President Biden told Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on Wednesday that he « looked forward » to the country’s acceptance into NATO, reiterating their common goal of strengthening the Western alliance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In their meeting at the White House, both stressed the potential benefits that could result from adding Sweden to the group: « We also think we have something to give, » Mr. Kristersson told the president as they met in the Oval Office.
But with less than a week before Biden and other NATO leaders travel to a summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Sweden’s inclusion is still unlikely anytime soon given continued opposition from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has blocked the membership bid, saying Sweden has hosted Kurdish exiles and refugees affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.
The issue is critical for NATO, which is reluctant to show signs of internal division at its annual summit, particularly as the war in Ukraine continues. Sweden came out of decades of neutrality after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year by seeking to join NATO. Erdogan has also engaged deeply in the matter, having long insisted that Western nations do not take his concerns about Kurdish terrorism seriously enough.
All other members of the NATO alliance have approved Sweden’s accession, apart from Hungary, whose foreign minister said on Tuesday that his country would withdraw once Turkey did. according to Bloomberg. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that Mr. Biden « will continue to be outspoken » about Sweden joining the alliance, but said it was ultimately up to the 31-member group .
Western officials have worked for months to appease the Turkish leader, to no avail. And while US officials say the matter is up to Turkey and Sweden to resolve directly, Biden said he supports the sale of new F-16 fighters and upgrade kits that Erdogan has long been asking for in Washington.
US officials insist their support for arms sales is unrelated to Erdogan’s stance on Sweden. But after a late May call with the Turkish leader, Biden told reporters: “He still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden, so let’s do it. »
It is not clear what else besides fighter jets might persuade Mr Erdogan to move. The Turkish leader has called on Sweden to extradite or expel numerous people affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and others he deems enemies of the state. Sweden has sent some out of the country, but many more remain, nominated by Ankara.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans generally agree that Turkey must move to allow Sweden to join NATO before the Biden administration contemplates selling any F-16 jets to Ankara. But it’s unclear whether such a move by Turkey would satisfy congressional leaders who are able to delay the sale, some of whom have voiced further objections.
Key members of Congress, including the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, said they would block an F-16 deal unless Mr. Erdogan leaves room for joining of Sweden. Analysts say it’s unclear whether Mr. Biden can persuade them to switch sides.
As recently as Monday, Erdogan reiterated his opposition to Sweden’s admission in harsh terms.
« We have made it clear that the determined fight against terrorist organizations and Islamophobia is our red line, » Erdogan said. « Everyone must accept that friendship with Turkey cannot be won by supporting terrorism or making room for terrorists. »
Mr. Erdogan has been entrenched since last spring, when Sweden and Finland jointly applied for the first time to join the alliance, in what Mr. Biden described as a major setback for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin .
Finland has an approximately 830-mile border with Russia, the longest border with the country of any nation in the European Union. Sweden, with only a short sea border, is less exposed to Russia, but Sweden and Finland are closely aligned militarily.
The Turkish leader caved in to Finland, which won the unanimous approval needed to join the alliance in April, becoming its 31st member.
But even after a May re-election win that US officials hoped would allow Erdogan to ease his stance, as well as the implementation of a new Swedish anti-terrorism law, he has stood his ground on Sweden.
Recent events could complicate matters with Muslim-majority Turkey: Two men burned pages of a Koran outside a Stockholm mosque last week, in a demonstration that Swedish police and a court had approved.
During a joint press conference with Turkey’s foreign minister on June 12, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Sweden had addressed Turkey’s concerns « properly and effectively ». He added that « the Biden administration’s expectation is that this will happen by the Vilnius summit in July. »
Karoun Demirjian contributed to the reporting from Washington.