NATO edges closer to expansion as Finland wins over holdouts

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Turkey and Hungary both signaled they plan to ratify Finland’s entry into NATO, bringing the military alliance a step closer to welcoming its 31st member as the ripples from

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spread across the European security landscape.

“We’ve decided to start the process for the approval of Finland’s membership in our parliament,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a news conference Friday together with his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto in Ankara. He added he hoped to complete the approval process for Finland by May 14 elections due in Turkey.

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Meanwhile, Hungary plans to approve the Finnish entry March 27, Fidesz parliamentary leader Mate Kocsis said in a Facebook post. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has continually delayed a parliamentary vote in contrast with his statements of support for NATO’s enlargement.

The stance taken by Turkey and Hungary decouples the Nordic countries’ bids to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, filed in May to deter any Russian aggression following its invasion of Ukraine. The comments cast further doubt on the timeline for Sweden’s accession.

“Progress on Sweden’s bid depends on steps it will take,” Erdogan said. Hungary also said it will decide on Sweden’s membership at a later date.

“I have a feeling that Finnish NATO membership is not complete without Sweden,” Niinisto said. “We have so much common interest having been neighbors and having the

Baltic sea area on our shore. So, I would like to see in Vilnius that we will meet as the alliance of 32 members.”

The US has pushed for the fast ratification of both Nordic nations’ entry and most allies want the northern enlargement completed by the bloc’s upcoming summit in July. In a statement on Friday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US welcomes Erdogan’s announcement and encourages Turkey to back Sweden too.

“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. He also urged Hungary to complete ratification for the two countries.

Finland’s membership is set to enable the alliance to start securing the area around the Baltic Sea in defense of its Baltic members, which are often seen as potential targets of Russian aggression.

Russian Border

Including Finland in the alliance would double the length of NATO’s border with Russia, which now comprises just 6 percent of Russia’s land perimeter. It would enable the alliance to improve its surveillance of Russia’s western flank with the help of Finland’s well-trained military, which already uses weapons compatible with the alliance.

Turkey is effectively deferring a decision on Sweden’s membership bid until after its new anti-terrorism laws go into force in June. “We’ve no different stance toward Sweden.

But Sweden has opened its arms to terrorists,” Erdogan said.

“We’ve relayed names of 120 terrorists to them but they could not extradite them to us,” Erdogan said. “Since they could not give them to us, it is not possible for us to look positively to Sweden. That’s why we had to separate Sweden from Finland.”

Silver Lining

For Sweden, the solo entry of its eastern neighbor is a setback with a silver lining. While it adds to uncertainty over completing Sweden’s accession, it still introduces a NATO buffer between Stockholm and Moscow.

“Sweden has security guarantees from the US and the UK and other countries, so from a pure military perspective it’s not the end of the world, but it’s a pretty sad look,” said

Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow for foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

For NATO, the separation of the Nordic bids complicates defense planning. While the alliance’s northern enlargement is set to improve its ability to defend the three Baltic states, Sweden acts as a key supply route and brings depth to the defenses of Finland.

Security Landscape

Finland guards a border with Russia roughly 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) long and has a reserve of 900,000 troops thanks to a conscription-based system that wasn’t dismantled after the Cold War ended. It’s able to deploy about a third of them in war time — more than many much larger European nations.

NATO’s expansion underscores the drastic transformation of the European security landscape after Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022 prompted Germany to abandon its postwar reticence over defense spending and embark on a massive revamp of its military.

Holding up Turkey’s approval of Sweden is a perception that the biggest Nordic country has not done enough to crack down on groups Ankara calls terrorist.

What initially began as an opportunity for Erdogan to air disappointment with NATO and European allies’ contribution to its fight with groups including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, later centered on Stockholm’s failures. The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by the European Union and the US.

Erdogan was particularly incensed by protests in January that saw an effigy of his likeness suspended upside down publicly and a Koran burnt outside the Turkish Embassy in the Swedish capital.

Sweden has since prevented at least two Koran burnings and put forward an anti-terrorism law that’s been long in the works. That’s due to enter into force on June 1 and could help Turkey move ahead with its ratification.

With many allies having set the mid-July Vilnius summit as a target date, Braw at the American Enterprise Institute said that a failure to bring Sweden in beforehand would mean “the momentum is somehow lost.

“Once that summit has come and gone, it’s just harder for all parties involved to drum up a sense of urgency again,” Braw said, adding that “also domestically in Sweden, it’ll be difficult to give a reason why things should happen quickly.”

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