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For NATO, 3 Pressing Questions After This Week’s Meetings

WorldFor NATO, 3 Pressing Questions After This Week’s Meetings

A surprise visit to NATO headquarters by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine — his first — injected a bit of flair to high-level meetings this week among the alliance’s defense ministers. Beyond that, much of the rest of the two-day agenda was consumed with the kind of routine but necessary discussions that mark the semiregular gatherings: going over defense and deterrence plans, and getting updates on stability operations in Iraq, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But the alliance’s 31 defense ministers departed on Thursday without resolving three pressing matters. Here is a look at each.

Turkey’s continued delay in approving Sweden’s year-plus application to join NATO exasperated nearly all the defense ministers, according to two senior diplomats who attended closed-door discussions on the issue Thursday.

All NATO member governments must agree unanimously to expand the alliance. Hungary is another hold out, but it is expected to give its approval after Turkey does.

Turkey and Sweden have quarreled over the fate of Kurdish activists in Sweden whom Ankara wants extradited to face charges of terrorism. Three months ago, however, on the eve of a July summit of NATO’s leaders in Vilnius, Lithuania, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey had said he would allow his Parliament to move forward on Sweden’s membership.

That followed a tough re-election campaign where it was widely understood that Mr. Erdogan had to take a tough line against Sweden, and that he was now prepared to go ahead. But that necessary step has not yet been taken, prompting the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, to ask Mr. Erdogan’s defense minister on Thursday if Turkey planned to keep its promise.

Mr. Stoltenberg said that “strong support” from 29 of the 31 ministers sent “a very clear message” to Turkey for Sweden’s speedy membership.

In response, he said, Turkey’s defense minister, Yasar Guler, affirmed that Mr. Erdogan’s government “stands by the agreement.”

“I will continue to convey that message on behalf of all those allies that are calling for a speedy ratification to ensure that happens as soon as possible,” Mr. Stoltenberg told journalists later, recounting the conversation.

It was the sharpest public exchange yet between Turkey and other NATO allies over Sweden’s membership. But diplomats later said there is no guarantee that Turkey will, in fact, relent any time soon.

Turkey has blocked Sweden’s membership from the start, not only over the Kurdish issue but also over Turkey’s demands to be allowed into the European Union.

In July, Mr. Erdogan said he would drop his objections after winning assurances that Sweden and the alliance would take stronger steps to combat terrorism. At the time, Mr. Erdogan said he would urge Turkey’s Parliament to approve Sweden’s membership as soon as possible.

But Turkish lawmakers have yet to do so since Parliament convened on Oct. 1, and last month, Mr. Erdogan made an additional demand that the United States sell F-16 fighter jets to Turkey before Sweden could join NATO.

The two diplomats said most of the rest of the NATO alliance is running out of patience — although there is no way around what is, effectively, Turkey’s veto.

After ruptures in an undersea natural gas pipeline and a telecommunications cable in the Baltic Sea were discovered last weekend, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said the breach was likely caused by “external activity” and asked for NATO to help investigate.

Officials said the ruptures — in pipes running between Finland and Estonia — had no affect on the security of their energy supplies or data transfers but worried that it was an act of sabotage intended to disrupt both.

If the breach is determined to have been deliberate, it could trigger a military response from NATO under what is known as the mutual defense clause — an attack on one alliance member is an attack on all.

The allies have been particularly worried about Russia launching attacks on NATO countries’ essential infrastructure, such as power grids and electronic banking systems. (Russia, for its part, called the rupture “disturbing news.”) But the breach also could have been accidental, given that fishing trawlers regularly run over underwater cables.

Most NATO officials remain unsure what to make of the leak, and Mr. Stoltenberg said “it’s too early to say exactly what caused this incident and whether it was an intentional attack.”

A brazen attack in September 2022 on nearly finished but still dormant Nord Stream II natural gas pipelines, which were to connect Russia to Western Europe, demonstrated the vulnerability of Europe’s energy supply. Who was responsible for the series of explosions on the pipelines has yet to be determined, although American intelligence has suggested they were carried out by a pro-Ukrainian group that wanted to stymie Russia’s gas sales.

Mr. Stoltenberg said the alliance, as an organization, “is not directly involved” in any military support for Israel as it retaliates against Hamas for its brutal weekend rampage of kidnappings, massacres and missile strikes, mostly against civilians.

But he said “a number of NATO allies made clear that they are providing practical support to Israel, and doing everything possible to provide for their affected citizens.”

It is now left to the governments of each of NATO’s 31 member states to decide for themselves what level of assistance they may give.

The United States has already sent shipments of munitions to Israel and positioned an aircraft carrier strike group in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said his country will also send more missiles for Israel’s Iron Dome air defense systems.

Germany is planning to return Israeli-made Heron TP drones to Israel to use in the conflict.

But some allies are offering varying shades of political support.

Turkey, as the only Muslim-majority government in NATO, is negotiating with Hamas to release Israeli hostages. Though he has offered to mediate a cease-fire between the two sides, Mr. Erdogan has also criticized Israel’s military response to the Hamas attacks as a disproportionate “massacre.”

Mr. Austin said the United States would not put any conditions on how Israeli troops use the American weapons they are being given for the fight against Hamas.

“Our focus is to make sure that we get Israel what it needs in order to protect itself,” he said.

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