Five Things To Know About Sweden’s Election

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 2, 2022 (L-R) Johan Pehrson, leader of the Liberal People’s Party, Jimmie Akesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats party, Ebba Busch, leader of the Christian Democrats Party and Ulf Kristersson, leader of the Moderate Party are pictured prior to a debate organised by Swedish Radio in Stockholm. . (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

 

 

Sweden is on Sunday voting in what looks to be a tight election between the incumbent left-wing and an unprecedented alliance between the right and the far right. Here are five things to know about the election.

– NATO –
For two centuries, Sweden’s policy was to stay out of military alliances.

But public and political support for joining NATO soared following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leading the country to apply for membership in mid-May along with neighbouring Finland.

Despite assurances that the countries would be welcomed into the alliance “with open arms,” they’ve faced intense opposition from Turkey, which accuses the Nordic countries of providing a safe haven for terrorist groups.

A deal was struck between the three countries in June, which included provisions on handling extraditions and sharing information.

All parties, except the Left and the Greens, back membership but the incoming government will need to manage the tense relations with Ankara, which has insisted it could still block the countries’ entry — which requires ratification by all NATO member states — if it feels Sweden and Finland do not deliver on their promises.

– Greta effect? –
Two weeks ahead of Sweden’s previous 2018 election, then 15-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg began sitting outside of Stockholm’s parliament building by herself with her now iconic sign “School Strike for Climate”.

Her protest urged politicians to bring Swedish emissions in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement.

While it initially garnered little attention, her protest soon sparked a global movement, leading Thunberg to travel the world to address — and often berate — world leaders.

Thunberg has spoken at the UN, been named a TIME person of the year, and even been tipped as a favourite to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

But heading into this year’s Swedish election, climate concerns have taken a backseat, as voters are more concerned with law and order amid rising gang violence and energy policy with soaring gas and electricity prices.

In a tweet marking four years since her strike started, Thunberg lamented that “the climate crisis is still absent from the debate.”

– Covid pandemic –
Sweden’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has also been notably absent from the election campaign.

The country made headlines when it refused to implement draconian measures as other countries around the world went into lockdown.

Despite a soaring death toll as the virus surged in elderly care homes, Swedish authorities opted to keep society relatively open, arguing that a lockdown would be more detrimental to public health than the virus.

Instead it introduced voluntary recommendations, and as the pandemic wore on, limits on public gatherings and opening hours at bars and restaurants. Face masks were only advised in some situations.

Its Covid death toll of 1,901 deaths per million in early September was below the European Union average of 2,529 per million, according to Our World in Data.

“Most people are happy with the strategy”, author and journalist Jens Liljestrand told AFP, explaining the lack of debate on the subject in the campaign.

The pandemic “hasn’t left any mark, it’s like a collective blackout”, he said.

– Electoral system –
Sweden’s single-chamber parliament, the Riksdag, has 349 seats and is the country’s the supreme decision-making body.

A general election is held every four years and to get into parliament parties must amass a minimum of four percent of votes.

In order of the number of seats, the current parties are the ruling centre-left Social Democrats, the conservative Moderate Party, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, the Centre Party, the Liberals, the Left Party, the Christian Democrats, the Liberals and the Green Party.

Following an election, the speaker nominates the prime minister candidate they believe is most likely to be supported by parliament, which MPs then vote on.

Under the Swedish system a candidate needs to be tolerated by parliament to be elected, meaning they can assume office as long as a majority doesn’t vote against them.

While the Social Democrats held on to government power without interruption for four decades until the 1970s, today’s more fractured political landscape means governments have in recent decades needed to rely on alliances and coalitions to secure power.

– School children to the polls –
In Sweden, students over the age of 13 can cast ballots in a nationwide “school election” aimed at raising awareness about voting and politics.

Participating schools follow the real election campaign, with students voting in school for the actual parties in a simulation of the official election.

This year, 1,580 schools have signed up for the initiative, organised by the governmental Agency for Youth and Civil Society, and over half a million students are expected to cast ballots.

Students will even have their own election day rally where they will be able to watch their results tick in live on Monday, the day after the official vote.

In the previous school election in 2018, the country’s teens showed a preference for the conservative Moderates, which won 21.23 percent of their votes, followed by the centre-left Social Democrats with 19.53 percent and the far-right Sweden Democrats with 15.5 percent.

Sweden To Help Consumers Facing High Electricity Costs

In this file photo taken on November 04, 2021, then Sweden’s Minister of Finance Magdalena Andersson delivers a speech after being elected party chairman of the Social Democratic Party at the Social Democratic Party congress in Gothenburg. Adam IHSE / TT News Agency / AFP

 

Sweden’s government on Wednesday vowed to compensate households and companies for soaring electricity costs in the wake of the Ukraine war, to the tune of up to 60 billion kronor ($5.76 billion).

At least half of the amount was to go to households who could expect to be compensated “this winter”, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told reporters.

“We have electricity and gas prices at a level we’ve never seen before”, she said.

On Wednesday, electricity on the Nordpool market hit a record 5.69 kronor per kilowatt hour in southern Sweden. It was expected to fall back slightly to 5.50 kronor on Thursday.

Swedish electricity prices have soared after Russia drastically curtailed gas supplies to Europe following its invasion of Ukraine.

READ ALSOWhy Nigeria Can’t Generate 5,000mw Of Power – FG

Gas prices have thereby soared, at a time when there is little wind energy being generated in northern Europe due to current weather conditions.

Svenska Kraftnat, the state-owned operator of the national grid, has therefore been raking in soaring so-called capacity fees, which have left it with a surplus despite massive investments in its grid, Andersson said.

That surplus should make its way back to consumers, Andersson said, adding: “The higher the electricity price goes, the higher the amounts we’re talking about”.

Hydropower accounts for about half of the electricity generated in Sweden, which also relies on nuclear and wind power.

It is not yet known what form the compensation would take nor when it would be introduced, but the government said measures could include lower electricity prices as well as direct refunds to households and companies.

The government has tasked Svenska Kraftnat with drawing up a concrete proposal by November 15.

The Social Democratic government’s announcement comes just three weeks ahead of legislative elections, with opinion polls putting the left and right blocs neck-and-neck.

AFP

US Ratifies Finland, Sweden Accession To NATO

In this file photo taken on May 19, 2022 US President Joe Biden, flanked by Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö, speaks in the Rose Garden following a meeting at the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

 

The US Senate ratified the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO Wednesday, strongly backing the expansion of the transatlantic alliance in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Senate voted 95 to 1 in favor of the two Nordic countries’ accession, making the United States the 23rd of the 30 NATO countries to formally endorse it so far, after Italy approved it earlier Wednesday and France on Tuesday.

President Joe Biden hailed the Senate’s quick ratification process — the fastest since 1981.

“This historic vote sends an important signal of the sustained, bipartisan US commitment to NATO, and to ensuring our Alliance is prepared to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow,” Biden said in a statement.

The sole opponent was Republican Josh Hawley, who agreed that the United States should focus on protecting its homeland, but that Washington should concentrate on the challenge from China rather than Europe.

One senator, Republican Rand Paul, voted “present” rather than endorsing or opposing the motion.

READ ALSO27 Chinese Warplanes Enter Taiwan’s Air Defence Zone: Taipei

Senate leader Chuck Schumer said it was a signal of Western unity after Moscow launched a war on Ukraine on February 24.

“This is important substantively and as a signal to Russia: they cannot intimidate America or Europe,” Schumer said.

“Putin has tried to use his war in Ukraine to divide the West. Instead, today’s vote shows our alliance is stronger than ever,” he said.

All 30 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization must agree if Finland and Sweden, officially non-aligned but longtime adjunct partners of the alliance, are admitted.

According to a NATO list, seven member countries have yet to formally agree to the new double-entry: the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Turkey.

Only Turkey has raised a challenge, demanding certain concessions from Finland and Sweden to back their memberships.

Ankara has demanded the extradition of dozens of government opponents it labels “terrorists” from both countries in exchange for its support.

Turkey said on July 21 that a special committee would meet Finnish and Swedish officials in August to assess if the two nations are complying with its conditions.

AFP

Turkey Supports Finland And Sweden NATO Bid

This handout photograph taken and released on June 28, 2022 in Madrid by Turkish Presidential press office, shows (Back, From L) NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Finland's President Sauli Niinisto and Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and (Front, From L) Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde signing a memorandum during a NATO summit in Madrid. Murat CETIN MUHURDAR / TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / AFP
This handout photograph taken and released on June 28, 2022 in Madrid by Turkish Presidential press office, shows (Back, From L) NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto and Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and (Front, From L) Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde signing a memorandum during a NATO summit in Madrid. Murat CETIN MUHURDAR / TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / AFP

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday lifted his opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO following crunch talks with the leaders of the two Nordic countries in Madrid.

Erdogan had stubbornly refused to green light the applications from the Nordic pair — lodged in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine — despite calls from his NATO allies to clear the path for them to enter.

Turkey could essentially veto Finland and Sweden from joining NATO since all members must agree to taking on new members.

But late on Tuesday, Erdogan’s office said it had agreed to back their drives to join, saying Ankara had “got what it wanted”.

READ ALSO: Russia Demands Ukraine Surrender As NATO Readies For Finland, Sweden Membership

“Turkey has made significant gains in the fight against terrorist organisations,” the office said ahead of a NATO summit in Madrid.

Ankara had accused Finland and especially Sweden of offering a safe haven to Kurdish militants who have been waging decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

The two Nordic countries also agreed to lift their embargoes on weapons deliveries to Turkey, which were imposed in response to Ankara’s 2019 military incursion into Syria.

Turkey signed a memorandum with Finland and Sweden on Tuesday supporting the invitation for the Nordic countries to become members of NATO, the Finnish presidency said.

NATO allies including Britain hailed the agreement.

‘Addresses Turkey’s concerns’

The move comes after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg mediated talks in Madrid between Erdogan and the leaders of Sweden and Finland.

“I’m pleased to announce that we now have an agreement that paves the way for Finland and Sweden to join NATO,” he said.

The agreement “addresses Turkey’s concerns, including around arms exports, and the fight against terrorism,” he added.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on Tuesday hailed a “very good agreement” with Turkey but insisted Sweden had not made too many concessions to Erdogan.

“Taking the next step toward a full NATO membership is of course important for Sweden and Finland. But it’s also a very important step for NATO, because our countries will be security providers within NATO,” Andersson told AFP in an interview.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also welcomed the agreement.

“Sweden and Finland’s membership will make our brilliant alliance stronger and safer,” Johnson wrote on Twitter.

Sweden and Finland went into the NATO meeting open to the possibility that Turkey might only lift its objections after the summit concludes on Thursday.

US hails Turkey’s decision

A US official insisted on Tuesday that no concessions were given to Turkey to secure its green light.

“There was no request from the Turkish side for the Americans to make a particular concession,” a senior administration official told reporters.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official called Turkey’s decision a “powerful shot in the arm” for NATO unity.

Erdogan is expected to meet with US President Joe Biden on Wednesday on the sidelines of the gathering focused on responding to the Kremlin’s invasion of its pro-Western neighbour.

Erdogan and Biden have had a chilly relationship since Biden’s election because of US concerns about human rights under Erdogan.

Biden and Erdogan last met briefly in October on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Rome.

Fighter jet talks

Erdogan’s ability to maintain a close working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin while supporting Ukraine’s war effort has made him an important player in the conflict.

But those ties have also complicated his relations with Biden and NATO.

Washington has sanctioned Ankara for taking delivery of an advanced Russian missile defence system in 2019.

The purchase saw the United States drop Turkey from the F-35 joint strike fighter programme and impose trade restrictions on its military procurement agency.

But Washington has signalled it may be willing to move past the dispute.

Biden’s administration has dangled the possibility of supplying Ankara with older-generation F-16 jets that could replenish Turkey’s ageing air force fleet.

“The most important issue is the F-16 issue. It is still on the table,” Erdogan said of his upcoming talks with Biden.

 

AFP

Russia Demands Ukraine Surrender As NATO Readies For Finland, Sweden Membership

A photograph taken on June 28, 2022 shows the ruins of a school building, partially destroyed by two rockets in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. SERGEY BOBOK / AFP
A photograph taken on June 28, 2022 shows the ruins of a school building, partially destroyed by two rockets in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
SERGEY BOBOK / AFP

 

Western allies vowed on Tuesday to boost NATO’s defences and to back Ukraine to the end as Moscow demanded Kyiv’s surrender.

As NATO leaders gathered in Madrid for a summit, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said Finland and Sweden would be formally invited to join NATO after Turkey lifted its block on their bids.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had stubbornly refused to approve their applications — lodged in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine — despite calls from his NATO allies to clear their path to membership.

But he abandoned his opposition following crunch talks on Tuesday with the leaders of the two Nordic countries in Madrid.

READ ALSO: Russia Adds 43 Canadians To Blacklist, Canada Hits Back

Erdogan’s office said late on Tuesday it had agreed to back their applications, saying Ankara had “got what it wanted”.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the agreement between Finland, Sweden and Turkey, saying their membership would make the defence alliance “stronger and safer”.

Meanwhile, a senior US official said their membership would be a “powerful shot in the arm” for NATO unity.

NATO’s expansion came as Russian missiles continued to pound Ukrainian cities.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters arriving with President Joe Biden that Washington will announce “historic” new long-term military deployments in Europe.

The reinforcements will join NATO’s eastern flank, Russia’s nervous neighbours like the Baltic states, and reflect a long-term change “in the strategic reality” elsewhere in Europe.

Ahead of the summit, Stoltenberg said the allies would boost their high-readiness forces from 40,000 to 300,000.

New sanctions

Before travelling to Madrid, Biden and other leaders of the G7 powers — the world’s richest democracies — had held a summit in the German Alps.

Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz boasted afterwards that his country, a laggard in defence spending, would build “the largest conventional army within the NATO framework in Europe”.

Russia’s invasion, he said, had convinced Berlin “that we should spend more… an average of around 70 to 80 billion euros a year on defence over the next few years”.

NATO member Bulgaria announced it would expel 70 staff from Russia’s diplomatic mission accused of working against its interests.

At the G7 summit, the leaders agreed to impose new sanctions targeting Moscow’s defence industry, raising tariffs and banning gold imports from the country.

The US Treasury said the measures “strike at the heart of Russia’s ability to develop and deploy weapons and technology used for Vladimir Putin’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine,”

The new set of sanctions target Rostec, Russia’s largest defence conglomerate, as well as military units and officers implicated in human rights abuses in Ukraine, the Treasury said.

Putin’s Kremlin was not fazed by the sanctions, warning that Ukraine’s forces’ only option was to lay down their arms.

“The Ukrainian side can stop everything before the end of today,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“An order for the nationalist units to lay down their arms is necessary,” he said, adding Kyiv had to fulfil a list of Moscow’s demands.

‘Everything burned’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for the United Nations to visit the site of a missile strike on a shopping mall in the central city of Kremenchuk, as he addressed the UN Security Council on Tuesday.

“I suggest the United Nations send either a special representative, or the secretary-general of the United Nations, or a plenipotentiary commission to the site of this terrorist act… so the UN could independently find out information and see that this indeed was a Russian missile strike,” Zelensky said of the attack on Monday that killed at least 18 people.

“Everything burned, really everything, like a spark to a touchpaper. I heard people screaming. It was horror,” witness Polina Puchintseva told AFP.

All that was left of the mall was charred debris, chunks of blackened walls and lettering from a smashed store front.

Russia claims its missile salvo was aimed at an arms depot — but none of the civilians who talked to AFP knew of any weapons store in the neighbourhood.

And, outside Russia, the latest carnage sparked only Ukrainian fury and western solidarity.

“Indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians constitute a war crime,” the G7 leaders said in a statement, condemning the “abominable attack”.

Zelensky declared on his social media channels: “Only total insane terrorists, who should have no place on Earth, can strike missiles at civilian objects.

“Russia must be recognised as a state sponsor of terrorism. The world can and therefore must stop Russian terror,” he added.

The G7 leaders did not go so far as to brand Putin a terrorist — but they vowed that Russia, already under tough sanctions, would face more economic pain.

“The G7 stands united in its support for Ukraine,” Scholz told reporters.

“We will continue to keep up and drive up the economic and political costs of this war for President Putin and his regime.”

Oil price cap?

The G7 had announced several new measures to put the squeeze on Putin, including a plan to work towards a price cap on Russian oil.

The group also agreed to impose an import ban on Russian gold. At the same time, the G7 powers heaped financial support on Ukraine, with aid now reaching $29.5 billion.

Meanwhile, with fierce artillery duels continuing in the eastern Donbas region, Ukrainian officials said the central city of Dnipro and several other sites had been hit by more Russian missiles.

Pro-Moscow forces detained Igor Kolykhayev, the elected mayor of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson.

Russian media said the “nationalist” was an opponent of Moscow’s supposed efforts to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, but Kolykhayev’s aides said he had been “kidnapped” by the city’s illegitimate occupiers.

The UN said 6.2 million people are now estimated to have been displaced within Ukraine, in addition to 5.26 million who have fled abroad.

“Ukraine now faces a brutality which we haven’t seen in Europe since the Second World War,” Stoltenberg said as leaders began to gather in Madrid.

 

AFP

‘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