Biden hosts leaders of Finland and Sweden, eager to fast-track NATO accession

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WASHINGTON — 

President Biden is scheduled to host the prime minister of Sweden and president of Finland at the White House on Thursday, determined to send a strong signal of support for the two nations in their push to join NATO.

The meeting comes just a day after the longtime neutral countries formally applied for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the defense pact founded after World War II, though one existing member is seeking to slow things down.

Turkey on Wednesday prevented NATO from initiating the organization’s review process to admit Finland and Sweden. Biden and his aides brushed off the move, expressing confidence that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s objections can be resolved.

“We’re confident that at the end of the day, Finland and Sweden will have an effective and efficient accession process, and that Turkey’s concerns can be addressed,” said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, during a briefing at the White House.

Turkish officials have criticized both Nordic countries for placing export bans on some military goods to Turkey and supporting “terrorist organizations,” including the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. Turkey has been battling the PKK, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group, since the 1980s.

Speaking as if the expansion of NATO were a mere formality, Sullivan called it “a historic event, a watershed moment in European security,” declaring that “two nations with a long tradition of neutrality will be joining the world’s most powerful defensive alliance.”

Biden, who had issued a formal statement earlier in the day declaring his “strong support” for the two nations’ NATO bids, told reporters that he remained optimistic.

“I think we’re gonna be OK,” he said.

Biden is squeezing in the meeting Thursday with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto ahead of his departure for Seoul and a six-day Asia swing aimed at solidifying ties with Indo-Pacific allies to further constrain China and Russia.

While the leaders are sure to discuss in private their ongoing efforts to mollify Turkey, the outward symbolism of the White House meeting is meant to convey a clear message to other NATO members and the world.

“NATO is a 30-member organization. But when Washington leads, other countries follow,” said Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. “If Turkey’s objections were insurmountable, I don’t think the U.S. and [NATO Secretary General Jens] Stoltenberg would have been so certain in their rhetoric about the enlargement. They’re acting like this is a speed bump, not a stoplight.”

In reality, however, it will take months for Finland and Sweden to be welcomed into the alliance. Even if all 30 member nations vote to approve their applications at next month’s NATO summit in Madrid, the organization’s treaty requires parliamentary approval from all member states before the process is complete.

The president’s official statement promised that the U.S. would “work with Finland and Sweden to remain vigilant against any threats to our shared security, and to deter and confront aggression or the threat of aggression” while their applications are under consideration.

“We will not tolerate any aggression against Finland or Sweden during this process,” Sullivan said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to intimidate Finland and Sweden out of applying to join NATO with vague threats of military force.

Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine — a necessary response, the Kremlin has said, to crush that country’s own aspirations of NATO membership — has backfired for Moscow, changing the security calculations for European leaders and fostering new cohesion and deeper purpose within a decades-old organization that had seemed to be fraying.

In Sweden and Finland, countries synonymous throughout the Cold War with strategic neutrality, Russia’s attack on a sovereign neighbor sparked a shocking shift in public opinion, as majorities long skeptical of NATO membership quickly came to see the alliance as vital to their long-term security.

If Finland joins the alliance, it will more than double the amount of NATO territory abutting Russia — a geopolitical shift with ramifications for both sides.

Biden, in responding to Putin’s unprovoked war with a ratcheting up of economic sanctions on Russia and defense aid for Ukraine, has made a point of moving in lockstep with NATO allies, believing that maintaining unity among democratic allies is crucial in ensuring Russia’s eventual defeat.

Now, the prospect of an expanding NATO — 30 nations, essentially, committing to guarantee the security of two more European nations, including one with an 830-mile shared border with Russia — will again test the alliance’s bonds.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, meeting with his Turkish counterpart at the United Nations on Wednesday, expressed the administration’s gratitude for Turkey’s solidarity thus far in responding to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the two countries would work to “overcome the differences through dialogue and diplomacy.”

Standing next to Blinken while answering questions from reporters, Cavusoglu said, “You know, Tony, Turkey has been supporting the open-door policy of NATO even before this war, but with regards to these possible candidates — already candidate countries — you know, we have also legitimate security concerns.”

“So,” he added, “what I’m trying to say is: We understand their security concerns, but Turkey’s security concerns should be also met.”

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