Finland, Sweden formally apply to NATO, but Turkey is still opposed

NATO envoys failed to reach a consensus on Wednesday about whether to start membership talks with Finland and Sweden, diplomats said, as Turkey renewed its objections to the two Nordic countries joining.

So far, Turkey is the only member to clearly voice opposition to the expansion

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg displays documents as Sweden and Finland applied for membership in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday. (Johanna Geron/The Associated Press)

NATO envoys failed to reach a consensus on Wednesday about whether to start membership talks with Finland and Sweden, diplomats said, as Turkey renewed its objections to the two Nordic countries joining.

The envoys met at NATO headquarters in Brussels after Finland and Sweden's ambassadors submitted written applications to join the military organization, in a move that marks one of the biggest geopolitical ramifications of Russia's war on Ukraine — and which could rewrite Europe's security map.

The diplomats, who did not want to be named because of the sensitive nature of the proceedings, declined to say precisely who or what was holding up the procedure. They pointed to the messages from many of the 30 NATO allies welcoming Finland and Sweden's request.

Lithuanian Ambassador Deividas Matulionis told Swedish and Finnish media that the envoys had exchanged views about their national security. "The discussion was about that, but it is up to Turkey to comment," he said.

NATO officials also refused to provide details. They underlined remarks earlier Wednesday by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stating "we are determined to work through all issues and reach a rapid conclusion." Meetings and diplomatic outreach aimed at resolving the problem will continue.

U.S. President Joe Biden voiced optimism on the matter Wednesday.

"I think we're going to be OK," he said.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to block Finland and Sweden from joining NATO. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey is the only NATO ally to have clearly voiced its opposition — and while Croatia's president on Wednesday suggested his country could do the same to secure a tradeoff from Western powers, he's unlikely to derail the Croatian government's support for the Nordic pair's NATO accession.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists Finland and Sweden must show more respect for Turkish sensitivities about terrorism. He is refusing to budge over what he says is their alleged support for Kurdish militants.

Erdogan accuses the two countries of turning a blind eye to activities of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, even though the group is on the European Union's anti-terror blacklist.

"You will not hand over terrorists to us, but you will ask us to allow you to join NATO. NATO is a security entity ... Therefore, we cannot say 'yes' to depriving this security organization of security," he said Wednesday.

Croatian President Zoran Milanovic said his Balkan country should follow suit. Milanovic is feuding with Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic on domestic issues.

"We should follow Turkey's example," Milanovic said. "Turkey will sell its NATO status at a high price."

Before Croatia's lawmakers ratify the Nordic pair's NATO bid, Milanovic — a socialist — wants a change of neighbouring Bosnia's electoral law in favour of Bosnian Croats. But Plenkovic's conservative party enjoys a small majority over the socialists in parliament, and would likely carry the vote on Finland and Sweden's NATO bids.

Russia could respond

The day had started off on an upbeat note. Stoltenberg had said that the military alliance stands ready to seize a historic moment and move quickly on allowing Finland and Sweden to join its ranks, after the two countries submitted their membership requests.

The official applications set a security clock ticking. Russia, whose war on Ukraine spurred the two countries to join the military organization, has warned it wouldn't welcome such a move, and could respond.

"I warmly welcome the requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO. You are our closest partners," Stoltenberg said earlier in the day. "All allies agree on the importance of NATO enlargement. We all agree that we must stand together, and we all agree that this is an historic moment which we must seize."

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 signalled that they stand ready to provide security support to Finland and Sweden should Putin try to provoke or destabilize them during the time it takes to become full members.

Security guarantee would follow membership

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 of them all — once the membership ratification process is concluded, probably in a few months.

Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, right, and the Moderate Party's leader Ulf Kristersson give a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, on Monday. Sweden's government has applied for a NATO membership. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/The Associated Press)

A senior U.S. defence official said the Pentagon is having ongoing discussions with Sweden and Finland on their security needs to deter Russia as they move toward NATO membership.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private Pentagon discussions, said U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist Wednesday and they spoke about the interim period.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday that the U.S. and European allies are "prepared to send a very clear message ... that we will not tolerate any aggression against Finland or Sweden" until NATO's Article 5 kicks in for them.

Sullivan also said Biden asked his national security team and cabinet principals about the risks and benefits of Finland and Sweden joining NATO, and they "unanimously" supported backing the move as both countries are provenly "highly capable security partners."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed the Nordic applications in a tweet and said that "Putin's appalling ambitions have transformed the geopolitical contours of our continent." Germany, Italy, the Baltic states and the Czech Republic all spoke favourably about the candidates.

The membership process usually takes eight to 12 months, but NATO wants to move quickly given the threat from Russia hanging over the Nordic countries' heads.

Public opinion in Finland and Sweden has shifted massively in favour of membership since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.