Norwegian leaders were jubilant after NATO could finally confirm on Monday that Sweden would be joining the military alliance along with Finland. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre called it “historic” in the true sense of the word, stressing how the entire Nordic region will become stronger together.
“It’s important, positive and great for Sweden, Norway, the Nordic region and for NATO that Sweden’s membership in the alliance has been clarified,” Støre told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday morning. “A united Nordic region in NATO will make the alliance stronger and the Nordics safer.”
Støre has long stressed the importance of defense cooperation with Sweden, which decided to end a long history of neutrality shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February of last year. Norway shares a long border with Sweden, also with Finland in the far north, and all three are eager to now be able to work much more closely together on defense issues and operations.
Such defense cooperation will finally be possible after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a Norwegian himself, could announce that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had finally dropped his objections to Sweden’s membership. After a breakthrough meeting on Monday, Erdagon ended months of posturing and what newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) called his “circus” that was becoming “a tragic farce.” Erdogan, exploiting the fact that all NATO members must approve any new members, had demanded a long list of concessions from Sweden and, most recently, Turkey’s own acceptance into the European Union (EU).
Erdogan succeeded in some areas, including counter-terrorism issues, but not all. He ultimately agreed with fellow allies to allow Sweden into NATO at a meeting with Stoltenberg and Kristersson just before NATO’s summit in Vilnius was to begin. Hungary, which also had delayed its acceptance of Sweden for various political reasons, quickly followed suit and dropped its objections as well.
With the alleged attempts at what DN called “political extortion” out of the way, and US President Joe Biden waiting in the wings, Stoltenberg could announce NATO’s expansion to 32 members. It was Stoltenberg’s latest personal victory as NATO’s popular chief, who just agreed to stay on for one more year. Stoltenberg also called the addition of Sweden “an historic step that makes all NATO allies stronger.”
Norway’s Støre acknowledged “a huge sense of relief” and so did Kristersson, saying he was “very glad we have shaken hands.” The Swedish prime minister said it was “a good day for Sweden, and now awaits the rest of this summit.”
Kristersson said he supported “closer cooperation” between Turkey and the EU, perhaps in the form of a “modernized customs unions and also on visa issues. Turkey still has a long way to go, however, in meeting EU membership demands. They include democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law, all of which have suffered under Erdogan’s authoritarian leadership. Several EU leaders had also reacted negatively to Erdogan’s attempt to tie his acceptance of Sweden as a NATO member to EU membership, calling them two entirely separate issues.
Støre called Kristersson “a relieved man,” adding that “I think the Swedes are glad” too. A clear majority of them had supported Sweden’s application to join NATO, as had a majority in Finland in reaction to Putin’s aggression towards its neighbouring Ukraine.
Many Norwegians, who share a border with Russia in the far north, will also be feeling safer with Finland and Sweden in NATO. The news from Vilnius this week was widely greeted with relief and support, also after Stoltenberg announced a so-called “fast track” to get Ukraine itself into NATO when the war is over. Støre diplomatically suggested on Tuesday that all Putin needs to do is “change his policies” and presumably retreat.
Norway remains active in NATO operations along other borders to Russia, and Støre took time to visit Norwegian troops stationed at the Rukla base in Lithuania before the NATO summit began. Støre was accompanied by his defense minister, Bjørn Arild Gram of the Center Party, both of whom stress the importance of guarding and defending NATO’s eastern flank. Defense of the borders of Lithuania’s neighbouring Latvia and Estonia, which were all part of the Soviet Union before the Cold War ended, has been strengthened considerably since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Støre’s government also announced just before the NATO summit began that Norway will be increasing its military support to Ukraine by NOK 2.5 billion, to a total of NOK 10 billion (nearly USD 1 billion) this year alone.
Norway, meanwhile, is busy rebuilding its own defense establishment that deteriorated after the Cold War was thought to have ended in the 1990s. Attention was shifted, for example, from military infrastructure in Northern Norway (where Norway shares a border with Russia) to international operations led by NATO. That included the now-criticized bombing of Libya when Stoltenberg was still Norway’s prime minister, and the ill-fated operations in Afghanistan, which had to be abandoned when the Taliban returned to power.
Now, given the brutality shown by Putin in Ukraine, Norway is building new barracks at the Porsangmoen base and elsewhere in Northern Norway, with an aim of doubling the number of soldiers based in the region. Newspaper Aftenposten reported over the weekend how Putin has inadvertently set off a building boom in the region, as billions are redirected into military enhancements.