Sweden’s defense minister was at the Pentagon Wednesday for talks as Finland and Sweden formally applied for membership in the NATO military alliance in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told his Swedish counterpart, Peter Hultqvist, “We look forward to your contributions to the NATO alliance.”
Hultqvist said Sweden was exercising its right to make its own choices in providing for its security.
“This is a time when the democracies of Europe and North America must stand together against Russia's naked aggression,” Hultqvist said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made the announcement Wednesday at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, flanked by the ambassadors from both countries after receiving their formal application letters.
“This is a good day at a critical moment for our security,” Stoltenberg said. “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.”
A senior U.S. defense official said Austin and Hultqvist discussed “the interim period between the application for NATO membership” and what the Pentagon anticipates “will be their ultimate ascension in the alliance.”
The official said Austin made it “very clear” that the United States is comfortable with Sweden’s military and would “be happy to have a discussion with them about security and capability needs that they might have to help assure them and to deter Russia, should that be necessary.”
U.S. President Joe Biden praised what he called Sweden and Finland’s “important decision.” He will host Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and President Sauli Niinistö of Finland at the White House on Thursday.
“I warmly welcome and strongly support the historic applications from Finland and Sweden for membership in NATO and look forward to working with the U.S. Congress and our NATO allies to quickly bring Finland and Sweden into the strongest defensive alliance in history,” Biden said.
Finland’s parliament overwhelmingly voted to join NATO Wednesday by a vote of 188 to 8.
Finland and Sweden’s applications mark a significant departure from their decades-long neutrality posture dating to the Cold War. Moscow’s decision to invade neighboring Ukraine on February 24 raised fears in both countries, especially in Finland, which shares a long border with Russia of more than 1,300 kilometers.
All 30 NATO member nations are expected to quickly consider the applications, a process that normally takes up to a year.
Only NATO ally Turkey has expressed reservations about the Baltic neighbors joining the alliance, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing them of giving a haven to “terrorists” and imposing sanctions on Turkey.
NATO membership requires consensus approval from all existing members.
Sweden and Finland are already members of the European Union.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West that Moscow would respond if NATO bolstered its military presence in Finland and Sweden after the two Nordic countries declared Sunday they want to join the U.S.-dominated alliance.