Nato’s efforts to present a united front at a summit focused on helping Ukraine defeat Russia and Kyiv’s push to join the alliance were undermined on Monday by a shock Turkish ultimatum on Sweden’s membership bid.
As Ukraine’s forces claimed more advances against Russian positions, Nato’s 31 members agreed to simplify Kyiv’s eventual accession bid by dropping a requirement that it completes a formal road map of reforms.
Alliance leaders gathering in Vilnius on the eve of Tuesday’s summit were hoping a meeting between Erdogan and Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson would see the Turkish leader lift his veto on Sweden’s membership.
But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared in no mood to compromise, declaring that he would only back Sweden’s Nato candidacy if European Union members — most of whom are also Nato allies — agree to revive Turkey’s negotiations to join the EU.
Sweden ‘meets requirement’ The demand, never before made in public, threatened to open a new rift between Ankara and its Western partners, even as Nato and the EU tackle Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the continent’s worst security crisis since World War II.
“Almost all the Nato members are EU members. I now am addressing these countries, which are making Turkey wait for more than 50 years,” Erdogan said, before boarding his flight for the Lithuanian capital.
“First, open the way to Turkey’s membership of the European Union, and then we will open it for Sweden, just as we had opened it for Finland.”
Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a powerful figure in both Nato and the EU, was quick to stress there was no link between Sweden’s bid and Turkey’s EU application, which was formally launched in 2005 but has stalled.
“Sweden meets all the requirements for Nato membership,” he said in Berlin.
“The other question is one that is not connected with it and that is why I do not think it should be seen as a connected issue.”
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also expressed caution, recalling that at previous Nato talks in Madrid, Turkey had agreed to a set of conditions for Swedish membership that made no mention of EU membership.
“It’s still possible to have a positive decision on Swedish membership here in Vilnius,” Stoltenberg said, at an appearance with Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauseda.
“We don’t have any certainty, we don’t have any guarantees, but of course now we have the momentum of the summit with the leaders here and we will use that momentum to ensure as much progress as possible.”
As Turkey sparred over Sweden, Ukraine welcomed an apparent step forward in its fight for a guarantee that it will be able to join the Western alliance as a full Nato member if and when it wins its wars against the Russian invasion.
A Western official told AFP that the allies will drop the requirement that Kyiv completes a “Membership Action Plan”, a kind of road map to military reform that some members have had to follow to join the alliance.
Ukraine’s foreign minister said the concession — which Moscow warned would have serious consequences for European security — would reduce Kyiv’s path to Nato membership.
“I welcome this long-awaited decision that shortens our path to Nato,” Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.
“It is also the best moment to offer clarity on the invitation to Ukraine to become a member.”
But Nato leaders remain divided over offering Ukraine a clear route into the alliance in Vilnius.
While Eastern European allies are pushing for Kyiv to get an explicit commitment on when it will join, the United States and Germany are reluctant to go beyond an earlier vow that Ukraine will become a member one day.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Ganna Malyar said Kyiv’s troops had established fire control over the “entrances, exits and movement of the enemy around the city” of Bakhmut.
Elsewhere, an aid hub in the town of Orikhiv in southern Ukraine was hit by Russian shelling, which killed three women and a man, regional governor Yuriy Malashko said on social media.
“They hit a humanitarian aid delivery spot in a residential area … Four people died on the spot: women aged 43, 45 and 47 and a 47-year-old man,” Malashko said, calling the attack “a war crime”.