Joe Biden welcomes Finland, Sweden to join NATO; Turkey says 'no'

Joe Biden walks with Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto to deliver remarks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., on May 19.

Joe Biden walks with Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto to deliver remarks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., on May 19. | Photo Credit: Reuters

U.S. President Joe Biden met the leaders of Sweden and Finland on May 19 to discuss their NATO membership bids, while Ukraine said no military option was left to rescue the soldiers still inside a steel plant besieged by Russian forces.

Moscow's troops have been accused of widespread atrocities against civilians during their devastating campaign, and Ukraine began its first war crimes trial of the conflict on May 18 with a Russian soldier pleading guilty.

The brutality of the invasion that began on February 24 shook Sweden and Finland, and the neighbours — after decades of military non-alignment — decided to seek NATO membership despite warnings from the Kremlin.

"I warmly welcome and strongly support the historic applications from Finland and Sweden for membership in NATO," Mr. Biden said in a statement, offering U.S. support against any "aggression" while their bids are considered.

Mr. Biden met Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson in Washington on May 19 for consultations.

Their bids face stiff resistance from NATO member Turkey, which accuses the two nations of harbouring anti-Turkish extremists.

Turkey will oppose Sweden and Finland joining NATO, the country's president flatly stated in a video released on May 19, as Turkish officials emphasised Ankara's security concerns.

“We have told our relevant friends we would say ‘no’ to Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO, and we will continue on our path like this,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a group of Turkish youths in the video for Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day, a national holiday.

Turkey’s approval of Finland and Sweden's application to join the Western military alliance is crucial because NATO makes decisions by consensus. Each of its 30 member countries has the power to veto a membership bid.

Mr. Erdogan has said Turkey's objection stems from its security concerns and grievances with Sweden's — and to a lesser degree Finland’s — perceived support of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and an armed group in Syria that Turkey sees as an extension of the PKK. The conflict with the PKK has killed tens of thousands of people since 1984.

In the remarks made available earlier on May 19, Mr. Erdogan branded the two prospective NATO members and especially Sweden as “a focus of terror, home to terror.” He accused them of giving financial and weapons support to the armed groups, and claimed the countries' alleged links to terror organisations meant they should not be part of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Mr. Erdogan's ruling party spokesman, Omer Celik, said they had proof that Swedish weapons were showing up in PKK hands, while also warning the United States and France for “giving to the group that kills my country's citizens.” If NATO is to expand, Mr. Celik argued, then potential members must “cut off their support to terror groups.”

Turkish officials, including the president, also have pointed to arms restrictions on Turkey as a reason for Ankara’s opposition to the two countries becoming part of NATO, saying it is unacceptable for fellow members to impose weapons bans.

Several European countries, including Sweden and Finland, restricted arms exports to Turkey following the country’s cross-border operation into northeast Syria in 2019 with the stated goal of clearing the border area of Kurdish militants.

Turkey says the Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Units, or YPG, is directly linked to the PKK, and Ankara has been infuriated by American support for them in fighting the Islamic State group.

Turkey also accuses Sweden and Finland of harbouring the followers of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Muslim cleric whom the Turkish government blames for 2016 military coup attempt.

But Western allies remain optimistic they can overcome Ankara's objections.

In an effort to lower the diplomatic heat, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the United Nations, who called the face-to-face discussion "extremely positive".

Applications for entry into the alliance require the approval of all members.

For now, several including Britain have offered security guarantees to Finland and Sweden to guard against any Russian aggression.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said these applications would not have been expected recently "but Mr. Putin's appalling ambitions have transformed the geopolitical contours of our continent".

On the ground, in the ruined port city of Mariupol, more than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers including senior commanders remained inside the besieged Azovstal steel plant, a pro-Russian separatist leader said.

Moscow said 959 of the troops had surrendered this week.

Ukraine's Defence Ministry pledged to do "everything necessary" to rescue those still in the sprawling plant's tunnels but admitted there was no military option available.

Those who have left the heavily shelled plant were taken into Russian captivity, including 80 who were seriously wounded, Russia's Defence Ministry said.

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.

Mariupol has been devastated by Russian attacks, and a U.S. official alleged Moscow's forces of committing atrocities in the city.

"Some Russian officials recognise that despite claiming to be 'liberators' of... Mariupol, Russian forces are carrying out grievous abuses... including beating and electrocuting city officials," the official said.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky hit out at Moscow in his nightly address to the nation, calling the invasion an "absolute failure".

"They are afraid to acknowledge that catastrophic mistakes were made at the highest military and state level," Mr. Zelensky said.

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

The losses often come after weeks of battles over towns and small cities that get pulverised by the time the Russians surround them in a slow-moving wave.

"I tell everyone that there is no reason to worry when the banging is from outgoing fire," Volodymyr Netymenko said as he packed up his sister's belongings before evacuating her from the burning village of Sydorove in eastern Ukraine.

"But when it is incoming, it is time to run. And things have been flying at us pretty hard for the past two or three days."

In the Russian region of Kursk, one person died and others were injured in an attack on a village on the border with Ukraine, the local governor said on Thursday.

"Another enemy attack on Tyotkino, which took place at dawn unfortunately ended in tragedy," Roman Starovoyt said on Telegram.

Authorities in Russian border regions have repeatedly accused Ukrainian forces of launching attacks.

The conflict has sparked a massive exodus of more than six million Ukrainians, many bearing accounts of torture, sexual violence and indiscriminate destruction.

Ukraine's first trial for war crimes — expected to be the first of many linked to the Russian invasion — began in a cramped Kyiv courtroom on May 18.

In another step affirming U.S. support for Ukraine, the American embassy in Kyiv reopened on May 18 after three months.

The Kremlin meanwhile intensified a tit-for-tat round of diplomatic expulsions against European countries, ordering dozens of personnel from France, Italy and Spain to leave.

The Russian invasion has blown a hole in Ukraine's finances, as tax revenue has dropped sharply, leaving it with a shortfall of around $5 billion a month.

Finance Ministers from G7 nations will meet in Germany on Thursday to try and find a solution for Kyiv's Budget troubles.

The conflict's economic impact has cascaded across the world, fuelling a global food crisis that has pushed up prices, especially in developing nations.

Russia and Ukraine produce 30% of the global wheat supply.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday that the conflict "threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity".

"Malnutrition, mass hunger and famine" could follow "in a crisis that could last for years," Mr. Guterres warned as he and others urged Russia to release Ukrainian grain exports.

(with inputs from AP)

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Printable version | May 19, 2022 10:07:59 pm |