Biden says he is ‘anxiously’ waiting for Sweden to join NATO


WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden on Wednesday that he was “anxiously looking forward” to the country’s acceptance into NATO, reiterating their shared goal of strengthening the Western alliance against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In their meeting at the White House, both emphasized the potential benefits that could come from adding Sweden to the group: “We also do think that we have things to contribute,” Kristersson told the president as they met in the Oval Office.

But with less than a week until Biden and other NATO leaders are scheduled to travel to a summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, the inclusion of Sweden is still unlikely any time soon, given the continued opposition of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Erdogan has blocked the membership bid, saying Sweden has harbored Kurdish exiles and refugees affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.

The issue is critical for NATO, which is loath to show signs of internal division at its annual summit, particularly as the war in Ukraine grinds on. Sweden broke from decades of neutrality after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year by seeking to join NATO. Erdogan has also invested himself deeply in the matter, having long insisted that Western nations do not take his concerns about Kurdish terrorism seriously enough.

Every other member of the NATO alliance has approved Sweden’s membership, apart from Hungary, whose foreign minister said Tuesday that his country would sign off once Turkey had done so, according to Bloomberg. On Wednesday, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters that Biden would “continue to be outspoken” about Sweden joining the alliance, but said that it was ultimately up to the group’s 31 members.

Western officials have worked for months to placate the Turkish leader, to no avail. And while U.S. officials say the matter is one for Turkey and Sweden to resolve directly, Biden has said he supports the sale of new F-16 fighter jets and upgrade kits that Erdogan has long sought from Washington.

U.S. officials insist their support for the arms sale is not linked to Erdogan’s position on Sweden. But after a late May phone 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 get that done.”

It is unclear what else, besides the fighter jets, might convince Erdogan to budge. The Turkish leader has demanded that Sweden 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 named by Turkey remain.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans generally agree that Turkey needs to move to allow Sweden to join NATO before the Biden administration contemplates selling them any F-16 jets. But it is unclear whether such a move by Turkey would satisfy congressional leaders who are in a position to hold up the sale, some of whom have voiced additional objections.

Key members of Congress, including the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, have said they would block an F-16 deal unless Erdogan makes way for Swedish membership. Analysts say it is unclear whether Biden can convince them to change their position.

As recently as Monday, Erdogan reiterated his opposition to Sweden’s admission in bitter terms.

“We have made it clear that the determined fight against terrorist organizations and Islamophobia are our red line,” Erdogan said. “Everyone must accept that Turkey’s friendship cannot be won by supporting terrorism or by making space for terrorists.”

Erdogan has been dug in since last spring, when Sweden and Finland first applied together to join the alliance, in what Biden depicted as a major setback for President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Finland has a border of some 830 miles with Russia, the longest border with the country of any European Union nation. Sweden, with only a short maritime border, is less exposed to Russia, but Sweden and Finland are closely aligned militarily.

The Turkish leader has relented on Finland, which won the required unanimous approval to join the alliance in April, becoming its 31st member.

But even after a May reelection victory that U.S. officials hoped would allow Erdogan to relax his position, 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 predominantly Muslim Turkey: Two men burned pages from a Quran outside a Stockholm mosque last week, in a demonstration that Sweden’s police and a court had approved.

During a joint news conference with Turkey’s foreign minister on June 12, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Sweden had addressed Turkey’s concerns “appropriately and effectively.” He added that the Biden administration’s “expectation is that this will happen by the time of the Vilnius summit in July.”

Blinken spoke Wednesday with Turkey’s foreign minister, Hakan Fidan, about the Vilnius summit. He “stressed the importance of NATO unity in such a critical time and encouraged Turkey’s support for Sweden to join the NATO alliance now,” the State Department said in a statement.