Biden welcomes Sweden's acceptance into NATO as Summit begins

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, shakes hands with Sweden's Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, right, as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg looks on prior to a meeting ahead of a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 10, 2023. [AP Photo]

President Joe Biden welcomed news late Monday that Sweden will be admitted to NATO, overcoming objections from the last holdout in the security alliance, Turkey, on the eve of a major summit of the security bloc in Lithuania's capital.

"I stand ready to work with (Turkish) President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan and (Turkey) on enhancing defense and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area," Biden said in a statement issued from Vilnius, where he is attending the summit of NATO leaders. "I look forward to welcoming Prime Minister Kristersson and Sweden as our 32nd NATO Ally."

Biden is set to meet with Erdogan late Tuesday at the end of the first day of the summit.

Erdogan had opposed Sweden's membership, accusing Stockholm of not doing enough to crack down on their branch of a political party that Turkey's government sees as extremists.

In what appeared to be a last-ditch parry on the eve of the summit, Erdogan linked the Sweden issue with Ankara's stalled demands to join the European Union.

"The United States has always supported (Turkey's) EU membership aspirations and continues to do so. (Turkey's) membership application and process is a matter between the EU and (Turkey)," a National Security Council spokesperson told VOA. The official asked not to be identified, as is common practice when discussing administration policy. "Our focus is on Sweden, which is ready to join the NATO Alliance."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Turkey's decision on Sweden, calling it "an historic step" that makes all members stronger and safer.

Sweden needed unanimous support from all 31 NATO members to join the alliance. Sweden and Finland applied jointly for membership last May, with both Nordic nations citing overwhelming popular support for the idea amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Finland's membership was finalized in April.

Defense spending and Ukraine

The summit still has important issues to cover in a short time. Those include whether the members can agree on - and then meet - a commitment to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense. Currently, only seven members fulfill that target.

Another key agenda is Ukraine's ambition to join NATO, something that Biden has candidly admitted there is no consensus about within the alliance. The U.S. is reluctant to grant quick membership for Kyiv for fear of dragging NATO into war with Russia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said he accepts that his country can only join after the conflict with Russia ends. Membership in the midst of a war would require the alliance to apply the principle of "an attack on one is an attack on all" enshrined in the bloc's Article 5.

Still, Zelenskyy has demanded a clear pathway to join the alliance, and during the two-day summit, NATO members will aim to nail down a compromise that will signal that Kyiv is moving closer to membership without making promises of a quick accession.

Some NATO allies, including the U.S., U.K. and France, are set to come up with proposals to strengthen Ukraine's armed forces, including its postwar needs, through a series of long-term commitments outside the NATO framework.

The so-called security guarantees are going to be done in "extremely close coordination, given how high the stakes are," however it will be "different from having an Article 5 agreement to defend Ukraine," said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and Americas program at Chatham House, to VOA.

Earlier on Tuesday, Biden will participate in a bilateral meeting with summit host President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania and with the North Atlantic Council, the principal political decision-making body within the alliance.

Following the two-day summit, Biden heads to Helsinki on Thursday to meet with leaders of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Denmark. Once Sweden has joined NATO, all five Nordic countries will be members of the military alliance.