NATO’s summit will begin Tuesday with fresh momentum after Turkey withdrew its objections to Sweden joining the alliance, a step toward the unity that Western leaders have been eager to demonstrate in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a significant move toward Sweden’s membership and it will alleviate tension in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital.
“This is a historic day,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said late Monday as he announced the agreement following days of intensive meetings.
As part of the deal, Erdogan said he would ask Turkey’s parliament to approve Sweden joining NATO. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is expected to take a similar step.
The outcome is a victory for U.S. President Joe Biden as well, who has touted NATO’s expansion as an example of how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has backfired on Moscow. Finland has already become the 31st member of the alliance, and Sweden is on deck to become the 32nd.
Biden arrived in Vilnius on Monday evening and was scheduled to meet with Erdogan on Tuesday evening. Biden was also attending a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, of which Sweden is a member, in the afternoon.
It’s unclear how some of Erdogan’s other demands will be resolved. He has been seeking advanced American fighter jets and a path toward membership in the European Union. The White House has expressed support for both, but publicly insisted that the issues were not related to Sweden’s membership in NATO.
Biden, in a statement, thanked Erdogan for committing to transmit Sweden’s ascension protocol to Turkey’s Grand National Assembly for “swift ratification.”
“I stand ready to work with President Erdogan and Turkey on enhancing defense and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area,” Biden added.
The reference to enhancing Turkey’s defense capability was a nod to Biden’s commitment to help Turkey acquire new F-16 fighter jets, according to an administration official.
The Biden administration has backed Turkey’s desire to buy 40 new F-16s as well as modernization kits from the U.S. It’s a move some in Congress, most notably Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J, have opposed over Turkey blocking NATO membership for Sweden, its human rights record and other concerns.
The official, who was not authorized to comment and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the White House had been “cautiously hopeful” but not certain it could get Erdogan to come around before the summit. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan worked the phones in recent days, speaking with Erdogan as well as senior Turkish and Swedish officials.
In Washington, Menendez said he was “continuing to have my reservations” on providing the fighter aircraft to Turkey. If the Biden administration could show that Turkey wouldn’t use the F-16s belligerently against other NATO members, particularly its neighbor Greece, and meet other conditions, “then there may be a way forward,” Menendez told reporters.
NATO leaders will still have other big questions to address at their summit, particularly Ukraine’s desire to join NATO. The Baltic states — including Lithuania, which is hosting the event — have pushed for a strong show of support and a clear pathway toward membership for Ukraine.
The United States and Germany have resisted that, and Biden said last week that Ukraine wasn’t ready to join. Members of NATO, he told CNN, need to “meet all the qualifications, from democratization to a whole range of other issues,” a nod toward longstanding concerns about governance and corruption in Kyiv.
In addition, some fear that bringing Ukraine into NATO would serve more as a provocation to Russia than as a deterrence against aggression.
Stoltenberg wrote in Foreign Affairs on Monday that the alliance would “upgrade our political ties” by forming a NATO-Ukraine Council, which would be “a platform for decisions and crisis consultation.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to attend the summit on Wednesday. He plans to meet with Biden while there, according to two administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss plans that have not been announced.
Stoltenberg reiterated that Ukraine will eventually become a member of NATO, a commitment made in 2008 under President George W. Bush. The NATO chief did not outline more specifics.
However, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said NATO had agreed to forgo requiring a “membership action plan,” a decision that he said “shortens our path to NATO.”
Biden spent Monday in the United Kingdom, where he met with King Charles III for the first time since he ascended to the throne. After a royal welcome at Windsor Castle, they discussed mobilizing financial support to combat climate change.
The president also swung by 10 Downing Street to meet with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. It was their sixth meeting, a reflection of close ties between the two countries.
After the NATO summit, Biden will travel to Helsinki to celebrate Finland’s recent entry into NATO and meet with Nordic leaders.
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani, Zeke Miller and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.
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