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NATO–Russia relations

NATO's expansion explained: Sweden's wait, Canada's role and Russia's response

Author: John Mazerolle Source: CBC News:
December 19, 2023 at 17:31
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg displays documents as Sweden and Finland apply for membership in Brussels, Belgium, on May 18, 2022. Finland has since joined, while Sweden is still waiting. (Johanna Geron/The Associated Press)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg displays documents as Sweden and Finland apply for membership in Brussels, Belgium, on May 18, 2022. Finland has since joined, while Sweden is still waiting. (Johanna Geron/The Associated Press)

Turkey ties Sweden's NATO membership to lifting of Canadian arms embargo

At its simplest, the latest news about the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is this: Sweden wants in.

But look closer and the geopolitical blowback and deal-making expands to include a map's worth of key players, including Canada.

Here's how it all breaks down.

Russia invades Ukraine

In early 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military deep into Ukraine, in an escalation of a conflict that began in 2014.

Putin said during his televised address announcing the invasion that it was due in part to the eastward expansion of NATO — the military alliance of Canada, the U.S. and much of Europe created in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union. It originally had 12 members but by the time of the Russian invasion had 30.

If Putin had intended to slow NATO's growth, his invasion had the opposite effect.


Soldiers in camoflauge kneel in a line outdoors while using automatic weapons. Military vehicles are visible in the background and the ground is covered in a dusting of snow or frost.
Russian army soldiers practise on a military training ground in Russian-controlled Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, on Jan. 31. (Alexei Alexandrov/The Associated Press)


Finland and Sweden apply to join NATO

Sweden and Finland had long pursued policies of formal military non-alignment, but Russia's invasion of Ukraine prompted a rethink.

Finland has a 1,300-kilometre border with Russia, and the Swedish island of Gotland lies just 300 kilometres from the home of Russia's Baltic Fleet.

Both countries see NATO — with its promise that an attack on one country is an attack on all — as the best way to ensure their security.


Armed soldiers in full gear advance on a rocky shoreline with two armed boats in the water behind them.
Swedish and Finnish soldiers perform naval simulation exercises in Varmdo, Sweden, during the Baltic Operations NATO military drills on June 11, 2022, when the two countries were NATO partner nations. 
(Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)


Finland joins, but Turkey holds up Sweden's bid

Finland became the alliance's 31st member in April, instantly doubling the size of NATO's border with Russia.

Sweden remains on the outside, however, largely due to Turkey.

WATCH | Finland joined NATO. Here's what it means for Russia:

Finland has officially joined NATO in one of the alliance’s most consequential moments in recent history. Andrew Chang discusses what this move means for Russia, which has called NATO one of the country’s most serious external threats.

Turkey has said Sweden harbours militants from the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984. The PKK is designated a terrorist group in Turkey, Sweden, the United States, Europe and Canada.

Turkey demanded Sweden take a tougher line against the PKK and another group it blames for a 2016 coup attempt.

In response, Sweden introduced an anti-terrorism bill that makes membership of a terrorist organization illegal, while also lifting arms export restrictions on Turkey. It says it has upheld its part of a deal signed last year.


A man waves.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, pictured in May, has held up Sweden's NATO membership bid. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)


Turkey wants other concessions, including from Canada

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week tied Sweden's NATO membership to actions it wants from the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Erdogan wants the U.S. Congress to approve the sale of U.S. F-16 fighter jets — and Canada to lift an arms embargo.

"Positive developments from the United States regarding the F-16 issue and Canada keeping its promises will accelerate our parliament's positive view on [Sweden's membership,]" Erdogan said. "All of these are linked."

Canada quietly agreed to reopen talks with Turkey on lifting export controls on drone parts, including optical equipment, after Erdogan signalled in July that Sweden would get the green light from Ankara, Reuters reported.

Canada suspended the export of some drone technology to Turkey in 2020 after concluding the equipment had been used by Azerbaijan's forces fighting Armenia in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Netherlands also previously lifted restrictions on arms deliveries to Turkey.

Erdogan made the comments about the U.S. and Canada Monday while returning from a visit to Hungary, the only other NATO member not to have formally approved Sweden's bid. Hungary has said the country would not be the last to approve membership, though the ruling party has refused to hold a vote on the matter.

WATCH | NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg discussed the organization's military priorities with CBC News in October:

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg joins Rosemary Barton Live to discuss the organization’s military priorities. Defence ministers in several NATO-allied countries have pledged more military aid for Ukraine.

What comes next?

Erdogan submitted a protocol on Sweden's admission to parliament in October, but the ratification process stalled. At a NATO meeting in Brussels in late November, Swedish and U.S. officials said respectively that they had been told Turkey would ratify "within weeks" and by the end of the year.

Whether or not Sweden joins, Putin has already shown with Finland's membership that he sees NATO's expansion as a further provocation.

Finland closed its land border with Russia after seeing an unusually large number of migrants arrive there in November. Finland's foreign minister called it "hybrid warfare," accusing Russia of retaliating against Finland joining NATO by using migrants to cause internal divisions in the country.

Putin has vowed to build up military units near the Russian-Finnish border. The Kremlin leader declared, without giving details, that Helsinki's NATO accession would create "problems" for them.

"There were no problems [between Russia and Finland]. Now, there will be. Because we will create [a new] military district and concentrate certain military units there," he told Russian state television this weekend.

WATCH | Finland closes land border with Russia:


With files from The Associated Press, Reuters and CBC's Murray Brewster


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