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Amid Russia's War On Ukraine, Turkish Deal With Finland, Sweden Opens The Door To Momentous NATO Enlargement

Sweden and Finland could become NATO members as soon as this fall.

Late on June 28, the leaders of Finland, Sweden, and Turkey signed a trilateral memorandum on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid, paving the way for the Nordic duo to join the military alliance. But what did they actually agree to and what will happen next?

How Did We Get Here?

Everyone, including senior NATO officials and the political leadership of Sweden and Finland, expected that the pair would join the alliance without any obstacles after Stockholm and Helsinki sought membership in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.

But in mid-May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced his opposition, highlighting a Western arms embargo on Turkey that both countries had joined and their alleged support of various Kurdish causes. What ensued was six weeks of political negotiations on various levels overseen by NATO, mostly in Brussels and Ankara, before they finally signed the three-page memorandum in the Spanish capital on June 28 after nearly four hours of talks. Both Finland and Sweden are now set to finally join the club.

What's In The Memorandum?

It largely focuses on three issues: fighting terrorism, the arms trade, and Turkish extradition requests.

For a long time, Finland and Sweden have classified the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization, but in the memorandum they commit to also "prevent activities of the PKK and all other terrorist organizations and their extensions, as well as activities by individuals in affiliated and inspired groups or networks linked to these terrorist organizations." They are also signing up to closer cooperation with Turkey to "prevent the activities of these terrorist groups."

Crucially, there is also a pledge not to provide support to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People's Defense Units (YPG), a Kurdish political party in Syria and its military wing that Ankara insists are closely associated with the PKK but many Western countries see as one of the most effective forces in fighting the Islamic State extremist group. Notably, there is no Turkish ultimatum in the memorandum to classify the YPG as a terrorist organization.

In another clear concession to Ankara, all three parties confirm that no national arms embargoes exist between them. But the biggest issue addressed is the future potential extradition of ethnic Kurds to Turkey, a sensitive topic in Sweden, which is home to an estimated 100,000 people of Kurdish origin.

The text states that "Finland and Sweden will address Turkey's pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously and thoroughly, taking into account information, evidence, and intelligence provided by Turkey." The document also notes that they will "establish necessary bilateral legal frameworks to facilitate extradition and security cooperation with Turkey, in accordance with the European Convention on Extradition."

It's possible that this deal will hurt Sweden's ruling Social Democratic Party in the parliamentary elections scheduled for September, and might be seen as a betrayal of the many Kurds seeking refuge in the country.

When Can Finland And Sweden Join NATO?

On June 29, NATO leaders will make the symbolic decision to invite Finland and Sweden to join NATO. The actual accession protocol, however, will not be signed in Madrid but more likely in Brussels next week by the ambassadors of the 30 current NATO members.

Then the ratification process starts in all the members' national parliaments. Normally this takes around one year but there have already been commitments by various countries to speed up the process. That could mean Sweden and Finland become the 31st and 32nd NATO members as soon as this fall.

Why Is This Significant?

Firstly, it is a huge political shift for both Finland and Sweden. Helsinki will be abandoning the final vestiges of its unique Cold War status, which led to the coining of the term "Finlandization," where the Soviet Union allowed the country independence in exchange for Finland not opposing its bigger and more powerful neighbor's foreign policy. And for Stockholm, it might be even more momentous, as over 200 years of military nonalignment is about to be consigned to history.

Accepting the two new Nordic members will also have a huge impact on NATO. Finland, which still has universal male conscription, can boast a wartime strength of 280,000 troops and trained reserves of 900,000 men and women, making it one of NATO's biggest armies. Finland also meets NATO's goal of spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, something only nine current NATO members manage to do. Sweden also aims to reach that target in the years ahead and is one of the largest arms exporters in the world.

Not to mention the impact the expansion will have on the security and geopolitics of Europe. The entire Baltic region, with the exception of Russia, will soon be NATO territory and Finland's 1,300-kilometer border with Russia will become the military alliance's longest, with what is currently its biggest adversary.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.