WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday hailed the “momentous” applications of once-neutral Sweden and Finland to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, as the three countries worked to address continued opposition from Turkey for the two to join the alliance.
Biden greeted Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden and President Sauli Niinistö of Finland at the White House with handshakes and laughter as they met for trilateral conversations on the NATO mutual defense pact as well as broader European security concerns. His administration has professed optimism for their applications to join the alliance, which would mark a significant embarrassment to Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
“Today I’m proud to welcome and offer the strong support in the United States for the applications of two great democracies, and two close, highly capable partners to join the strongest, most powerful defensive alliance in the history of the world,” Biden said after escorting his fellow leaders to the Rose Garden.
“They meet every NATO requirement and then some," he said, and “having two new NATO members in the high north will enhance the security of our alliance.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded that the alliance stop expanding toward Russia’s borders, and several NATO allies, led by the United States and Britain, have signaled that they stand ready to provide security support to Finland and Sweden should the Kremlin try to provoke or destabilize them during the time it takes to become full members. Putin cited Ukraine's aspirations to join NATO as one reason for his invasion of the country.
“New members joining NATO is not a threat to any nation," Biden said in implicit rejection of Putin. “It never has been.” He added that the U.S. and allies would "deter and confront any aggression while Finland and Sweden are in this accession process.”
The leaders' optimism for Sweden and Finland's applications was set against lingering opposition from Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a Thursday video that he remains opposed. Each of NATO's 30 member countries has the power to veto a membership bid.
“We have told our relevant friends we would say ‘no’ to Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO, and we will continue on our path like this,” Erdogan told a group of Turkish youth in the video for Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day, a national holiday.
Erdogan has said Turkey’s objection stems from grievances with Sweden’s — and to a lesser degree with Finland’s — perceived support of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and an armed group in Syria that Turkey sees as an extension of the PKK. The conflict with the PKK has killed tens of thousands of people since 1984.
Turkey also accuses Sweden and Finland of harboring the followers of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Muslim cleric whom the Turkish government blames for 2016 military coup attempt.
The objections echo longtime Turkish complaints over even more substantial U.S. support for Kurds, as well as Gulen's presence in America.
Speaking at the White House, Finland's Niinistö said, “We are open to discussing all the concerns Turkey may have concerning our membership in an open and constructive manner."
He added: “We take terrorism seriously. We condemn terrorism in all its forms and we are actively engaged in combating it.”
Sweden's Andersson said her nation was also reaching out to Turkey, and other NATO nations, “to sort out any issues.”
“I think we’re going to be okay,” Biden said Wednesday when asked whether he was confident he could secure their entry into NATO.
While neutral throughout the Cold War, Finland and Sweden now cooperate closely with NATO. The countries will only benefit from NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee — the part of the alliance’s founding treaty that pledges that any attack on one member would be considered an attack on them all — once the membership ratification process is concluded. Public opinion in Finland and Sweden has shifted massively in favor of membership since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“After 200 years of military non alignment Sweden has chosen a new path,” Andersson said, calling Russia’s invasion a “watershed moment” causing her country to rethink its security posture. “My government has come to the conclusion that the security of the Swedish people will be best protected within the NATO alliance,” she said.
Biden on Thursday announced that he was asking the U.S. Senate to approve the new NATO memberships, pending Sweden and Finland's completion of the ratification process. The required step was expected to receive overwhelming, bipartisan support.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday that Finland and Sweden were “working directly” with Turkey to address its concerns, and that the U.S. was also speaking with Turkish officials to “try to help facilitate" a resolution.
“You’ve got a raucous collection of states that all have opinions, that all have perspectives, that all have interests,” Sullivan said. "But they also know how to and when to pull together and how to settle any differences. And I expect these differences will be settled.'
He added: “I expect that NATO will speak with one voice in support of Finland and Sweden at the end of the day."