve of a crucial two-day NATO summit where leaders including US President Joe Biden are eager to show a united front and signal to Vladimir Putin that his war on Ukraine has paid off. Just strengthen the alliance.
NATO’s expansion in the north heralds one of the most significant changes in the European security landscape after Russian aggression led to shifts including increased defense spending in Germany and plans to re-conscription in France. The 2022 attack on Ukraine led to a change almost overnight in the public opposition to NATO membership in Finland and Sweden.
“Completing Sweden’s accession to NATO is a historic step that benefits the security of all NATO allies at this critical time,” Stoltenberg said in Vilnius. “I won’t give you the exact dates for that. But it’s a clear commitment.”
Earlier on Monday, Erdogan made a demand in return — Sweden in NATO if the EU opened its doors to Turkey — only to be reminded by Brussels that they are two separate operations. But after the sudden request, a solution to the impasse emerged behind closed doors within hours.
Erdoğan met with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and then-President of the European Council Charles Michel. After these talks took place, Michel said the bloc would present a report on the EU’s relations with Turkey, “with the aim of moving forward in a strategic and forward-looking way”.
According to a Turkish official, Erdogan has been given assurances on key demands, including Stockholm’s approach to Kurdish separatist supporters operating in its territory. There has also been progress toward lifting defense-related sanctions and EU officials have agreed to speed up membership negotiations, including an upgrade to the customs union and visa liberalization for its citizens.
Stoltenberg predicts that Hungary, the only NATO member not to accept Sweden’s offer, will follow suit because “they said they didn’t want to be the last to not believe.”
What remains unclear is how much Biden’s comments over the weekend that Turkey’s purchase of US F-16 fighter jets were “in play” contributed to Erdogan’s turn to Sweden. Biden issued a statement saying he welcomed the agreement and the two leaders will meet on Tuesday.
Congress must approve major US arms sales to foreign allies, and a bipartisan group of senators told Biden earlier this year that lawmakers should not consider a $20 billion sale of warplanes until the country certifies Sweden’s membership.
Back in Washington, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, one of the biggest handicappers, appeared to soften his stance when questioned by reporters. He said “there may be a way forward” on “Next Week”.
The decision came after more than a year of procrastination and controversial rhetoric, with Ankara repeatedly accusing Stockholm of failing to do enough to crack down on Kurdish groups it considers terrorist.
The Turkish shift follows a flurry of diplomatic activity that saw Kristerson visit Biden in Washington, and Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström also met his Turkish counterpart at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
“I’ve worked very hard for this to happen, including almost endless conversations with prime ministers and other presidents, and the response has been very good,” Christerson told reporters on Monday. “Today we have taken a very big step towards completing the certification process.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also discussed Sweden’s ambitions with Erdogan during a visit to Istanbul on July 7.
“Today’s decision is very important because it shows the possibility of reaching a consensus within NATO,” said Ihor Zovkva, Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff in charge of external relations. “We hope that more political decisions will be taken during the summit and that Ukraine will eventually become the 33rd member.”
Once Sweden’s accession was complete, it would wrest NATO control of the Baltic Sea and give the alliance the upper hand in the Arctic region—both strategic gateways for Russia—even as Moscow falters in its invasion of Ukraine. Seven of the eight countries in the Arctic will belong to NATO.
Sweden’s inclusion in the group would also simplify defense planning for the alliance. Not only will NATO benefit from Sweden’s fighter planes, naval prowess, and other military assets, but also from its ability to move troops or equipment easily across the territory of the North.
With both Finland and Sweden joining the alliance, it would give NATO better access to bolster the Baltic states with military support in the event of a crisis.
The region has long been seen as the bloc’s weak point because troops and equipment arriving by land would have to cross a narrow corridor between Poland and Lithuania sandwiched between the Russian heartland of Kaliningrad and its ally, Belarus. DM