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Turkey formally approves Finland’s NATO membership, in setback for Russia

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto (L) deliver a joint press conference held after their meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on March 17, 2023.
Adem Altan | Afp | Getty Images

Turkey’s parliament voted unanimously to formally approve Finland’s membership to NATO on Thursday, marking a historic step for the traditionally nonaligned Nordic country that shares an 830-mile border with Russia.

The vote follows a months-long saga that saw Turkey demand certain concessions from Finland and its neighbor Sweden, both of whom applied to NATO in May 2022 in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Joining NATO requires unanimous approval from all member states. Ankara’s vote late on Thursday marked Finland’s clearing of its final hurdle in the accession process.

Turkey and Hungary remained the final holdouts standing in the way of the Nordic states’ accession to the 74-year old alliance. Ankara has yet to approve of Sweden’s membership bid, while Hungary — whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been on friendly terms with Russian leader Vladimir Putin — has approved Finland’s accession, but not Sweden’s.

Turkey joined NATO in 1952, and has the second-largest military in the alliance after the United States.

As of 2022, NATO has expanded to let in three former Soviet states and all of the former Warsaw Pact countries.
Bryn Bache | CNBC

Turkey’s animosity toward Sweden centers mainly on Sweden’s support for Kurdish groups that Ankara considers to be terrorists or affiliated with militants, and on weapons embargoes that both Sweden and Finland, along with other EU countries, put on Turkey for its targeting of Kurdish militias in Syria.

Finland lifted its nearly three-year-long arms embargo on Turkey in January as part of its effort to improve the two countries’ relations. But the relationship between Stockholm and Ankara remains in limbo.

“Turkey both confirms that we have done what we said we would do, but they also say that they want things that we cannot or do not want to give them,” Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said in early January. Nonetheless, he expressed confidence that Turkey would approve his country’s NATO bid.

Sweden and Finland both held positions of nonalignment throughout the more than seven decades since NATO was formed, wary of provoking Moscow, which has frequently described the alliance as an existential threat. But the countries have been official NATO partners since 1994, taking part in NATO missions and exercises.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin officials have warned of “consequences” if the two Nordic states join the alliance, though they have not specified what those may be.

Putin in early 2022 cited Ukraine’s desire to join NATO as a premise for his decision to invade the country, deeming the expansion of the organization along Russia’s borders unacceptable.

Ironically, it was his invasion of Ukraine that drew Finland and Sweden to apply to join the alliance, with the former’s impending membership set to add a fresh 830 miles of NATO territory along the Russian border.

A few months prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in October 2021, Finnish popular support for joining the alliance was at 24%, according to local polls. By November 2022, it had soared to 78%.

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