Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for the Nato Summit in Vilnius on July 11, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

VILNIUS, Lithuania: Nato opened its summit on Tuesday with fresh momentum after Turkey withdrew its objections to Sweden joining the alliance, a step toward the unity that Western leaders have been eager to demonstrate in the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a significant move toward Sweden’s membership and it will alleviate tension in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. The deal was reached after days of intensive meetings, and it’s poised to expand the alliance’s strength in Northern Europe.

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“Rumours of the death of Nato’s unity were greatly exaggerated,” Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, told reporters triumphantly on Tuesday.

As part of the deal, Erdogan said he would ask Turkey’s parliament to approve Sweden joining Nato. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, another holdout, is expected to take a similar step.

The outcome is a victory for President Joe Biden as well, who has touted Nato’s expansion as an example of how Russia’s war in Ukraine has backfired on Moscow.

Finland has already become the 31st member of the alliance, and Sweden is on deck to become the 32nd.

Because of the deal on Sweden’s membership, “this summit is already historic before it has started,” Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Biden expressed confidence in Sweden’s path to finalizing its Nato membership as he met Tuesday with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda. Biden also emphasised his commitment to transatlantic cooperation.

“Nothing happens here that doesn’t affect us,” he told Nauseda. During the meeting, Nauseda presented Biden with the Order of Vytautas the Great, the White House said. It’s the highest award a Lithuanian president can bestow and Biden is the first US president to receive it.

Biden and Erdogan were scheduled to meet Tuesday evening, and it was unclear how some of the Turkish president’s other demands will be resolved.

Advanced jets

He has been seeking advanced American fighter jets and a path toward membership in the European Union. The White House has expressed support for both, but publicly insisted that the issues were not related to Sweden’s membership in Nato.

“I stand ready to work with President Erdogan and Turkey on enhancing defence and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area,” Biden said in a statement late Monday.

The phrasing was a nod to Biden’s commitment to help Turkey acquire new F-16 fighter jets, according to an administration official who was not authorised to comment publicly.

The Biden administration has backed Turkey’s desire to buy 40 new F-16s as well as modernisation kits from the US. It’s a move some in Congress, most notably Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez have opposed over Turkey blocking Nato membership for Sweden, its human rights record and other concerns.

In Washington, Menendez said he was “continuing to have my reservations” on providing the fighter aircraft to Turkey. If the Biden administration could show that Turkey wouldn’t use the F-16s belligerently against other Nato members, particularly its neighbor Greece, and meet other conditions, “then there may be a way forward,” Menendez told reporters.

Nato leaders still have other big questions to address at the two-day summit, particularly Ukraine’s desire to join Nato. The Baltic states — including Lithuania, which is hosting the event — have pushed for a strong show of support and a clear pathway toward membership for Ukraine.

The United States and Germany have resisted that, and Biden said last week that Ukraine wasn’t ready to join. Members of Nato, he told CNN , need to “meet all the qualifications, from democratization to a whole range of other issues,” a nod toward longstanding concerns about governance and corruption in Kyiv.