The leaders of Sweden and Turkey are set to meet in a last-ditch attempt to bridge a diplomatic impasse over Stockholm’s stalled Nato membership drive, which has been held up by Ankara.
Monday’s high-stakes talks between the Swedish prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will take place on the eve of an alliance summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius at which Nato is keen to demonstrate unity in the face of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Analysts say Nato and the White House both fear the Kremlin is trying to use its ties with Turkey to seed divisions among western allies. The US president, Joe Biden, is expected to push for Erdoğan to approve Sweden’s application when the pair meet on the sidelines of the two-day event.
The possibility of Ukraine’s admittance to Nato is also expected to be high on the summit agenda, while Biden is also likely to face questions as to why he last week approved the provision of cluster munitions to Kyiv. The weapon has been banned by more than two-thirds of Nato members because of its record for causing indiscriminate civilian casualties.
Erdogan has voiced repeated frustrations with what he calls Sweden’s failure to keep its promise to deal with suspected Kurdish militants allegedly “roaming the streets” of Stockholm.
“Sweden has taken some steps in the right direction,” Erdogan’s office quoted the Turkish leader as telling Biden in a call on Sunday. But Sweden’s decision to allow pro-Kurdish groups to “hold demonstrations freely praising terrorism nullify those steps”, Erdogan was reported to have said.
Erdogan’s stance is being supported by Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán. The two countries remain the only Nato members still standing in the way of the unanimous ratification needed for Sweden to become the 32nd member of the bloc.
Hungary has strongly signalled it will follow Erdogan’s lead and approve Sweden’s membership should Turkey give its green light.
The Nato chief, Jens Stoltenberg, hopes to emerge from Monday’s meeting between Erdogan and Kristersson with a Turkish commitment of support.
Biden arrived in the UK on Sunday and is set to hold talks with the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, and King Charles on Monday before heading to Vilnius.
One of the most difficult questions facing Nato leaders is how Ukraine should be eased into the alliance.
The US and Germany insist that the focus should be on supplying weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, rather than taking the more provocative step of extending a formal invitation to join Nato. Countries on Nato’s eastern flank – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – want firmer assurances on future membership.
Nato could also decide to elevate its relationship with Ukraine, creating what would be known as the Nato-Ukraine council and giving Kyiv a seat at the table for consultations.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, called for a unified signal from Nato on Ukraine and for his country to join the alliance in an interview with the US broadcaster ABC aired on Sunday.
“It would be an important message to say that Nato is not afraid of Russia,” Zelenskiy said. “Ukraine should get clear security guarantees while it is not in Nato. And that is a very important point. Only under these conditions our meeting would be meaningful. Otherwise, it’s just another politics.”
He would not confirm whether he would attend the summit, with his chief adviser Andriy Yermak telling the ABC that Zelenskiy was “still thinking about it”.
Biden on Sunday told CNN that Ukraine was “not yet ready” for Nato membership. “Nato is a process that takes some time to meet all the qualifications, from democratisation to a whole range of other issues,” he said, adding that Nato needed to “lay out a rational path” for membership.
Later on Sunday, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said on Twitter that he had held “an important discussion” with Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, ahead of the summit.
In his own tweet, Kuleba said the phone call was “productive”, adding: “With 48 hours left, we are working to make its final decisions a win for all: Ukraine, Nato and global security.”
With Associated Press and Agence France-Presse