President Biden on Wednesday committed to working with Finland and Sweden to “remain vigilant against any threats to our shared security” and “deter and confront aggression” while the two Nordic countries’ applications to join the NATO military alliance are under review.
Analysts say the two countries, which have long resisted formal ties to NATO, are in a particularly vulnerable position as their applications for alliance membership are in the pipeline. Russian President Vladimir Putin has bitterly criticized past expansions by NATO into eastern Europe and has talked of unspecified retaliation against Helsinki and Stockholm for their decision to join the 30-nation transatlantic alliance.
Mr. Biden in a statement also called on Congress and Washington’s European allies to quickly bring Finland and Sweden into NATO. The two countries are pushing ahead with their bids despite renewed objections from NATO member Turkey, which has expressed opposition to the expansion.
“Finland and Sweden are longtime, stalwart partners of the United States,” he said. “By joining NATO, they will further strengthen our defense cooperation and benefit the entire Transatlantic Alliance.”
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters later Wednesday that while NATO’s collective defense pledge would not apply to Sweden and Finland until they are full members of the alliance, the U.S. “is prepared to send a very clear message as are all of our European allies, that we will not tolerate any aggression against Finland or Sweden during this process.”
With his war in Ukraine making little progress in recent weeks, Mr. Putin appeared to temper his standpoint on Monday, however, saying “there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion to include these countries.”
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Both countries will require the endorsement of all 30 current NATO members before joining the alliance.
The diplomacy comes as Russian defense officials said nearly 1,000 Ukrainian fighters have now abandoned their last redoubt in the strategic southern port of Mariupol and surrendered. And in the first war crimes trial resulting from the invasion that began Feb. 24, a Russian tank commander pleaded guilty to shooting a Ukrainian civilian riding on a bike in the early days of the fighting.
The State Department also marked a milestone with the resumption of operations at the American Embassy in Kyiv, which was abandoned early in the fighting when Russian forces advanced to the outskirts of Kyiv. Strong Ukrainian resistance has forced Russia to abandon its attacks on Kyiv and other major urban centers outside the contested Donbas region.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke separately with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday, with the Turkish diplomat signaling Ankara is willing to discuss its concerns. Ankara has complained of links between militant Kurdish separatist groups it says are terrorists and Kurdish communities in both Sweden and Finland, as well as military sanctions the two countries imposed on Turkey over its military incursion into neighboring Syria.
“Turkey has been supporting the ‘Open Door’ policy of NATO [on new members] even before this war,” Mr. Cavusoglu said before meeting Mr. Blinken at the U.N. Wednesday. “But with regards to these possible candidates … we have also legitimate security concerns that they had been supporting terrorist organizations. And there are also export restrictions on defense products.”
“We understand their security concerns, but Turkey’s security concerns should be also met,” he added. “And this is also one issue that we should continue discussing with friends and allies, including the United States.”
Swedish and Finnish leaders have moved ahead, saying that Turkey’s objections can be dealt with.
“Turkey’s statements have changed very quickly and hardened in recent days. But I am sure that we will resolve the situation with constructive talks,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said Tuesday during a visit to Sweden. Mr. Cavusoglu said he had been in touch with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts to discuss their disagreements.
Mr. Sullivan said the White House remains confident that the two countries “will have an effective and efficient accession process and that Turkey’s concerns can be addressed.”
In a show of support, Mr. Biden is planning to host Mr. Niinisto and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden for a meeting at the White House on Thursday. The leaders are expected to discuss their applications to join the alliance, European security, and Western support for Ukraine, the White House announced Tuesday.
• Guy Taylor contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.