Nato's Stoltenberg 'didn't expect' Sweden and Finland accession during his mandate

Sweden becomes 32nd member of defence alliance in 'historic step'

The Swedish flag is raised at Nato headquarters in Brussels on Monday. Reuters
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Nato's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said he "didn't expect" Sweden and Finland to join the alliance during his tenure but described their recent inclusion, spurred by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, as a "great" decision that has strengthened their security.

Mr Stoltenberg was speaking minutes before Sweden's flag was raised at Nato headquarters in Brussels during a rain-lashed ceremony on Monday, four days after the Scandinavian country formally became the alliance's 32nd member.

"I'm very honoured to be the Secretary General that has facilitated the membership for these two countries," Mr Stoltenberg told reporters, speaking alongside the Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson.

"But I didn't expect at all that Finland and Sweden was going to be a member during my tenure as Secretary General of Nato. And then of course, this changed totally with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. And since then, things really moved very quickly," said Mr Stoltenberg, who is expected to step down later this year after a decade in the job.

Currently the most likely candidate to succeed Mr Stoltenberg is the caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

"After more than 200 years of military non-alignment, this is a historic step," said Mr Kristersson as his country's yellow and blue flag was prepared to be raised between those of Spain and Turkey.

In a signal of the broad support in Sweden for accession to Nato, the ceremony was attended by Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria as well as members of the Swedish cabinet and the leaders of the country's six main political parties.

"The Russian brutal full-scale invasion against Ukraine united Sweden behind the common conclusion that a full-fledged nation membership is the only reasonable choice," said Mr Kristersson.

"Our territory is located at the crossroads of northern Europe and we are ready to do our part all across the Euro-Atlantic area," said Mr Kristersson. "We bring with us some unique capabilities. Our armed forces are modern and well-trained on land, in the air and at sea."

As of January, Sweden has met the Nato standard of devoting 2 per cent of its GDP to defence spending, added Mr Kristersson, who lauded "Sweden's defence industrial base".

"Sweden will be a safer country in Nato and Nato will be a stronger alliance with Sweden in it," said Mr Kristersson.

The only criteria for a country to join Nato is whether its membership makes the alliance stronger. The inclusion of Sweden, nearly one year after its Nordic neighbour Finland, is widely viewed as a boost for the alliance as the two countries share strong military capabilities and geographical proximity to Russia.

Sweden and Finland applied to join Nato together in May 2022. Turkey and Hungary held up negotiations on Sweden's accession, which required unanimity from all members of the alliance.

Sweden's accession to Nato will likely come as a relief to European members of the alliance who have expressed fears that US support for Nato might be weakened should Donald Trump win this year's presidential election.

Eastern European countries in particular are pushing hard for their allies to increase defence spending, with Polish President Andrzej Duda expected to propose that Nato member states raise the minimum level of defence spending from 2 to 3 per cent of economic output in his talks with US President Joe Biden.

Mr Trump has said he told a Nato ally during his presidency that he would encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to countries that didn’t meet the alliance’s defence spending obligations. His comments triggered a sharp rebuke from Mr Stoltenberg, who said such comments undermine all allies' security.

Comments such as a recent call by Pope Francis for Ukraine to negotiate with Russia and have the courage "to raise the white flag" have provoked outrage, particularly in Ukraine.

Mr Stoltenberg said a negotiated peace was possible, but only if the Russian President Vladimir Putin pulls his forces back.

"President Putin started this war and he could end it today. But Ukraine does not have this option. Surrender is not peace," said Mr Stoltenberg.

"We must continue to strengthen Ukraine to show President Putin that he will not get what he wants on the battlefield, but must sit down and negotiate a solution."

Updated: March 11, 2024, 1:19 PM