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Idaho Sen. Risch criticizes Turkey, Hungary for NATO obstruction

Risch’s comments come as NATO expansion has hit a wall because of internal disagreements

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Sen. Jim Risch listens during a news conference with Republican lawmakers about Ukraine, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, listens during a news conference with Republican lawmakers about Ukraine, on Capitol Hill on March 2, 2022, in Washington.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch suggested the NATO memberships of Hungary and Turkey should be reviewed because of their refusal to support Sweden’s bid for membership. 

Risch is the top-ranking Republican member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is tasked with advancing legislation related to foreign policy and reviewing executive actions, such as treaties and arms deals. 

His comments came Thursday and reflect a long-held frustration from the U.S. and its allies towards the two Eastern European countries for holding up a process they hope will strengthen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Efforts to persuade Turkey and Hungary to support Sweden’s admittance into the defense alliance have been kicked into overdrive ahead of next week’s NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.

“I’m to the point where … maybe it’s time that we did review the way people join and the way people are retained,” Risch told Punchbowl News. “If you’re going to be a member of this alliance, you’ve got to act like a member of this alliance. And that is important for the strength of the alliance.”

There are several ways to regulate the NATO membership of individual countries, Risch said, according to Punchbowl News, though he did not elucidate. 

Turkey and Hungary have demanded that Sweden increase its counterrorism measures, among other things, before their respective parliaments vote to approve NATO membership. Risch said these concerns have nothing to do with NATO membership and are undermining the West’s united front against Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

“It’s no secret these (countries), particularly Turkey, have been using the accession issue to resolve some unrelated problems,” Risch said. “That’s not the right way to be a member of this alliance.”

Why did Sen. Risch block weapons to Hungary?

Last month, Risch took the uncommon step of blocking over $700 million in U.S. arms sales to Hungary, saying the country was dragging its feet to vote on Sweden’s NATO membership and that the arms package, which included two dozen HIMARS rocket launchers, would be on hold till further notice. 

“For some time now, I have directly expressed my concerns to the Hungarian government regarding its refusal to move forward a vote for Sweden to join NATO,” he said in a statement to The Washington Post. “The fact that it is now June and still not done, I decided that the sale of new U.S. military equipment to Hungary will be on hold.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its counterpart in the House regularly review major arms deals and can stop weapons sales in response to human rights abuses or other concerns. While the president is not required to recognize these objections, holds put in place by elected representatives are typically respected and may stay in place for indefinite periods of time. 

Why are Turkey and Hungary blocking Sweden’s NATO membership?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan originally objected to NATO membership for both Finland and Sweden after they announced their intent to join the defense alliance in May 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, citing security concerns that the Scandinavian countries were harboring anti-Turkish terrorists. 

Erdogan eventually changed his stance toward Finland after the county took what he saw as “authentic and concrete steps” to meet Turkey’s demands. Finland officially joined NATO in April shortly after Turkey’s parliament voted to approve it. However, Erdogan’s position on Sweden has remained firm as he insists the country has done too little to crack down on individuals with ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a designated terrorist organization in several countries, including the U.S.

Sweden has taken steps to satisfy Turkey, outlawing meetings and fundraising in support of terrorist organizations. The new law resulted in the jailing of a Kurdish man Thursday who was found guilty of extortion on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. 

But it’s uncertain whether Sweden’s efforts will bear fruit. They seem to be undermined, in part, by repeated controversies caused by multiple burnings of the Quran by Swedish residents, resulting in protests throughout the Islamic world. In a sign that Sweden sees the uproar as threatening to their NATO membership bid, the country is now considering a law that would allow police officers to stop public Quran burnings, Reuters reported.

Hungary’s reasons for postponing a vote on Sweden’s NATO accession are less clear. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said that Swedish leadership has spread “blatant lies” about his country and the health of its democracy. Orban has also signaled his desire to back up Erdogan and appears willing to support Sweden’s NATO membership as soon as the Turkish leader changes his mind, according to The Wall Street Journal

What is NATO and why does Sweden want to join?

NATO is a mutual-defense pact created in 1949 between 12 countries, including the U.S., Canada and several countries in Western Europe, to deter attacks by the Soviet Union. Its stated purpose is “to guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means.”

The alliance has more than doubled in size since the fall of the Soviet Union, counting Finland as its 31st member. 

For decades, Finland and Sweden maintained a policy of nonmilitary alignment. That changed when Russia invaded Ukraine in February of last year. Finland and Sweden now see NATO membership as an essential part of their national security. 

NATO’s founding North Atlantic Treaty contains a collective defense principle, Article 5, which states that an attack against one NATO member is to be considered an attack against all NATO allies. Article 5 has been invoked only once, following 9/11. 

NATO summit and efforts to persuade Turkey

Ahead of Tuesday’s NATO summit, the Biden administration is working to use the sale of F-16 fighter jets as leverage to persuade Turkey to get behind NATO membership for Sweden, Punchbowl News reports

Risch’s Democratic counterpart on the Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, has blocked the proposed sale for months, but the Biden administration is reportedly in negotiations with him to give the green light if it means Turkey will support Swedish membership in NATO.