NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says that Finland and Sweden have officially applied to join the world’s biggest military alliance, a move driven by security concerns over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“I warmly welcome the requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO. You are our closest partners,” Stoltenberg told reporters on Wednesday after receiving their application letters from the two Nordic countries’ ambassadors.
“This is a historic moment, which we must seize,” Stoltenberg said at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Neutral throughout the Cold War, the two countries’ decision to join the alliance is one of the most significant changes in Europe’s security architecture in decades.
The applications must now be weighed by the 30 member countries. That process is expected to take about two weeks, although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed reservations about Finland and Sweden joining.
If his objections are overcome, and accession talks go as well as expected, the two could become members within a few months. The process usually takes eight to 12 months, but NATO wants to move quickly given the threat from Russia hanging over the Nordic countries.
Canada, for example, says that it expects to ratify their accession protocol in just a few days.
Several NATO allies, most notably the United Kingdom, have offered security assurances to Finland and Sweden during the application period before they are covered by the alliance’s mutual defence pact.
“Over the past few days, we have seen numerous statements by allies committing to Finland and Sweden’s security. NATO is already vigilant in the Baltic Sea region and NATO and allies’ forces will continue to adapt as necessary,” Stoltenberg said.
Stoltenberg also said NATO allies “are determined to work through all issues and reach rapid conclusions”.
“All allies agree on the importance of NATO enlargement. We all agree that we must stand together,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from Brussels, said Finland and Sweden’s integration into NATO should be straightforward from a military standpoint.
“The two countries served alongside NATO in Balkans and Afghanistan and have modern militaries,” he said.
“They say their military equipment is inter-operable with NATO systems.”
Public opinion in Finland and Sweden has shifted massively in favour of membership since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
However, the historic bids of the two countries to become NATO members have hit a roadblock after Erdogan took a tough stance against the Nordic expansion.
Erdogan said on Monday that Swedish and Finnish delegations “should not bother” to travel to Ankara after Stockholm announced the two countries would send officials to try to change Turkey’s stance.
Ankara blames Sweden and, to a lesser extent, Finland for backing groups considered “terrorists” by the Turkish government. Sweden has also been implementing arms sanctions on Turkey since the latter carried out a cross-border operation into Syria in 2019.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who is on a trip to the United States, is scheduled discuss NATO membership of the Nordic countries with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday.
The decision to seek a place under the NATO umbrella represents a setback for Moscow, with the war in Ukraine triggering the very kind of enlargement of the alliance on Russia’s borders that it took to arms to prevent.
So far, Moscow’s response has been unexpectedly muted, having previously warned of steps of a “military-technical” nature and that it could deploy nuclear weapons in its European exclave of Kaliningrad were the countries to join.
President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that Swedish and Finnish NATO membership posed no threat to Russia, but cautioned that Moscow would respond if the Western alliance boosted military infrastructure in the new Nordic members.