Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said Sunday he is optimistic his country will eventually join NATO, but he conceded that Turkey has a “different opinion” over a key security-related dispute between the two sides that is holding up the process.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Mr. Niinistö said his nation — along with Sweden, which is also on deck for full NATO membership — will keep open a line of communication with Turkey in hopes of finding a resolution.
As a NATO member, Turkey must approve the applications of Finland and Sweden to join the alliance.
Turkey has long been critical of Sweden and Finland for their approach toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a rebel group with links to the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
The SDF has been the chief U.S. partner in the years-long fight against the terror group the Islamic State in Syria. Sweden in particular is home to a large community of Kurdish exiles.
The three countries last June struck a deal that at the time seemed to satisfy all sides and pave a path forward.
Turkish officials said they got what they wanted from the agreement, which reportedly included commitments by Sweden and Finland to “take concrete steps” on the extradition of alleged terrorists back to Turkey.
Sweden and Finland also said they would investigate and stop any financing or recruitment efforts by the PKK in their countries, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported at the time.
It’s been nearly nine months since that deal was signed, but the NATO memberships remain on hold. Mr. Niinistö indicated Sunday that there is a disagreement about whether the Scandinavian countries are living up to their commitments.
The “European Union has declared the PKK as a terrorist organization, and that is how we deal with that. And I guess Sweden, too,” he said. “So, in our thinking, we have met all what has been agreed with Turkey last summer in Madrid. They have a different opinion, so let’s continue discussions.”
He added that he is “very optimistic” the two nations will ultimately be allowed into NATO.
More broadly, Mr. Niinistö said that the looming NATO expansion is a major blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Most Western observers believe that Mr. Putin thought his war in Ukraine would weaken NATO and create divisions among its members.
Instead, Mr. Niinistö said the war is exactly why his country wants to join the alliance.
“What comes to Finland and Sweden, yes, when Putin said that he would demand NATO not to enlarge anymore, actually that was kind of a game changer in our mind. Because so far, we had always considered, and others, too, that from our own will we are militarily unaligned,” the Finnish president said. “But after Putin’s speech, I am afraid that quite a many of us would have said that yes, they forbid you to join. So, it was a game-changer agreement.”