Thu, 18 Aug 2022

madrid - U.S. President Joe Biden thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday for dropping his objections to the bids by Sweden and Finland to join NATO, leading the way for the military alliance to expand even closer to Russia.

"I want to particularly thank you for what you did putting together the situation with regard to Finland and Sweden," Biden told Erdogan during a one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Madrid. "You're doing a great job."

In response, speaking through an interpreter, Erdogan said that Biden's "pioneering in this regard is going to be crucial in terms of strengthening NATO for the future, and it's going to have a very positive contribution to the process between Ukraine and Russia."

Turkey, Finland and Sweden on Tuesday signed a memorandum deepening their counterterrorism cooperation, addressing Ankara's concerns that the two Nordic countries are not doing enough to crack down on the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union, the U.S. and others.

Finland and Sweden also agreed not to support the Gulenist movement, led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, which Turkey blames for a failed 2016 coup attempt and other domestic problems.

Helsinki and Stockholm will also end support for the so-called Kurdish People's Defense Units (YPG) in Syria, part of the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting against the Islamic State group. Additionally, Sweden agreed to end an arms embargo against Turkey that dated to its 2019 incursion into Syria.

From left, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson converse at a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, June 29, 2022. From left, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson converse at a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, June 29, 2022.

Invitation to join NATO

With Turkey withdrawing its veto, NATO formally invited Finland and Sweden to join the alliance earlier Wednesday.

"It sends a very clear message to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. We are demonstrating that NATO's doors are open," Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, characterizing the invitation process as "the quickest in history."

Helsinki and Stockholm will bring great military capability and strategic outlook to the alliance, said Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, now at the Atlantic Council.

"Both nations - because they were neutral - they had to spend a lot of money and make a lot of effort to be a very professional force because they weren't in an alliance. They had to depend on themselves," Townsend told VOA. "It took the wolf being at the door for those nations to come in."

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The two countries applied to join in May, but the process began months earlier during the initial phase of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with Biden reaching out to the leaders to discuss the possibility of joining NATO, a senior U.S. administration official told reporters Tuesday.

Since then, the U.S. has been "painstakingly working to try and help close the gaps between the Turks, the Finns and the Swedes," the official said. "All the while trying, certainly in public, to have a lower-key approach to this so that it didn't become about the U.S. or about particular demands on the U.S.," he said, referring to Ankara's long-standing request to purchase U.S. F-16 fighter jets.

Biden phone call

The official denied that Ankara made the warplane request a precondition to withdraw its objections. However, he noted that Biden conveyed Tuesday during a phone call to Erdogan his desire to "get this other issue resolved, and then you and I can sit down and really, really talk about significant strategic issues."

The day after Ankara lifted its veto, the administration announced its support for the potential sale of the fighter jets.

Celeste Wallander, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs at the Pentagon, told reporters that Washington supports Ankara's effort to modernize its fighter fleet.

"That is a contribution to NATO security and, therefore, American security," she said.

FILE - In this Aug. 5, 2019, photo released by the U.S. Air Force, an F-35 fighter jet pilot and crew prepare for a mission at Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. FILE - In this Aug. 5, 2019, photo released by the U.S. Air Force, an F-35 fighter jet pilot and crew prepare for a mission at Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.

In 2017, despite American and NATO opposition, Turkey signed a deal to purchase the S-400 Russian missile defense system. In response, Washington issued sanctions and kicked Ankara out of its newest, most advanced F-35 jet program. Since then, Turkey has sought to purchase 40 modernized F-16s, which are older models of the American fighter jets, and modernization kits for another 80 F-16s.

Wallander said any F-16 sales "need to be worked through our contracting processes." A deal would likely require approval from Congress.

Ukraine grain

In their meeting, Biden also thanked Erdogan for his "incredible work" to establish humanitarian corridors to enable the export of Ukrainian grain to the rest of the world amid the war.

"We are trying to solve the process with a balancing policy. Our hope is that this balance policy will lead to results and allow us the possibility to get grain to countries that are facing shortages right now through a corridor as soon as possible," Erdogan said in response.

FILE - Trucks loaded with grain wait in a queue near Izmail, in the Odesa region, June 14, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. FILE - Trucks loaded with grain wait in a queue near Izmail, in the Odesa region, June 14, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Turkey has played a central role in negotiations with Kyiv and Russia to increase the amount of grain that can get out of Ukraine. Tens of millions of people around the world are at risk of hunger as the conflict disrupted shipments of grain from Ukraine, one of the world's leading producers.

Earlier this month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met his Russian counterpart to discuss unlocking the grain from Black Sea ports but failed to reach an agreement. Hurdles remain, including payment mechanisms and mines placed by both Moscow and Kyiv in the Black Sea.

Turkey has suggested that ships could be guided around sea mines by establishing safe corridors under a U.N. proposal to resume not only Ukrainian grain exports but also Russian food and fertilizer exports, which Moscow says are harmed by sanctions. The U.N. has been 'working in close cooperation with the Turkish authorities on this issue,' said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

VOA's Henry Ridgwell contributed to this report.

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