London — NATO's 30 ambassadors on Tuesday signed accession protocols forthe transatlantic military alliance. It was the next step in the process of NATO's most significant expansion since the mid-1990s, and a direct response by the alliance to .
The protocols still must be ratified by the legislatures of each allied government before the two Nordic countries become official members, but the group's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called it "truly an historic moment for Finland, for Sweden and for NATO."
"With 32 nations around the table, we will be even stronger," Stoltenberg said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has pointed to NATO's eastward expansion in Europe as one of the key factors that prompted him to order the invasion of Ukraine in February. But when Finland and Sweden become full-fledged members, it will put two more NATO nations on or very near Russia's land borders.
One demand Russia made of Ukraine before the invasion was that it commit to never joining NATO, in part because of Moscow's concerns over having NATO countries on its immediate border.
"With Sweden and Finland, we don't have the problems that we have with Ukraine. They want to join NATO, go ahead," Putin said on Russian state television last week. But he added a caveat: "If military contingents and infrastructure are deployed there, we will have to respond in kind and create the same threats for the territories from which threats towards us are created."
Any prospective NATO member must have the blessing of all existing members, and Turkey initially said it would block the bids by Finland and Sweden to join unless Turkish opposition members in the European nations were handed over to Ankara. Turkey struck a deal with the Nordic countries at a NATO summit last week and, but it has warned it could still block their accession if it feels they're not delivering on their end of the bargain.
Stoltenberg said Tuesday that he expects the ratification to go forward.
"There were security concerns that needed to be addressed, and we did what we always do at NATO — we found common ground," he said.
It could still take months for Sweden and Finland to become official NATO members, as each nation in the alliance has its own specific legislative procedures to go through. But representatives from the two countries can now attend NATO meetings, even if they don't have voting rights, and they'll get greater access to intelligence.
Before ratification, they are not protected under the NATO alliance's mutual defense clause, however, which says an attack on one is an attack on all. So far, that clause - Article 5 in the NATO charter - has only been invoked one time, by the United States when it called on its allies to help topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that enabled al Qaeda to attack on September 11, 2001.
"We will be even stronger and our people will be even safer as we face the biggest security crisis in decades," Stoltenberg said Tuesday.
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