As President Biden meets with Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden at the White House on Wednesday, both men are hoping for the Nordic nation’s swift acceptance into NATO.
But that looks highly unlikely — and the issue threatens to disrupt the alliance’s planned show of unity against Russia next week at a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The problem facing Mr. Biden and Mr. Kristersson is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Mr Erdogan blocked Sweden’s bid to join, saying Sweden hosted Kurdish exiles and refugees linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.
In a statement, the White House said Mr. Biden and Mr. Kristersson “will reaffirm their view that Sweden should join NATO as soon as possible.”
The issue is critical for NATO, which is reluctant to show signs of internal division at its annual summit, especially as the war in Ukraine continues. Sweden broke from decades of neutrality after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year by seeking to join NATO. Mr. Erdogan has also invested himself deeply in the issue, long insisting that Western nations are not taking his concerns about Kurdish terrorism seriously enough.
Every other member of the NATO alliance has approved Sweden’s membership, except for Hungary, whose foreign minister said on Tuesday that his country would sign after Turkey did. according to Bloomberg.
Western officials have worked for months to reassure the Turkish leader, to no avail. And while US officials say the issue is directly for Turkey and Sweden to resolve, Mr Biden has said he supports the sale of new F-16 fighter jets and upgrade kits, which Mr Erdogan has long sought from Washington.
US officials insist their support for the arms sale is not linked to Mr Erdogan’s position on Sweden. But after a late May phone call with the Turkish leader, Mr. Biden told reporters: “He still wants to work on something about the F-16. I told him we want a deal with Sweden, so let’s do it.”
Key members of Congress, including the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, say they will block such a deal unless Mr. Erdogan allows Swedish membership. Analysts say it is unclear whether Mr. Biden can convince them to change his position.
As recently as Monday, Mr. Erdogan reiterated his opposition to Sweden’s recognition in bitter terms.
“We made it clear that the determined fight against terrorist organizations and Islamophobia is our red line,” Mr. Erdogan said. “Everyone must accept that Turkey’s friendship cannot be won by supporting terrorism or making space for terrorists.”
Mr. Erdogan has been under fire since last spring, when Sweden and Finland first jointly applied to join the alliance, in what Mr. Biden portrayed as a major setback for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
The Turkish leader has since softened on Finland, which won the required unanimous approval to join the alliance in April, becoming its 31st member.
But even after a May re-election victory that US officials hoped would allow Mr Erdogan to relax his position, as well as the implementation of a new Swedish anti-terrorism law, he has stood by his position in Sweden.
Recent events could complicate matters with predominantly Muslim Turkey: Two men burned pages of the Koran outside a Stockholm mosque last week, in a demonstration that Sweden’s police and a court approved.
During a joint press conference with Turkey’s foreign minister on June 12, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Sweden had addressed Turkey’s concerns “appropriately and effectively.” He added that the “expectation of the Biden administration is that this will happen before the Vilnius Summit in July.”
Mr. Biden was adamant about Sweden’s eventual membership: “It’s going to happen,” he said in a June 1 commencement address to the U.S. Air Force Academy. “I promise you.”