By Sabine Siebold and John Irish
BERLIN (Reuters) – NATO is confident that it can overcome objections by Turkey and quickly admit Finland and Sweden, its deputy chief said on Sunday, as the alliance prepares for a historic enlargement in the Nordic region prompted by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto confirmed on Sunday that his country would apply for membership and Sweden is expected to follow suit as public support for membership has grown amid security concerns.
Foreign ministers from NATO’s 30 member states are holding two days of talks this weekend in Berlin that are focused on the two Nordic countries’ membership bids.
On Saturday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu unexpectedly raised objections, saying it was “unacceptable and outrageous” that the prospective new NATO members supported the outlawed Kurdish militant group PKK.
It was not immediately clear whether discussions between Cavusoglu and several NATO foreign ministers as well as their Finnish and Swedish counterparts later in the evening had yielded any progress in resolving the dispute.
As talks resumed on Sunday, NATO’s Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoana said he was confident Ankara’s concerns could be addressed.
“Turkey is an important ally and expressed concerns that are addressed between friends and allies,” Geoana told reporters.
“I am confident if these countries decide to seek membership in NATO we will be able to welcome them, to find all conditions for consensus to be met,” he added.
Many allies at the Berlin meeting backed Finland and Sweden, stressing the need for swift ratification of their membership bids, which typically take up to a year.
“Germany has prepared everything to do a quick ratification process,” Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters, adding that ministers had agreed at a dinner on Saturday that the momentum should not be lost.
“We must make sure that we will give them security guarantees, there must not be a transition period, a grey zone, where their status is unclear,” she said.
She was referring to the ratification period during which the Nordic countries would not yet be protected by NATO’s Article 5, which guarantees that an attack on one ally is an attack on all.
Canada’s Foreign Minister Melanie Joly echoed Baerbock’s comments, saying she hoped it could be done “within weeks”.
The allies, who were joined on Sunday by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, discussed the issue of interim security guarantees for Sweden and Finland, whose plans have drawn threats of retaliation from Moscow.
Russia regards NATO expansion as a threat to its own security and cited Ukraine’s ambition to join the alliance as a reason for launching what it calls a “special military operation” in its southern neighbour.
Blinken met Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Berlin before the meeting. The NATO foreign ministers were due to discuss the situation on the ground in Ukraine and the alliance’s support for Kyiv.
“We agreed we must continue to help Ukraine win and push Russia out,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.
“(Russian President Vladimir) Putin must face a sustained defeat in Ukraine, Russia must be contained and such aggression must never happen again.”
Allies also looked at the first draft of NATO’s new strategic concept, the alliance’s fundamental political guideline which is to be renewed at the Madrid summit in June for the first time since 2010 and expected to mark the end of the post-Cold War era in Europe, a NATO official said.
The document is expected to mention China for the first time, defining it as a strategic competitor, the official said, adding the China part will likely be more contentious among allies than the Russia section.
(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Gareth Jones and Raissa Kasolowsky)