Crucial NATO decisions expected in Finland, Sweden this week

NATO leaders and delegates take part in a session during a NATO Summit conference in Bucharest, Romania on April 3, 2008. (AP file photo)
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Updated 10 May 2022

Crucial NATO decisions expected in Finland, Sweden this week

  • Sweden has avoided military alliances for more than 200 years
  • Finland adopted neutrality after being defeated by the Soviet Union in World War II

STOCKHOLM: To join or not to join? The NATO question is coming to a head this week in Finland and Sweden where Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shattered the long-held belief that remaining outside the military alliance was the best way to avoid trouble with their giant neighbor.
If Finland’s president and the governing Social Democrats in both countries come out in favor of accession in the next few days, NATO could soon add two members right on Russia’s doorstep.
That would be a historic development for the two Nordic countries: Sweden has avoided military alliances for more than 200 years, while Finland adopted neutrality after being defeated by the Soviet Union in World War II.
NATO membership was never seriously considered in Stockholm and Helsinki until Russian forces attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24. Virtually overnight, the conversation in both capitals shifted from “Why should we join?” to “How long does it take?”
Along with hard-nosed Ukrainian resistance and wide-ranging Western sanctions, it’s one of the most significant ways in which the invasion appears to have backfired on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
If Finland and Sweden join the alliance, Russia would find itself completely surrounded by NATO countries in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic.
“There is no going back to the status quo before the invasion,” said Heli Hautala, a Finnish diplomat previously posted to Moscow and a research fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, the Western leader who appeared to have the best rapport with Putin before the Ukraine war, is expected to announce his stance on NATO membership on Thursday. The governing Social Democratic parties in both countries are set to present their positions this weekend.
If their answer is “yes,” there would be robust majorities in both parliaments for NATO membership, paving the way for formal application procedures to begin right away.
The Finnish Social Democrats led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin are likely to join other parties in Finland in endorsing a NATO application. The situation in Sweden isn’t as clear.
The Swedish Social Democrats have always been staunchly committed to nonalignment, but party leader and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has said there’s a clear “before and after Feb. 24.”
The party’s women’s faction, led by Climate and Environment Minister Annika Strandhall, has come out against NATO membership.
“We believe that our interests are best served by being militarily nonaligned,” Strandhall told Swedish broadcaster TV4. “Traditionally, Sweden has been a strong voice for peace and disarmament.”
Neither Finland nor Sweden is planning a referendum, fearing it could become a prime target of Russian interference.
Sweden and Finland have sought — and received — assurances of support from the US and other NATO members in the application period should they seek membership.
Both countries feel they would be vulnerable in the interim, before they’re covered by the alliance’s one-for-all, all-for-one security guarantees.
The Kremlin has warned of “military and political repercussions” if the Swedes and Finns decide to join NATO.
Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president who is deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said last month it would force Moscow to strengthen its military presence in the Baltic region.
However, analysts say military action against the Nordic countries appears unlikely, given how bogged down Russian forces are in Ukraine.
Many of the Russian troops stationed near the 1,300-kilometer (830-mile) border with Finland were sent to Ukraine and have suffered “significant losses” there, Hautala said.
She said potential Russian countermeasures could include moving weapons systems closer to Finland, disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, economic countermoves and steering migration toward the Russian-Finnish border, similar to what happened on Poland’s frontier with Belarus last year.
There are signs that Russia already has increased its focus on Sweden and Finland, with several airspace violations by Russian military aircraft reported in recent weeks and an apparent campaign in Moscow with posters depicting famous Swedes as Nazi sympathizers. Putin used similar tactics against Ukraine’s leaders before launching what the Kremlin called its “special military operation.”
After remaining firmly against membership for decades, public opinion in both countries shifted rapidly this year. Polls show more than 70 percent of Finns and about 50 percent of Swedes now favor joining.
The shocking scenes playing out in Ukraine made Finns draw the conclusion that “this could happen to us,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
During the Cold War, Finland stayed away from NATO to avoid provoking the Soviet Union, while Sweden already had a tradition of neutrality dating to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But both countries built up robust conscription-based armed forces to counter any Soviet threat. Sweden even had a nuclear weapons program but scrapped it in the 1960s.
The threat of a conflict flared up in October 1981 when a Soviet submarine ran aground off the coast of southwestern Sweden. Eventually the sub was tugged back out to sea, ending a tense standoff between Swedish forces and a Soviet rescue fleet.
As Russia’s military power declined in the 1990s, Finland kept its guard high, while Sweden, considering a conflict with Russia increasingly unlikely, downsized its military and shifted its focus from territorial defense toward peacekeeping missions in faraway conflict zones.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 prompted the Swedes to reassess the security situation. They reintroduced conscription and started rebuilding defensive capabilities, including on the strategically important Baltic Sea island of Gotland.
Defense analysts say Finland and Sweden have modern and competent armed forces that would significantly boost NATO’s capabilities in Northern Europe. Finnish and Swedish forces train so often with NATO that they are essentially interoperable.
Adding new members typically takes months, because those decisions need to be ratified by all 30 NATO members. But in the case of Finland and Sweden, the accession process could be done “in a couple of weeks,” according to a NATO official who briefed reporters on condition that he not be identified because no application has been made by the two countries.
“These are not normal times,” he said.


Iran adds demands in nuclear talks, enrichment levels ‘alarming’: US envoy

Updated 57 min 37 sec ago

Iran adds demands in nuclear talks, enrichment levels ‘alarming’: US envoy

  • Indirect talks between Tehran and Washington aimed at breaking an impasse over how to salvage Iran’s 2015 nuclear pact ended in Doha, Qatar, last week

WASHINGTON D.C.: Iran added demands unrelated to discussions on its nuclear program during the latest talks and has made alarming progress on enriching uranium, the US envoy for talks on reinstating a nuclear deal said on Tuesday.
US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley said that there was a proposal on the table for a timeline by which Iran could come back into compliance with the nuclear deal and Washington could ease sanctions on Tehran.
Indirect talks between Tehran and Washington aimed at breaking an impasse over how to salvage Iran’s 2015 nuclear pact ended in Doha, Qatar, last week without the hoped-for progress.
Malley said Iranian negotiators added new demands.
“They have, including in Doha, added demands that I think anyone looking at this would be viewed as having nothing to do with the nuclear deal, things that they’ve wanted in the past,” he said in an interview with National Public Radio.
The demands included some that the United States and Europeans have said could not be part of negotiations.
“The discussion that really needs to take place right now is not so much between us and Iran, although we’re prepared to have that. It’s between Iran and itself,” Malley said. “They need to come to a conclusion about whether they are now prepared to come back into compliance with the deal.”
Under the nuclear pact, Tehran limited its uranium enrichment program, a potential pathway to nuclear weapons, though Iran says it seeks only civilian atomic energy.
Then-US President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018, calling it too soft on Iran, and reimposed harsh US sanctions, spurring Tehran to breach nuclear limits in the pact.
Now, Tehran is much closer to having enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, Malley said, though they do not appear to have resumed their weaponization program.
“But we are of course alarmed, as are our partners, about the progress they’ve made in the enrichment field,” Malley said.
Iran has enough highly enriched uranium on hand to make a bomb and could do so in a matter of weeks, he said.
Malley said Americans were also working a parallel track to secure the release of Americans detained in Iran. Siamak Namazi, who was detained in 2015 and is the longest-held Iranian American prisoner, made a plea for help in a New York Times piece on Sunday headlined: “I’m an American, Why Have I Been Left to Rot as a Hostage of Iran?“
“We hope that regardless of what happens with the nuclear talks, we’ll be able to resolve this issue because it weighs in our minds every single day,” Malley said.


Rebel land mine wounds 7 soldiers in central Philippines

Updated 05 July 2022

Rebel land mine wounds 7 soldiers in central Philippines

  • The government will file criminal complaints against rebel leaders for the attack and the use of internationally banned types of land mines

MANILA: A land mine set by suspected communist guerrillas wounded seven soldiers in the central Philippines on Tuesday, in one of the insurgents’ first known attacks since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office last week.
Army troops were checking reports from villagers of anti-personnel mines laid by New People’s Army rebels along a village trail in Mapanas town in Northern Samar province when an explosion wounded the seven soldiers, regional army commander Maj. Gen. Edgardo de Leon said.
Two of the wounded soldiers were in critical condition, he said, adding that no villagers were injured.
“Some of the soldiers were tossed away because the rebels have been using really powerful land mines,” de Leon said.
The government will file criminal complaints against rebel leaders for the attack and the use of internationally banned types of land mines, de Leon told reporters.
The soldiers were not able to open fire at the rebels, who fled after the attack and were being hunted by government forces, he said.
On Friday, a day after Marcos Jr. was sworn in after winning a landslide victory in a May 9 election, government troops assaulted eight communist rebels, killing one, in a brief gunbattle in central Negros Oriental province, the army said.
Marcos Jr. must deal with decades-long communist and Muslim insurgencies, along with longstanding territorial disputes with China and other claimants in the South China Sea.
During the campaign, he said he would pursue peace talks with communist insurgents and expressed support for a government task force established under his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, to fight the insurgency by bringing infrastructure, housing and livelihood projects to the poverty-stricken countryside.
The task force has drawn criticism for linking several left-wing activists and government critics to the communist insurgency, in what Duterte’s opponents said was baseless “red-tagging” aimed at muzzling legitimate dissent.
Despite battle setbacks, infighting and factionalism, the communist insurgency has continued to rage, mostly in rural areas, for more than half a century in one of Asia’s longest-running rebellions. It currently has an estimated 2,700 armed fighters.
The new president is the son of the late leader Ferdinand Marcos, whose counterinsurgency program was known for killings, torture and disappearances of suspected rebels, left-wing activists and their supporters.
The elder Marcos was overthrown in an army-backed 1986 “People Power” pro-democracy uprising that drove him and his family into US exile.
After Marcos died in Hawaii in 1989, his widow and children returned to the Philippines, where they achieved a stunning political comeback by whitewashing the family image on social media, critics say.


US F-35 fighters arrive in South Korea as joint military drills ramp up

Updated 05 July 2022

US F-35 fighters arrive in South Korea as joint military drills ramp up

  • The six F-35As will be in South Korea for 10 days, South Korea’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement

SEOUL: US Air Force F-35A stealth fighters arrived in South Korea on Tuesday on their first publicly announced visit since 2017 as the allies and nuclear-armed North Korean engage in an escalating cycle of displays of weapons.
Joint military drills had been publicly scaled back in recent years, first in 2018 because of efforts to engage diplomatically with North Korea and later because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, has sought to increase public displays of allied military power, including exercises, to counter a record number of missile tests conducted by North Korea this year.
North Korea also appears to be preparing to test a nuclear weapon for the first time since 2017.
The six F-35As will be in South Korea for 10 days, South Korea’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
“The purpose of this deployment is to demonstrate the strong deterrent and joint defense posture of the US-ROK alliance while at the same time improving the interoperability between the ROK and US Air Force,” the ministry said, referring to South Korea by the initials of its official name.
The aircraft deployed from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, US Forces Korea (USFK) said in a statement.
A USFK spokesperson said it was the first public deployment of the 5th generation fighter aircraft to South Korea since December 2017, but did not elaborate whether there had been unannounced visits.
A former senior US official previously told Reuters that during diplomatic talks many drills had in fact continued but had not been publicized.
South Korea has purchased 40 of its own F-35As from the United States, and is looking to buy another 20. The South Korean air force F-35As will be among the aircraft participating in the joint drills, USFK said.
North Korea has denounced joint exercises as well as South Korea’s weapons purchases as an example of “hostile policies” that prove US offers to negotiate without preconditions are hollow.


NATO launches ratification process for Sweden, Finland membership

Updated 05 July 2022

NATO launches ratification process for Sweden, Finland membership

  • A NATO summit in Madrid last week endorsed that move by issuing invitations to the two

BRUSSELS: The process to ratify Sweden and Finland as the newest members of NATO was formally launched on Tuesday, the military alliance’s head Jens Stoltenberg said, marking a historic step brought on by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“This is a good day for Finland and Sweden and a good day for NATO,” Stoltenberg told reporters in a joint press statement with the Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers.

“With 32 nations around the table, we will be even stronger and our people will be even safer as we face the biggest security crisis in decades,” he added.

The NATO secretary general was speaking ahead of a meeting in which the ambassadors from NATO’s 30 member states were expected to sign the accession protocols for the two Nordic countries, opening a months-long period for alliance countries to ratify their membership.

 

“We are tremendously grateful for all the strong support that our accession has received from the allies,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde.

“We are convinced that our membership would strengthen NATO and add to the stability in the Euro Atlantic area,” she added.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Sweden and Finland in parallel announced their intention to drop their military non-alignment status and become part of NATO.

A NATO summit in Madrid last week endorsed that move by issuing invitations to the two, after Turkey won concessions over concerns it had raised and a US promise it would receive new warplanes.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had accused Sweden and Finland of being havens for Kurdish militants he has sought to crush, and for promoting “terrorism.”

He also demanded they lift arms embargoes imposed for Turkey’s 2019 military incursion into Syria.

But Erdogan has kept the rest of NATO on tenterhooks by saying he could still block Sweden and Finland’s bids if they fail to follow through on their promises, some of which were undisclosed, such as possible extradition agreements.

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Monsoon rains lash Pakistan; 6 killed in country’s southwest

Updated 05 July 2022

Monsoon rains lash Pakistan; 6 killed in country’s southwest

  • Floods triggered by seasonal monsoon rains wreak havoc in Pakistan every year, killing dozens

QUETTA, Pakistan: At least six people, including women and children, were killed when the roofs of their homes collapsed in heavy rains lashing southwestern Pakistan and other parts of the country, a provincial disaster management agency said Tuesday.
There were fears the death toll could be higher as several people went missing after flash flooding hit southwestern Baluchistan province’s remote areas overnight, according to a statement from the agency.
Authorities say the latest spell of torrential rains, which started on Monday and continued on Tuesday, also damaged dozens of homes in Baluchistan.
Since June, rains have killed 38 people and damaged more than 200 homes across Pakistan, including in Baluchistan, where over the weekend, a passenger bus skidded off a road and fell into a deep ravine amid heavy rain, killing 19 people.
Floods triggered by seasonal monsoon rains wreak havoc in Pakistan every year, killing dozens.