- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Turkey on Tuesday dropped its opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, seemingly clearing the way for the two nations to enter the trans-Atlantic alliance and delivering a major boost to Western solidarity amid the Russia-Ukraine war.

“We now have an agreement that paves the way for Finland and Sweden to join NATO,” Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general, announced Tuesday in Madrid, where the alliance is holding a major strategic summit this week.

Turkish officials said their nation “got what it wanted” from Sweden and Finland, including “full cooperation” against Kurdish rebel groups living in the Scandinavian countries that Ankara considers terrorists. Representatives from Turkey, Finland, Sweden and NATO reportedly met for more than two hours Tuesday before the agreement was made public.

President Biden quickly hailed the trilateral deal paving the way for the two Nordic nations to join NATO. In a statement from the NATO summit in Madrid, Mr. Biden urged fellow NATO allies to quickly grant final approval of the two countries’ applications to join the alliance.

“I look forward to working with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, our allies, and with Congress to ensure that we can quickly welcome them into our alliance,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Biden had hosted President Sauli Niinisto of Finland and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden at the White House last month, endorsing their bids while noting, “Finland and Sweden are strong democracies with highly capable militaries.”

The candidacies of Sweden and Finland are at the top of the agenda at this week’s NATO summit, arguably the most consequential in decades as the alliance stares down a newly aggressive Russia that is intent on slicing off large chunks of eastern and southern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have expected that his invasion of Ukraine, now in its fourth month, would spark divisions within NATO, weaken the alliance, and give Moscow an opening to extend its influence throughout the region.

Instead, NATO has remained mostly unified, with the U.S. and other member states collaborating closely on economic sanctions against Russia and on the delivery of arms to Ukrainian forces on the front lines.

The decisions by Sweden and Finland to seek full NATO membership, after decades of keeping their distance from the Western military alliance, also will dramatically enhance the alliance’s presence on Russia’s doorstep. Sweden does not border Russia, but neighboring Finland shares an 833-mile boundary with Russia, meaning that the amount of NATO military forces and equipment in Moscow’s backyard could increase dramatically over the coming years.

But some specialists warn that such NATO expansion comes with questions as well as answers, including exactly which countries will bear the burden of securing the alliance’s Finnish border with Russia.

“Its membership would add 830 miles to NATO’s border with Russia, more than doubling it. The question of whose forces might bolster Finland’s defense, and what role U.S. nuclear weapons play, should be discussed at this meeting and beyond. But that seems likely to be waved aside in favor of a coronation atmosphere,” said Benjamin Friedman, policy director at the think tank Defense Priorities, which advocates a more restrained U.S. military role abroad.

Russian officials have threatened “retaliatory steps” if the two nations are admitted into NATO. And the Kremlin on Tuesday, perhaps expecting developments on Sweden‘s and Finland‘s NATO bids, effectively kicked out two Swedish organizations, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the Swedish Institute.

Those two agencies are “striving to destabilize Russian society,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said, according to the country’s state-run Tass news agency.

A Biden administration official told the Associated Press that Washington did not offer Turkey any special incentives or concessions to drop its opposition to the Scandinavian nations’ bids, which must be approved unanimously by NATO‘s 27 members. Some critics feared the administration could offer Turkey the chance to resume full participation in the Pentagon’s F-35 fighter jet program, which the U.S. cut off in 2019 after Ankara went ahead with the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.

U.S. officials say the S-400 could open up major security vulnerabilities and rob the F-35 of some of its stealth capabilities.

That issue does not appear to have been a part of the discussions between officials from Turkey, Sweden, Finland and NATO. Instead, the conversation focused on terrorism and Turkey‘s demands that both Stockholm and Helsinki take steps to assuage Ankara’s security concerns.

Turkey has long been critical of Sweden and Finland for their approach toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a rebel group with links to the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. The SDF has been the chief U.S. partner in the years-long fight against the terror group the Islamic State in Syria, and Sweden in particular is home to a large community of Kurdish exiles.

Turkey‘s state-run Anadolu news agency reported that the document signed Tuesday by the three nations includes a commitment by Sweden and Finland to “take concrete steps” on the extradition of terrorists back to Turkey. Sweden and Finland also will investigate and stop any financing or recruitment efforts by the PKK, Anadolu reported, and also will commit to prevent the activities of the PKK and any of its affiliate groups.

Finland and Sweden also will not impose any arms embargoes on the Turkish defense industry, Anadolu said, according to the terms of the agreement.

A Turkish military incursion into Syria in late 2018 — ostensibly to eliminate threats to Turkey posed by the PKK — sparked a major shake-up in the national security team of then-President Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump ordered the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Syria ahead of that incursion, leading to the immediate resignation of then-Defense Secretary James Mattis and American diplomat Brett McGurk, who was the U.S. envoy to the multinational anti-ISIS coalition.

Despite Mr. Trump’s attempt to get out of Syria, the U.S. still has a sizable troop presence in Syria.

— Staff writer Joseph Clark contributed to this report.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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