By Kevin Liptak, CNN
President Joe Biden was meeting royalty in Spain on Tuesday when news arrived that a bold plan he had hatched six months earlier was in the final stages of completion.
The leaders of Finland and Sweden were meeting across town in a conference room with the leader of Turkey, who for weeks had been putting up obstacles to their joining NATO. The group had reached a breakthrough. But they wanted a gut check to make sure Biden was approved.
Leaving his meeting with King Felipe VI at the royal palace, Biden answered a call from Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson. They explained to him what they had agreed with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And he gave his approval.
In the six and a half months since Biden made his first phone call to Niinistö suggesting he join NATO, the security situation in Europe has changed dramatically. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended long-held assumptions about the security of nations along its borders. And countries that for decades had maintained a strict policy of neutrality are suddenly reconsidering their position.
Efforts to bring Finland and Sweden into NATO have been both the work of months of constant diplomacy and, in recent days, of an intensive flurry of phone calls and meetings between senior officials.
The process has been described by senior US and European officials.
Ahead of this week’s summit, few of those officials believed the issues blocking the two Scandinavian countries from joining would be resolved by the time the leaders left Madrid. Instead, they had resigned themselves to making progress on an issue they thought could drag on for months more.
Instead, a series of marathon meetings, a strategically timed phone call from Biden to Erdoğan and a last-minute signing paved the way for new NATO members. Ultimately, Biden dangled the prospect of a formal meeting with Erdoğan on the sidelines of this week’s summit as he pushed to get the plan over the finish line.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that Finland and Sweden would consider abandoning their longstanding security postures to join NATO. But in December, before Russian tanks started arriving in Ukraine, the prospect was more far-fetched.
Still, on December 13, Biden made a phone call to Niinistö to raise the idea. Russian President Vladimir Putin had massed troops and equipment along Ukraine’s borders. And it was clear to him that the security situation in Europe was about to change dramatically.
In March, after the invasion began, Biden invited Niinistö to the White House for talks. Sitting in the Oval Office and discussing the details of the proposal, the pair picked up the phone and called Andersson in Sweden — where it was dark — to fill her in.
In May, the two countries officially submitted their application to join the NATO alliance. The next day, they were in the White House Rose Garden with Biden marking a historic milestone.
“After 200 years of military non-alignment, Sweden has chosen a new path,” Andersson said.
“Finland made their decision after a quick but very thorough process,” Niinistö added.
However, the Rose Garden celebrations were overshadowed by Turkey’s firm resistance to adding new members to the alliance. Long NATO’s toughest member, Erdoğan has accused the nations of harboring members of the separatist militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.
He also wanted countries to get rid of the embargo on arms sales to Turkey put in place after Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria in 2019.
The three countries continued to talk. But in a conscious decision, Biden tried to keep his distance and avoid putting the United States in the middle. Instead, Biden “chose his moments selectively to try to help put a thumbs-up on getting across the finish line,” according to a senior administration official.
“Americans don’t want to get in the middle of that because then the price goes up,” a European official said. “If the US (president) somehow indicates that it’s about this issue, (Erdoğan will have) a whole bunch of other things he wants to ask.”
However, talks continued between the different parties. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with their Turkish counterparts. Finland and Sweden have maintained their own discussions with Turkey. And the talks ensued.
As the Madrid summit approached, U.S. and European officials grew increasingly frustrated with Turkey’s resistance, which some say was on purpose to extract concessions. Officials who once said privately that they hoped the Madrid summit would serve as a welcome party for the two new members of the alliance have come to believe that prospect is unlikely.
“I’m not sitting here today suggesting that all problems will be solved by Madrid,” Sullivan said on Monday – a day before Biden arrived in Madrid.
But as the summit approached, signs of progress appeared. And on Tuesday morning, Biden received a request from Niinistö and Andersson: the time had come for him to call Erdoğan.
Speaking from the Bavarian Alps, where he was attending the G7 summit, Biden encouraged the hitherto recalcitrant Turkish leader to “seize the moment and make it happen in Madrid,” the official said. administration. And he told her that if the deal could be done before the start of the summit, it would set the stage for a formal bilateral meeting between the two men in Spain.
“It is Turkey’s standard operating procedure not to make concessions until the last possible moment. And this last possible moment is generally defined as a bilateral with the American president, ”said the European official.
The strategy has proven effective. By early evening, Niinistö, Andersson and Erdoğan announced that Turkey’s objections had been dropped and Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership applications would continue. And Biden will officially meet Erdoğan on Wednesday.
Turkey said it was “getting what it wanted” in the deal, including cooperation on “the extradition of terrorist criminals”. The senior US administration official said there were “a bunch of moving parts” and not a “single word or phrase” that proved the final sticking point.
Erdoğan’s longstanding grievances with the United States, including Washington’s refusal to sell F-16 fighter jets to Turkey and his request for the United States to extradite a cleric he accuses of cultivating a coup attempt, remain unresolved – and are likely to arise during his meeting with Biden.
Whatever the dispute, however, the leaders presented the result as a triumph. And more than four months after the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, NATO is about to welcome two new members.
“Congratulations to Finland, Sweden and Turkey on signing a trilateral memorandum – a crucial step towards a NATO invitation to Finland and Sweden, which will strengthen our Alliance and enhance our collective security – and a great way to start the summit,” Biden wrote. on Twitter.
The image was from their May meeting as they entered the rose garden.
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