Sweden and Finland to formally submit Nato bids ‘hand in hand’

Announcement at joint press conference comes as Turkey maintains it will not support the applications

Sweden and Finland will formally submit simultaneous requests to join Nato on Wednesday, the Swedish prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, has said, in a seismic shift in Europe’s security architecture after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Finland and Sweden have agreed to go through this entire process hand in hand, and we will tomorrow file the application together,” Andersson told a joint news conference with the Finnish president, Sauli Niinistö, in Stockholm.

“Membership of Nato strengthens security in Sweden but also in the Baltic Sea region,” Andersson said. “The fact that we are applying together with Finland means that we can contribute to security in northern Europe.”

The announcement came as the White House said Niinistö, and Andersson would meet the US president, Joe Biden, on Thursday to discuss their bids to join the US-led mutual defence alliance and European security more broadly.

In other developments:

  • The first war crimes trial since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine starts in Kyiv on Wednesday. Vadim Shishimarin, 21, has been charged over the death of a 62-year-old man in north-eastern Ukraine on 28 February. The soldier from Irkutsk in Siberia faces a possible life sentence. “He understands what he is being accused of,” his lawyer, Viktor Ovsiannikov, told AFP, without revealing the case for the defence. Two Russian servicemen are due to go on trial from Thursday, accused of firing rockets at civilian infrastructure in the Kharkiv region.

  • The chief prosecutor for the international criminal court, Karim Khan, said he sent a team of 42 investigators, forensic experts and support personnel to Ukraine to look into suspected war crimes, in the court’s largest ever such operation. Ukraine has accused Russian forces of torturing and killing civilians.

  • The US announced the launch of a $6m program to capture and analyse evidence of war crimes, including satellite imagery and information shared on social media, so it can be used in ongoing and future accountability mechanisms.

  • The fate of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol who have ended weeks of resistance at the Azovstal steelworks remains unclear, after the fighters surrendered and were transferred to Russian-controlled territory. The Russian parliament plans to take up a resolution on Wednesday to prevent the exchange of Azov Regiment fighters, who held out for months inside the plant, according to Russian news agencies.

  • UN chief Antonio Guterres is expected to publicly disclose on Wednesday that he is in talks with Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, the US and the European Union aimed at restoring Ukraine grain shipments and reviving fertiliser exports from Russia and Belarus. The war in Ukraine has fuelled soaring global prices, which Guterres warned would worsen crises in poor countries.

Finland, which shares an 810-mile (1,300km) border with Russia, has remained neutral or non-aligned since the end of the second world war, while Sweden has stayed out of military alliances for more than two centuries. Both had long seen Nato membership as an unnecessary provocation of Russia.

Andersson said the simultaneous applications reflected the brutal impact of “Russia’s illegal war” on Ukraine and the Nordic neighbours’ common history, traditions, values ​​and culture. “In recent months, it has also become clear that Sweden’s and Finland’s security are closely linked,” she said.

Niinistö said Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine had “changed everything”, adding that Finnish and Swedish Nato membership meant the Nordic region would now be “a bastion not just of democracy, welfare and human rights – but also of security”.

The announcements came after the Finnish parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed the government’s proposal to join the alliance, and a day after Sweden’s government confirmed its intention to do likewise. Finnish MPs voted by 188 votes to eight in favour of joining.

Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, has repeatedly said the two countries would be welcomed “with open arms”, but their applications must be approved by all the alliance’s 30 members and Turkey seems set to throw a spanner in the works.

Ankara has said it will not support the bids, citing Sweden and Finland’s history of hosting members of Kurdish militant groups and decisions in 2019 to impose arms export embargos on Ankara over Turkey’s military operations in Syria.

Niinistö said in an address to Swedish MPs on Tuesday that Turkey’s stance had “changed very quickly and become harder during the last few days”, but he was sure “constructive discussions” would resolve the situation.

The Finnish president said his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had backed the applications when they spoke a month ago, but in the past week “he has said, ‘not favourable’. We have to continue our discussion. I am optimistic.”

Andersson said Sweden was “looking forward to having a bilateral dialogue with Turkey. I see when both Sweden and Turkey are members of Nato, there are also opportunities to develop bilateral relations between our countries.”

Washington said the administration was confident Nato could reach consensus about the applications. “We know there’s a lot of support for Sweden and Finland to join Nato,” the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said.

Erdoğan on Monday said Ankara would oppose the applications and there was no point diplomats even coming to Ankara to discuss it. Turkey alleges Finland and Sweden shelter people it says are linked to groups it designates as terrorist.

While it is unclear how serious an obstacle Turkey’s objections will prove, many analysts believe Erdoğan, who faces elections next year, was seeking concessions for domestic political advantage and will not ultimately veto the Nordic nations’ applications.

“They know Sweden and Finland inside the alliance is good for the alliance as a whole, and I don’t foresee they will block this in the end,” said Anna Wieslander of the Atlantic Council thinktank. “But they will negotiate along the way.”

After multiple warnings that Finnish and Swedish membership of Nato would have “serious consequences”, including the possible deployment of nuclear missiles in the Baltic region, Moscow, meanwhile, now appears to be downplaying the prospect.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said on Monday he saw “no immediate threat” unless Nato military infrastructure was deployed on Finnish and Swedish territory, and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said on Tuesday it would make little difference as the two countries had long taken part in Nato exercises.

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“Nato takes their territory into account when planning military advances to the east,” Lavrov said. “So in this sense, there is probably not much difference. Let’s see how their territory is used in practice in the North Atlantic alliance.”

Meanwhile, Russia on Tuesday expelled two Finnish diplomats and summoned the Finnish ambassador to hear a protest against the country’s “confrontational course in relation to Russia”. The statement made no mention of Nato membership.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said that all EU member states would back Finland and Sweden’s applications. “They will receive strong support, I’m sure, from all member states, because it increases our unity and it makes us stronger,” he said in Brussels.

Borrell added that he hoped Nato would overcome Turkey’s objections. Germany’s defence minister, Christine Lambrecht, also said that while it was important that members talk “intensively” with Turkey, she was sure Ankara would be won over.

“It is an improvement for Nato when two countries as strong as Sweden and Finland join,” Lambrecht said. “I am convinced Turkey will also be convinced of that.”


Jon Henley Europe correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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