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Biden Meets Swedish PM as Turkey Signals No to Sweden Joining NATO


President Joe Biden, right, meets with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, July 5, 2023.
President Joe Biden, right, meets with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, July 5, 2023.

U.S. President Joe Biden met with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson as the White House works to persuade Turkey to approve Sweden’s NATO accession ahead of the alliance’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, next week.

“Sweden is going to make our alliance stronger and has the same value set that we have in NATO,” Biden said to Kristersson ahead of their meeting at the White House on Wednesday. “I'm really looking, anxiously looking, forward for your membership.”

Sweden and Finland abandoned their policy of military nonalignment and applied for NATO membership following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“We highly appreciate your strong support for Sweden's NATO accession,” Kristersson said. “We do seek common protection. But we also do think that we have things to contribute with, to the security provided for the whole of NATO.”

Finland was fully accepted into NATO in April. But Sweden’s bid has not been ratified by Turkey and Hungary, in a process that must be unanimous among all current members.

Ankara has accused Sweden of being too lenient toward militant Kurdish organizations that Turkey considers terrorist groups. Turkey demanded reforms and Sweden enacted them, including a new anti-terrorism law. But it is looking increasingly unclear whether Sweden’s membership will be approved by the time the Vilnius summit begins on July 11.

“This is all in one person's hands, in one person's mind, that’s [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan,” said Christopher Skaluba, who leads the Transatlantic Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. “When he decides to snap his fingers is anybody's guess. But if I had to guess, we're likely to see some drama on the margins of Vilnius.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden and Kristersson also discussed coordination regarding China as well as addressing climate change and emerging technologies.

Turkey opposition

On Monday Erdogan signaled his country is not ready to ratify Sweden’s NATO bid. He criticized a recent Quran-burning protest in Sweden and called out Stockholm's alleged inaction against terrorist organizations and Islamophobia as one of Turkey's “red line” items.

Ankara’s concerns are a shield for the real issue: its long-sought $20 billion purchase of 40 F-16 fighter jets made by the U.S. company Lockheed Martin and nearly 80 modernization kits for its air force's existing warplanes, said Kotryna Jukneviciute, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.

“I think Turkey also ultimately wants to be noticed. Erdogan wants to be seen and heard,” she told VOA.

Biden spoke with Erdogan in May on the issue of Sweden's NATO accession and Turkey's request for F-16 fighter jets.
"He still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden, so let's get that done," Biden said.

However, the issue is stuck in the U.S. Congress, which has authority to block major weapons sales. One key holdout is Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairperson Bob Menendez, who continues to oppose the sale for reasons beyond NATO enlargement. They include pushing Ankara to ease tensions with Greece, refrain from invading northern Syria and enforce sanctions against Russia for its war on Ukraine.

Both the White House and Menendez’s office declined to comment on VOA’s queries on whether Biden has contacted Menendez, a fellow Democrat, to discuss his opposition of the sale.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also appears to be against the sales. In a recent interview with Punchbowl News, the leading Republican said Washington shouldn’t sell the fighter jets to Turkey until Ankara ends its blockade of Sweden’s NATO accession.

The F-16 jets make up the bulk of Turkey's combat aircraft after the Trump administration in 2019 expelled Ankara from the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet program over its decision to acquire Russian-made S-400 air defense systems.

Stoltenberg meeting

Stockholm’s membership in NATO would be a highly symbolic moment and another indication of how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is driving countries to join the Western alliance.

In another last-minute push for Sweden’s accession, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will meet with senior officials from Turkey, Sweden and Finland on Thursday.

Hungary has also yet to ratify Sweden's bid, citing alleged lies about the condition of Hungary's democracy by Swedish politicians. However, it has indicated it will not be the last holdout.

"If there is a shift [in Turkey's stance], then of course we will keep the promise that Hungary will not hold up any country in terms of [NATO] membership," Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told a news conference in Budapest, earlier this week.

Chris Hannas, Katherine Gypson and Begum Ersoz contributed to this report.