‘Now It’s For Real’: Ukraine War Puts Sweden’s Military On Alert

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage their armoured vehicles during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17, 2022. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

 

 

A new and more serious reality looms large for Sweden’s conscripts as their military service now takes place in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The war has seen Sweden drastically ramp up its military readiness and take the “historic” step this week to apply for NATO membership, reversing two centuries of military non-alignment.

“You realise this is actually for real — I’m not here on some year-long summer camp,” says Axel Bystrom, a 20-year-old conscript on Sweden’s strategic Baltic Sea island of Gotland.

“Now it’s for real and that makes you more serious,” added the young squad leader with the P18 regiment, which was only re-established in 2018.

Breaking off branches from nearby spruces, Bystrom and his fellow soldiers meticulously cover three armoured vehicles to camouflage them.

“You are working to be as good as you possibly can all the time, because you are thinking, ‘this could be a reality. We may have to use it’,” the native of Visby, Gotland’s medieval main town, tells AFP.

More military exercises are also being held across Sweden.

– War games –
Sweden has long had a fear of Russia. With the end of the Cold War, the country made swingeing cuts to its defence spending.

But following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, it decided to rearm and hike spending, reintroducing mandatory military service in 2017.

As only a fraction of the population is called up and avoiding service is quite easy, conscripts like Bystrom tend to be highly motivated.

Spooked by Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Sweden has announced a dramatic increase in defence spending, targeting two percent of GDP “as soon as possible”, up from around 1.5 percent expected in the next few years.

Overall, Sweden’s armed forces consist of some 55,000 people, including the Home Guard and part-time employees — around 23,600 are part of the regular forces.

For many Swedes, Gotland is a popular summer holiday destination known for its sandy beaches on a sleepy island of 60,000 people.

But it is also less than 350 kilometres (217 miles) from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

“Gotland is situated in the middle of the Baltic Sea. So if you own Gotland, you can pretty much control the air and naval movements in the Baltic Sea,” P18 commander Magnus Frykvall explains.

A common theory is that in a conflict Russia would want to seize the island and install its S-400 surface-to-air missile defence system, effectively blocking off most of the southern Baltic Sea.

The Gotland regiment is still growing. According to Frykvall, they can now field around 800 soldiers and plan to increase numbers to 4,000 during wartime.

The uptick has been accelerated after Russian President Vladimir Putin “made it clear that he is willing to use military force to gain his political goals”.

At its peak during the Cold War, some 25,000 troops and reserves were stationed on Gotland — more than six times the amount planned for now.

But the planned boost in artillery and anti-aircraft systems means the regiment would “probably” be enough to “meet any threat.”

If Sweden’s NATO application — currently facing diplomatic hurdles from Turkey — were accepted, it would deter anyone from attacking Gotland, according to Frykvall.

“Thirty-two countries are much stronger than one,” he says, referring to NATO’s guiding principle that an attack on one member is seen as an attack on all.

– ‘Make Gardens Not War’ –
For residents living near the regiment, the increased military activity has been very noticeable.

“We have machine gun fire, we have explosions, we have artillery shots, shots from tanks as well,” says Robert Hall, a local Green Party politician.

“We have tanks moving in and out of the military area and on the road 17 metres in front of our house, so we hear a lot of noise a lot of the time”, he says.

In an eye-catching contrast, the ecological commune he helped found lies just across from the entrance to the military area.

Next to the sign for the “Suderbyn Ecovillage”, a giant banner shows a tank overgrown with plants and reading “Make Gardens Not War”.

For Hall, who is originally from California, the nature of the whole island has gone through a dramatic shift since he first came.

“We moved here in 1995 and there was still a lot of euphoria on the island about the fall of the Iron Curtain,” he says.

“Gotland really wanted to position itself as the neutral meeting place in the middle of the Baltic Sea.”

That idea has now instead given way to a new line of division.

“We’re back to where we were before 1989, with a divided sea, even though it’s not quite divided in the same location anymore,” Hall said.

Finland, Sweden Hand In Applications To Join NATO

Finnish Foreign Affairs Minister Pekka Haavisto (R) and Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen give a press conference to announce that Finland will apply for NATO membership at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland on May 15, 2022. (Photo by Alessandro RAMPAZZO / AFP)

 

Finland and Sweden on Wednesday handed in their bids to join NATO, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine up-ended decades of military non-alignment. 

The applications were warmly received by most allies. But Turkey raised objections, and ambassadors meeting in Brussels failed to reach consensus on starting formal membership negotiations.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had promised the process would be “swift and smooth”, but Turkey will have to be mollified before the ratification can take place.

“The applications you have made today are an historic step. Allies will now consider the next steps on your path to NATO,” Stoltenberg said, after receiving the bids from the Finnish and Swedish ambassadors.

READ ALSO: Belarus Introduces Death Penalty For ‘Attempted’ Terrorism

The membership push could represent the most significant expansion of NATO in decades. It would double the US-led organisation’s presence along Russia’s borders, and President Vladimir Putin has warned it may trigger a response from Moscow.

But resistance raised by NATO member Turkey threatens to block them, with Ankara accusing the Nordic countries of acting as safe havens for opposition Kurdish groups.

In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “We asked them to extradite 30 terrorists but they refused to do so.

“You will not send back the terrorists to us, and then ask our support for your NATO membership?”

Officials in Brussels confirmed that a meeting on Wednesday of the North Atlantic Council — ambassadors from the NATO member states — broke up without an agreement to pass to the next stage of membership talks.

“Allies will now consider the next steps on their path to NATO,” a NATO official said.

Earlier, Stoltenberg had said: “The security interests of all allies have to be taken into account and we are determined to work through all issues and reach rapid conclusions.

“All allies agree on the importance of NATO enlargement. We all agree that we must stand together and we all agree that this is an historic moment which we must seize.”

Helsinki, Stockholm and the other allied Western capitals remain optimistic they can overcome Turkey’s objections.

Several NATO allies, most notably Britain, have offered security assurances to Finland and Sweden during the application period before they are covered by alliance’s mutual defence pact.

“Over the past few days we have seen numerous statements by allies committing to Finland and Sweden’s security,” Stoltenberg said.

“NATO is already vigilant in the Baltic Sea region and NATO and allies forces will continue to adapt as necessary.”

AFP

Finland, Sweden Apply To Join NATO As First Ukraine War Crimes Trial Begins

Finland's President Sauli Niinisto (L) and Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson address a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, on May 17, 2022. Anders WIKLUND / TT News Agency / AFP
Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto (L) and Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson address a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, on May 17, 2022. Anders WIKLUND / TT News Agency / AFP

 

Finland and Sweden on Wednesday submitted a joint application to join NATO as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forces a dramatic reappraisal of security in Europe.

The reversal of the Nordic countries’ longstanding policy of non-alignment came as the war nears its third month and Ukraine strives to evacuate the last of its soldiers holed up at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.

Azovstal has become emblematic of the fierce Ukrainian resistance that has forced Russian President Vladimir Putin to reorient his military goals after a devastating campaign strewn with alleged war crimes.

In Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, the first war crimes trial of a Russian soldier since the invasion began was set to get under way at 1100 GMT.

“By this first trial, we are sending a clear signal that every perpetrator, every person who ordered or assisted in the commission of crimes in Ukraine shall not avoid responsibility,” prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said.

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg formally received the applications from the Finnish and Swedish ambassadors, calling them “an historic step”.

“All allies agree on the importance of NATO enlargement. We all agree that we must stand together and we all agree that this is an historic moment which we must seize,” he said.

The membership push could represent the most significant expansion of NATO in decades, doubling its border with Russia, and Putin has warned it may trigger a response from Moscow.

But the applications face resistance from NATO member Turkey, which has threatened to block them over accusations the Nordic neighbours act as safe havens for armed groups opposed to Ankara.

Western allies remain optimistic they can overcome Turkey’s objections and for now, several including Britain have offered security guarantees to Finland and Sweden to guard against any Russian aggression.

– Mediators for Azovstal –

On the ground, in the ruined port city of Mariupol, a unit of soldiers had been holding out in Azovstal’s underground maze of tunnels, but Moscow said Wednesday that 959 of the troops had surrendered this week.

Kyiv’s defence ministry said it would do “everything necessary” to rescue the undisclosed number of personnel still in the steelworks, but admitted there was no military option available.

“The evacuation mission continues, it is overseen by our military and intelligence,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address.

“The most influential international mediators are involved.”

Zelensky’s aide, Oleksiy Arestovich, said he would not comment further while the operation was ongoing. “Everything is too fragile there and one careless word can destroy everything,” he said.

Those who have left Azovstal were taken into Russian captivity, including 51 who were heavily wounded, the Russian defence ministry said.

The ministry, which published images showing soldiers on stretchers, said the injured were transported to a hospital in the eastern Donetsk region controlled by pro-Kremlin rebels.

The defence ministry in Kyiv said it was hoping for an “exchange procedure… to repatriate these Ukrainian heroes as quickly as possible”.

But their fate was unclear, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refusing to say whether they would be treated as criminals or prisoners of war.

Putin had “guaranteed that they would be treated according to the relevant international laws”, Peskov said.

– ‘My war is not over’ –

Despite their last-ditch resistance in places such as Mariupol, and their successful defence of Kyiv, Ukrainian forces are retreating across swathes of the eastern front.

White smoke from burning fields marks the pace of Russia’s advance around the village of Sydorove, on the approaches to the militarily important city of Slovyansk and Ukraine’s eastern administrative centre in Kramatorsk.

Army volunteer Yaroslava, 51, sat on a slab of concrete jutting out from the remains of a school in Sydorove where her husband’s unit had set up camp before it was hit by a Russian strike.

She stared at a spot where rescuers and de-miners had spotted a motionless hand reaching out from the rubble.

“We had settled in London before the war but felt like we had no choice but to come back,” Yaroslava said.

“My two sons have just signed three-year contracts with the army. We will fight. We will still fight,” she said without moving her eyes.

“My war is not over.”

The war crimes trial in Kyiv, expected to be followed by several others, will test the Ukrainian justice system at a time when international bodies are also conducting their own investigations.

Vadim Shishimarin, 21, from Irkutsk in Siberia, is accused of shooting an unarmed 62-year-old man in Ukraine’s Sumy region on February 28 — four days into the invasion.

Shishimarin faces a possible life sentence. Prosecutors said he was commanding a unit in a tank division when his convoy came under attack.

He and four other soldiers stole a car and encountered the man on a bicycle, shooting him in cold blood, according to the prosecutors.

The International Criminal Court said Tuesday it was deploying its largest-ever field team to Ukraine, with 42 investigators, forensic experts and support staff being sent into the field to gather evidence of alleged atrocities.

The US State Department also announced it was creating a special unit to research, document and publicise Russian war crimes.

The Conflict Observatory will “capture, analyse, and make widely available evidence of Russia-perpetrated war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine”, the department said Tuesday.

Sweden, Finland To Submit NATO Membership Bid Wednesday

Finland's President Sauli Niinisto (L) and Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson address a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, on May 17, 2022. Anders WIKLUND / TT News Agency / AFP
Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto (L) and Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson address a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, on May 17, 2022. Anders WIKLUND / TT News Agency / AFP

 

Finland and Sweden will submit their bids to join NATO together Wednesday, the two Nordic countries announced, despite Turkey’s threat to block the military alliance’s expansion.

“I’m happy we have taken the same path and we can do it together,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said Tuesday during a joint press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto.

Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia, and Sweden have been rattled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

READ ALSO: McDonald’s To Exit Russia, Sell Business In Country

Their applications will jettison decades of military non-alignment to join the alliance as a defence against feared aggression from Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Monday NATO’s expansion may trigger a response from Moscow.

But the main obstacle to their membership comes from within the alliance despite NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg repeatedly insisting the two countries would be welcomed “with open arms”.

Turkey has accused Sweden and Finland of acting as a hotbed for terrorist groups and its president insists Ankara will not approve expansion.

Any membership bid must be unanimously approved by NATO’s 30 members.

Niinisto said Tuesday he was “optimistic” Finland and Sweden would be able to secure Turkey’s support.

Andersson and Niinisto are to meet US President Joe Biden in Washington Thursday to discuss their historic bids.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said the bloc offered the bids its “full support” after a meeting of EU defence ministers in Brussels.

“This will increase the number of member states that are also members of NATO. And this will strengthen and increase the cooperation and the security in Europe,” he said.

This was “an important geopolitical change”, he noted.

Rising public support

After a marathon debate lasting a day-and-a-half, 188 out of 200 Finnish lawmakers voted in favour of NATO membership, a dramatic reversal of Finland’s military non-alignment policy dating back more than 75 years.

“Our security environment has fundamentally changed,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told parliament Monday at the start of the debate.

“The only country that threatens European security, and is now openly waging a war of aggression, is Russia,” she said.

Finland spent more than a century as part of the Russian empire until it gained independence in 1917. It was then invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939.

Finns put up a fierce fight during the bloody Winter War, but were ultimately forced to cede a huge stretch of their eastern Karelia province in a peace treaty with Moscow.

According to public opinion polls, more than three-quarters of Finns want to join the alliance, almost three times as many as before the war in Ukraine began on February 24.

Swedish public support has also risen dramatically, albeit more modestly than in Finland, at around 50 percent.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde signed the application letter Tuesday.

The turnaround is also dramatic in Sweden, which remained neutral throughout World War II and has stayed out of military alliances for more than 200 years.

Turkish objections

Ankara has thrown a spanner in the works with its last-minute objections.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Helsinki and Stockholm of harbouring militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

Sweden has also suspended any arms sales to Turkey since 2019 over Ankara’s military operation in neighbouring Syria.

“We will not say ‘yes’ to those (countries) who apply sanctions to Turkey to join NATO,” Erdogan said Monday, adding: “Neither of the countries has a clear stance against terror organisations.”

Diplomatic sources told AFP that Turkey blocked a NATO declaration Monday in favour of Sweden and Finland’s membership.

Sweden and Finland have sent delegations to Turkey to meet with Turkish officials.

“Sweden is delighted to work with Turkey in NATO and this cooperation can be part of our bilateral relations,” Sweden’s Andersson said, emphasising that Stockholm “is committed to fighting against all types of terrorism”.

AFP

Finland, Sweden Debate NATO Bids As Ukraine Braces For Eastern Attack

Finnish Foreign Affairs Minister Pekka Haavisto (R) and Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen give a press conference to announce that Finland will apply for NATO membership at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland on May 15, 2022. –  (Photo by Alessandro RAMPAZZO / AFP)

 

Russia warned Finland and Sweden Monday they were making a “grave mistake” in their moves to join NATO as Ukraine braced for a new push by Moscow’s forces in its eastern Donbas region.

The two Nordic countries are poised to jettison decades of military non-alignment due to fears of aggression from Russia, with which Finland shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border.

Helsinki officially declared its intention to join the NATO military alliance Sunday and Sweden’s ruling party has also backed membership, with the issue now being debated by both countries’ parliaments.

Russia, whose invasion of neighbouring Ukraine on February 24 has sparked global outrage, killed thousands and created millions of refugees, warned there would be consequences.

“This is another grave mistake with far-reaching consequences,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters Monday, warning “the general level of military tensions will increase”.

“They should have no illusions that we will just put up with this,” he was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

Russia has already suspended electricity supplies to Finland, citing payment issues.

But Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told lawmakers: “Our security environment has fundamentally changed.

“The only country that threatens European security, and is now openly waging a war of aggression, is Russia.”

– ‘Dead-end’ –

Ukraine’s Western allies have sent weapons and money to help it resist Russia’s forces, and NATO promised Sunday support for as long as it was needed.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock promised military assistance “for as long as Ukraine needs”.

Since failing to take the capital Kyiv in the early weeks of the war, Moscow has focused on the eastern industrial region of Donbas, near the Russian border and home to pro-Russian separatists.

“We are preparing for new attempts by Russia to attack in Donbas, to somehow intensify its movement in the south of Ukraine,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address Sunday.

But Western intelligence has predicted its campaign will stall amid heavy losses and fierce resistance.

“The occupiers still do not want to admit that they are in a dead-end and their so-called ‘special operation’ has already gone bankrupt,” Zelensky added.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich told local television Sunday that Russian troops were being redeployed towards the Donbas region after withdrawing from Kharkiv.

The defence ministry later announced Ukrainian troops had regained control of territory near Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city near the Russian border, which has been under constant attack since the invasion.

They “drove out the Russians and claimed the state border”, it said in a statement posted on social media alongside a video showing armed Ukrainian soldiers gathered around a yellow-and-blue-painted border post.

Some Russian forces remain to try and block the advance, and air sirens sounded in Kharkiv city in the early hours, according to the Ukrainian army.

Arestovich said the Russian troops that had been withdrawn were being sent towards Lugansk and “their task is to take Severodonetsk,” the easternmost city still held by Ukraine.

“Well, something is not working for them.”

– Waiting it out –

The fall of Severodonetsk would grant the Kremlin de facto control of Lugansk, one of two regions — along with Donetsk — that comprise Donbas.

But Russia’s attempt to cross a river to encircle it has been repelled with heavy losses of equipment, according to Lugansk governor Sergiy Gaiday.

And Russian-occupied railway bridges leading to Severodonetsk were blown up, the Ukrainian military said on Facebook late Sunday.

Ukraine’s presidency reported Monday two people were killed and nine were wounded, including a child, in shelling on a Severodonetsk hospital.

After almost three months of fighting, more than six million refugees have fled Ukraine, and another eight million have been internally displaced, according to UN agencies.

But some are trying to wait it out.

In Lysychansk, on the other side of the river from Severodonetsk, a policeman tried in vain to evacuate Angelina Abakumova and her children.

“It is dangerous here now. Then it changes and it becomes dangerous over there. What is the point of going back and forth?” she told AFP, on her way back to her basement.

But the battles here have grown in number as the Russians try to gain control of hills overlooking a road providing Lysychansk’s last link to the outside world.

“The people who sit here just think that everything will be fine,” said the policeman, Viktor Levchenko, of the dozens hiding in the underground corridors and intertwining basements of one of the city’s more fortified buildings.

“But unfortunately, everything is not fine.”

– ‘Behind schedule’ –

Russia’s defence ministry claimed it had launched strikes overnight on two Ukrainian command posts and five weapons depots in the regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lugansk.

But British defence chiefs said Russia’s offensive in Donbas had “lost momentum”.

Demoralised Russian troops had failed to make substantial gains and Moscow’s battle plan was “significantly behind schedule”, UK defence intelligence said.

It added Russia may have lost a third of the ground combat forces it committed in February and was “unlikely to dramatically accelerate” its advance in the next 30 days.

Ukrainian commanders say they expect a turning point in their favour by August, but Western powers have cautioned the conflict will turn into a war of attrition stretching into next year.

– EU meets on oil ban –

Ukraine’s Western allies have levelled unprecedented economic sanctions against Moscow to punish it for the invasion, but at the same time, European nations continue to buy Russian oil and gas.

EU foreign ministers met Monday in Brussels to discuss a proposed ban on Russian oil, but Hungary is blocking the move, arguing it would hammer the Hungarian economy.

The war is taking its toll on the continent’s growth. The European Commission sharply cut its eurozone growth forecast for 2022 to 2.7 percent, blaming skyrocketing energy prices.

Separately, French automaker Renault has handed over its Russian assets to the Russian government, marking the first major nationalisation since the onset of sanctions.

Renault controlled 68 percent of AvtoVAZ, the largest carmaker in Russia with the country’s top brand Lada, but had been under pressure to pull out of Russia following the invasion.

AFP

Finland Announces ‘Historic’ NATO Bid, As Sweden Holds Key Meeting

Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö gives a press conference to announce that Finland will apply for NATO membership at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland on May 15, 2022. (Photo by Alessandro RAMPAZZO / AFP)

 

The Finnish government officially announced its intention to join NATO on Sunday, as Sweden’s ruling party was to hold a decisive meeting that could pave the way for a joint application.

Less than three months after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the move is a stunning reversal of Finland’s policy on military non-alignment dating back more than 75 years.

Sweden, which has been militarily non-aligned for more than two centuries, is expected to follow suit with a similar announcement, possibly on Monday.

“Today, the President of the Republic and the Government’s Foreign Policy Committee have jointly agreed that Finland will apply for NATO membership, after consulting parliament,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told reporters at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Sanna Marin on Sunday.

“This is a historic day. A new era is opening”, Niinisto said.

Despite last-minute objections by Turkey, NATO members are on “good track” in their discussions on welcoming Sweden and Finland into the Western military alliance, Croatia’s foreign minister, Gordan Grlic Radman, said as he arrived for talks with NATO counterparts in Berlin.

Finland’s parliament will convene to debate the membership proposal on Monday.

“We hope the parliament will confirm the decision to apply for NATO membership during the coming days. It will be based on a strong mandate”, premier Marin said.

An overwhelming majority of Finnish MPs back the decision after Marin’s Social Democratic Party on Saturday said it was in favour of joining.

“Hopefully, we can send our applications next week together with Sweden,” Marin had said on Saturday.

The two Nordic countries broke their strict neutralities after the end of the Cold War by joining the EU and becoming partners to NATO in the 1990s, solidifying their affiliation with the West.

But the concept of full NATO membership was a non-starter in the countries until the war in Ukraine saw public and political support for joining the alliance soar.

Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia, has been leading the charge, while Sweden appears anxious at being the only non-NATO country around the Baltic Sea.

Finland is also Sweden’s closest defence cooperation partner.

Many Swedish politicians have said their support is conditional on Finland joining.

On Saturday, the Finnish head of state phoned his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin to inform him of his country’s desire to join NATO, in a conversation described as “direct and straightforward”.

“Avoiding tensions was considered important,” Niinisto said in a statement after the call.

But Putin responded by warning that joining NATO “would be a mistake since there is no threat to Finland’s security”, according to a Kremlin statement.

Moscow has repeatedly warned both countries of consequences if they join NATO.

Niinisto said Sunday that while Helsinki expects Russia to respond to its decision, “little by little, I’m beginning to think that we’re not going to face actual military operations.”

“After the phone call with Putin, I think so even more.”

– No other choice –

According to recent polls, the number of Finns who want to join the alliance has risen to over three-quarters, almost triple the level seen before the war in Ukraine.

In Sweden, support has also risen dramatically, to around 50 percent — with about 20 percent against.

Sweden’s Social Democrats, led by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, were meeting Sunday to decide whether the party should abandon its historic stance against joining, last reaffirmed at the party’s annual congress in November.

A green light from the party would secure a firm parliamentary majority in favour of joining.

While the party’s leading politicians have seemed ready to reverse the decision, critical voices within have denounced the change in policy as rushed.

But analysts say it is unlikely that the party will oppose the move.

NATO membership needs to be approved and ratified by all 30 members of the alliance.

While Finland and Sweden claim to have received favourable signals from Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday expressed hostility to the idea.

Turkey’s objections, directed in particular at Stockholm, focus on what it considers to be the countries’ leniency towards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is on the EU’s list of terrorist organisations.

Niinisto said Sunday he was “prepared to have a new discussion with President Erdogan about the problems he has raised”.

At NATO’s meeting in Berlin, Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok said he was “absolutely certain that we will find a solution”, while Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said “the signs don’t look bad” for Sweden and Finland.

AFP

Turkey Opposes NATO Membership For Finland, Sweden

A handout photograph taken and released on October 25, 2021 by the Turkish Presidential Press Service shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan giving a news conference following a cabinet meeting in Ankara. Murat KULA / TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / AFP
FILE: A handout photograph taken and released on October 25, 2021 by the Turkish Presidential Press Service shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan giving a news conference following a cabinet meeting in Ankara. Murat KULA / TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / AFP

 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said Turkey did not have a “positive opinion” on Finland and Sweden joining NATO, throwing up a potential obstacle for the nations’ membership bid. 

The leader of NATO-member Turkey spoke ahead of expected confirmations from the Nordic nations on Sunday that they will apply to join the Western military alliance.

Erdogan accused both countries of harbouring “terrorist organisations” in his unfavourable assessment of the membership bids.

READ ALSO: Finland Will Join NATO ‘Without Delay’ – President, PM

“We do not have a positive opinion,” Erdogan told journalists after Friday prayers in Istanbul.

“Scandinavian countries are like a guesthouse for terror organisations,” he said.

Turkey has long accused Nordic countries, especially Sweden which has a strong Turkish immigrant community, of harbouring extremist Kurdish groups as well as supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based preacher wanted over a failed 2016 coup.

Erdogan cited a “mistake” made by Turkey’s former rulers who okayed Greece’s NATO membership in 1952.

“We, as Turkey, do not want to make a second mistake on this issue,” he said.

Unanimous approval needed

Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine has swung political and public opinion in Finland and Sweden in favour of membership as a deterrent against Russian aggression.

Both countries have long cooperated with NATO and are expected to be able to join the alliance quickly.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly said they would be welcomed “with open arms”.

Turkey’s response is the first dissenting voice against the two Nordic countries’ NATO prospects.

Sweden’s and Finland’s foreign ministers responded on Friday by saying they were hoping to meet their Turkish counterpart in Berlin at an informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers on Saturday.

“We will then have the opportunity to discuss a potential Swedish NATO application,” Sweden’s foreign minister Ann Linde said in a statement to AFP, also noting the “Turkish government had not delivered this type of message directly to us”.

Speaking at a Helsinki press conference, Finland’s Pekka Haavisto also said he hoped to meet Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu during the weekend to “continue our discussion.”

Stockholm and Helsinki have cranked up their international contacts to seek support for their potential bids.

Once a country has decided to apply for NATO membership, the alliance’s 30 members must agree unanimously to extend a formal invitation, which is followed by membership negotiations.

The final approval could then take place at a NATO summit in Madrid at the end of June. The 30 member states would then have to ratify the decision.

Turkey, which enjoys good relations with Kyiv and Moscow, has been keen to play a mediating role to end the conflict and has offered to host a leaders’ summit.

Ankara has supplied Ukraine with combat drones but has shied away from slapping sanctions on Russia alongside Western allies.

‘Hungary of the EU’

Erdogan’s comments may also raise tensions with France, whose President Emmanuel Macron has said NATO was undergoing “brain death” partly due to Turkey’s behaviour.

Macron has made clear he supports Finland’s bid as does the United States.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday Washington was “working to clarify Turkey’s position”, adding there was “broad support” for the two countries’ joining the alliance.

The Finnish president spoke with Erdogan in April as part of consultations for its NATO bid.

“I thanked President Erdogan for his efforts for peace in Ukraine. Turkey supports Finland’s objectives,” he tweeted at the time.

Turkey’s position on Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership risks making it look like the “Hungary of the EU”, said Washington Institute fellow Soner Cagaptay.

Pro-Russia Hungary often breaks from its EU colleagues on a broad range of issues, including rule of law and human rights.

Cagaptay said Ankara should have negotiated its terror-related concerns behind closed doors with the two countries.

“The fact that this is done publicly is going to hurt Ankara’s image significantly,” he said.

But Erdogan is “a clever tactician”, said Elisabeth Braw, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

“He knows that this is an opportunity for Turkey to get something from NATO member states… F-35s, for example,” she said, referring to US defence giant Lockheed Martin’s jets.

AFP

Four Police Injured During Protest in Sweden

Police vans are on fire as counter-protesters react during a counter-protest in the park Sveaparken in Orebro, south-centre Sweden on April 15, 2022, where Danish far-right party Stram Kurs had permission for a square meeting on Good Friday. Kicki NILSSON / TT NEWS AGENCY / AFP
Police vans are on fire as counter-protesters react during a counter-protest in the park Sveaparken in Orebro, south-centre Sweden on April 15, 2022, where Danish far-right party Stram Kurs had permission for a square meeting on Good Friday. Kicki NILSSON / TT NEWS AGENCY / AFP

 

Counter-protesters demonstrating against a far-right group’s intention to burn a Koran in Orebro in central Sweden clashed with police on Friday, leaving four police officers injured, authorities said.

Police said in a statement that four police officers were injured with one of them, as well as a member of the public, being hit on the head by a stone.

It was the second day running that there had been clashes on the fringes of a rally by the anti-immigration and anti-Islamic Stram Kurs (Hard Line) movement led by Danish-Swedish Rasmus Paludan.

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Three police officers had to be taken to hospital after a riot broke out in the city of Linkoping on Sweden’s east coast on Thursday, where a demonstration that included a Koran burning was planned. Two people were arrested at that demo.

“We live in a democratic society and one of the most important tasks of the police is to ensure that people can use their constitutionally protected rights to demonstrate and express their opinions,” national police chief Anders Thornberg said on Friday morning, reacting to Thursday’s events.

“The police do not get to choose who has this right, but must always intervene in case of violation,” he added in a statement.

Paludan has regularly been at the centre of incidents in recent years.

In November 2020, he was arrested in France and deported.

Five other activists were arrested in Belgium shortly afterwards, accused of wanting to “spread hatred” by burning a Koran in Brussels.

 

AFP

‘So Cute!’: Swedish Selfie ‘Museum’ Gets Super Liked

People visit the “You Underwater” room inside Youseum on April 4, 2022, in Solna, near Stockholm. – A new selfie “museum” in Sweden is flipping the script by making visitors both the artist and the exhibit. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

 

 

 

A new selfie “museum” in Sweden is flipping the script by making visitors both the artist and the exhibit.

The “Youseum” in Stockholm has no works of art on its walls.

Instead its brightly-decorated rooms are meant to serve as fun backgrounds for visitors’ selfies or videos.

“You can take cool pictures and create cool content for your Instagram… This is the perfect place to do Tiktoks,” manager Sofia Makiniemi told AFP as she showed off the “Emoji Room” filled with blue and yellow balls with smiley and frowning faces.

Other rooms let you bury yourself in candy-coloured foam sticks, strike a pose under neon lights, or sit on a giant pink swing for your next profile picture.

“You have the lighting, you have the Tiktok music, you have snacks, you have all the things that we like,” said 18-year-old Zeneb Elmani, who was visiting with a group of friends.

She loved its “2020s era” vibe.

 

View shows the “You are the Moon” room inside the “Youseum”, a new selfie museum on April 4, 2022, in Solna, near Stockholm.Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

 

‘Too late to worry’

For Makiniemi, the Youseum, which is in a shopping mall, lets visitors be the artists themselves, even though the typical influencer may not consider their pictures to be art.

“It’s an interactive museum where you can create the art you want to see,” she said.

The Youseum concept began in the Netherlands, where they are already two.

With social media ever more ubiquitous, concerns have grown about its dangers, especially its impact on the mental health of young people, in particular girls.

“It is a big part of our society today, so why not try to make it more creative,” Makiniemi argued.

The group of young women visiting when AFP dropped in were even less concerned about a darker side or rampant narcissism.

 

Children play with blue and yellow balls in the “Youseum”, new selfie “museum” in Solna, near Stockholm on April 4, 2022.  (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

 

“I think this place is cute for people who love to take pictures, like my friends…Oh my god it’s so cute,”  said 18-year-old Chaymae Ouahchi.

Though older generations may scoff at the idea of a museum dedicated to the seemingly self-indulgent practice of photographing yourself, 70-year-old professor Bill Burgwinkle who was visiting with his teenage niece, said we should embrace it.

“I think it’s too late to worry. It’s the way the world is now,” he said, adding that the unorthodox museum seems to “serve its purpose”.

 

A picture taken on April 4, 2022, shows the “Neon room” inside the Youseum, in Solna, near Stockholm.  (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

 

 

People visit the “You are Live” room inside Youseum on April 4, 2022, in Solna, near Stockholm. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

 

 

People visit the “Riviera Beach” room inside Youseum on April 4, 2022, in Solna, near Stockholm.  (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

 

People visit the “Laundry room” inside Youseum on April 4, 2022, in Solna, near Stockholm.  (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

Sweden Recommends Fourth Jab For Over-80s

The Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is prepared for administration at a vaccination clinic. Frederic J. BROWN / AFP

 

Sweden’s public health agency on Monday recommended a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine for people aged over 80, and for anyone in a nursing home or receiving at-home care.

While many countries have started administering third doses, recommendations for a fourth are still rare.

The Swedish agency said the jab should be taken four months after the previous dose, at the earliest.

“The spread of Covid-19 is still intense in Sweden. An increasing number of cases have been reported in recent weeks, including among people at increased risk of severe illness,” the agency said.

“The immune system’s ability to react to the vaccination, and build up lasting protection, decreases with age,” it added.

“A booster strengthens that protection,” state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said in a statement from the agency.

Countries like Israel, Spain and Denmark have also announced a fourth dose for vulnerable people.

However, Denmark said Friday that it was not planning a fourth dose for other population groups, nor a third dose for those under 18.

The Danish Health Authority also said it had begun to plan “a winding down of the current vaccination program for all target groups”, citing the country’s high vaccine uptake and natural immunity, coupled with the third wave of the virus nearing an end and infections expected to subside with the change in seasons.

The authority said the dates of the phase-out would be announced towards the end of February.

Responding to questions from AFP, it said Monday it was too early to provide details about what the phase-out would mean in practice and to what extent the vaccine would still be available to unvaccinated Danes.

In Sweden, more than 85 percent of those over the age of 80, have received a third dose of the vaccine, as have 55 percent of over-18s.

The Scandinavian country, which lifted all its Covid restrictions on February 9 despite a surge in Omicron infections, made headlines early in the pandemic for choosing to not impose lockdowns.

With more than 16,500 fatalities so far, its death toll is slightly better than the European average but is far higher than those of neighbouring Norway, Finland and Denmark.

Sweden To Lift Most COVID-19 Curbs On Feb 9

File photo: Karin Hildebrand, a doctor in an intensive care unit (ICU) in Stockholm’s Sodersjukhuset hospital walks in a corridor before treating patients with COVID-19 on June 11, 2020, during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

 

Sweden said Thursday it would lift most of its coronavirus restrictions on February 9 as the pandemic enters a “whole new phase” with the highly contagious but milder Omicron variant.

Among the domestic restrictions that will be lifted are the 11:00 pm closing for bars and restaurants, and limits on crowd numbers.

Vaccine passes for indoor events will no longer be required, and face masks will no longer be recommended on public transport at peak times.

“The pandemic is not over, but we are entering a whole new phase,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told reporters.

“Knowledge about Omicron has improved… Several studies show Omicron leads to less serious illness.”

While Omicron has led to a record number of infections in the past month, hospitalisations for severe infections have not overwhelmed the healthcare system.

More than 83 percent of people over the age of 12 have had two doses, and almost 50 percent have received third doses.

Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren said the government would remain “vigilant” about the pandemic’s progress.

A return to working in person will resume gradually, as will university and higher education classes.

However, authorities recommended that people continue to stay home if they have Covid-19 symptoms, and border restrictions will remain in place for the time being.

Unvaccinated people are meanwhile advised to continue avoiding crowds after February 9.

Sweden made headlines early in the pandemic for choosing to not impose lockdowns.

With over 16,000 fatalities so far, its death toll is in line with the European average, but is far higher than those of neighbouring Norway, Finland and Denmark.

Denmark on Tuesday became the first European Union country to lift most of its domestic Covid-19 restrictions, followed later in the day by Norway.

Thousands Protest In Sweden Against Vaccine Pass

Anti-vaccine protesters take part in a demonstration under the motto "For a free Sweden without vaccine pass" in Stockholm, on January 22, 2022. Fredrik PERSSON / TT NEWS AGENCY / AFP
Anti-vaccine protesters take part in a demonstration under the motto “For a free Sweden without vaccine pass” in Stockholm, on January 22, 2022. Fredrik PERSSON / TT NEWS AGENCY / AFP

 

Thousands of protesters demonstrated in Sweden’s two biggest cities on Saturday against the use of vaccine passes, in marches that unfolded calmly after police had warned of possible clashes.

Security police Sapo had expressed concern that neo-Nazi groups and opponents could face off at the demonstration in Stockholm.

Around 9,000 people marched through the streets of the capital Stockholm to the Sergels Torg square chanting “No to Vaccine Passes, Yes to Freedom”, in a protest organised by a group calling itself the Freedom Movement.

One of the marchers, 30-year-old Julia Johansson, said vaccine passes “discriminate against a lot of people”.

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“We have to be able to decide ourselves what we want to do with our own bodies,” she told AFP.

Aida Begovic, 35, agreed, saying they “force people to get medical procedures they don’t want.”

“No matter how much you say (vaccination) isn’t a requirement, it is if you lose rights in society over it.”

The Scandinavian country introduced vaccine passes on December 1.

They have been mandatory since January 12 for indoor events of more than 50 people, as the country battles an unprecedented surge of infections with around 40,000 cases reported per day in the past week.

More than 83 percent of Swedes over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated.

Some of the demonstrators wore the markings of violent extremist groups such as the neo-Nazi group NMR, and covered their faces to prevent identification.

Some also set off red flares that lit the sky a smoky red, but police said no clashes were reported.

A number of vaccination centres in the city had closed early on Saturday as a precaution.

In Sweden’s second-biggest city Gothenburg, another demonstration gathered around 1,500 people.

Sweden made headlines in the early days of the pandemic when it, unlike most other countries, did not introduce any form of lockdown or school closures.

Instead, it adopted a softer approach, recommending social distancing, homeworking and only limited use of facemasks.

It did however ban visits to elderly care homes, limit public gatherings and restrict opening hours at bars and restaurants.

Sweden’s death toll — around 15,600 of the 10.3 million population — is around the European average, but is significantly higher than in neighbouring Norway, Finland, and Denmark.

 

AFP