Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, said Sunday during a news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that Turkey’s concerns over Sweden and Finland joining the military alliance are “legitimate.” Photo courtesy Sauli Niinisto/Twitter
June 12 (UPI) -- Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, said Sunday that Turkey's concerns over Sweden and Finland joining the military alliance are "legitimate."
Sweden and Finland announced last month that the countries, which have long favored neutrality and nonalignment but like Finland, had changed their stances since Russia's invasion of Ukraine and would apply for NATO membership in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has voiced opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO on accusations that the countries have harbored members of the Kurdistan Worker's Party, a militant political group that seeks independence from Turkey.
The Kurdistan Worker's Party has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Erdogan said late last month that talks in Ankara with Sweden and Finland addressing his concerns "did not happen at the desired level." Joining the alliance requires unanimous approval from its 30 member nations.
Stoltenberg on Sunday met with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in Finland for a joint press conference on the discussions.
"These are legitimate concerns. This is about terrorism and about weapons exports. And we have to understand and remember that no other NATO ally has suffered more terrorist attacks than Turkey," Stoltenberg said.
Stoltenberg said the alliance needs to take Turkey's concerns seriously because the country, which joined NATO in 1952, "is an important ally with strategic geographic location" on the Black Sea and also bordering Iraq and Syria.
"Turkey has played a key role in our fight against terrorist groups like ISIS," Stoltenberg said. "We also need to take into account that no other NATO ally hosts more refugees than Turkey."
Stoltenberg noted that Turkey is playing a key role in providing support to Ukraine and in the efforts to find a solution on how to export the grain from Ukraine amid a global food crisis.
"So, when a vital, key ally like Turkey raises a concern like terrorism, then, of course, we have to sit down and take this seriously. And that's exactly what we do," Stoltenberg said.
Stoltenberg reassured that he hopes the NATO members would approve Sweden and Finland into the alliance as quickly as possible.
"Great to have NATO Secretary General @jensstoltenberg and Prime Minister of Norway @jonasgahrstore in Kultaranta," Niinisto tweeted after the press conference.
"In times like these, close friends and neighbors are of immense value. Thank you for your strong support."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, this weekend as he seeks backing for the country's bid to join the European Union.
Von der Leyen has been a vocal critic of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and previously met with Zelensky in Kyiv in April, presenting him then with the steps Ukraine would need to take to join the EU.
The news came as it was revealed that a former British soldier has been killed fighting for Ukraine in the besieged city of Sievierodonetsk.
Jordan Gatley was shot dead Friday while volunteering to help Ukraine defend Sievierodonetsk, his family announced in a post Saturday to Facebook.
Russian troops have destroyed two of the three bridges into Sievierodonetsk in a final push to take control of the key city in eastern Ukraine, officials said Sunday.
Sievierodonetsk is the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the Luhansk oblast of Ukraine, which experts have said Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to annex into Russia in coming months.
Data from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees show that 4,904,207 individual refugees have left Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24 and more than 4,000 civilians have been killed.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen locations of former McDonald's restaurants sold after the American company pulled out of Russia have opened as the rebranded Vkusno & Tochka in Moscow and the surrounding region.