On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended months of diplomatic delays and asked parliament to support Finland’s bid to join NATO quickly.
Opponents in Hungary meanwhile decided to schedule a ratification vote in Finland on March 27, meaning the US-led defence alliance could grow to 31 countries within months.
NATO’s expansion into a country with a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) border with Russia would double the length of the bloc’s current border with its Cold War-era foe.
But it also dashed the short-term hopes of fellow NATO country Sweden, a Nordic power whose string of disputes with Turkey culminated in its bid to join the bloc ahead of the alliance’s summit in July.
Helsinki and Stockholm have ended decades of military non-alignment and decided to join the world’s strongest defence alliance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Their application was accepted at a NATO summit in June, a sign of the Western world’s desire to stand up to Russia in the worst conflict in Europe since World War II.
But bids still needed to be approved by the parliaments of all 30 alliance members, a process that was hung up when it was Turkey and Hungary’s turn.
Friday’s breakthrough came after several threats of a breakdown in months of tense talks between Ankara and its Nordic neighbours.
Erdogan told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that Helsinki is firmly committed to resolving security concerns in Ankara.
“We have decided in our parliament to activate the protocol for Finland’s accession to NATO,” Erdogan told reporters after the talks.
Erdogan added that he “hoped” that parliament would approve the application before Turkey’s crucial general election in May. Turkey’s parliament is expected to end its session in mid-April.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Turkey’s decision while stressing the importance of Sweden joining “as soon as possible”.
“The most important thing is that Finland and Sweden quickly become full members of NATO, not whether they join simultaneously,” Stoltenberg said.
The White House echoed the NATO chief’s position. US National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan said the US urged Hungary to complete the ratification process with Sweden and Finland “without delay”.
Erdogan accused the Nordic neighbours of violating the terms of another deal they struck in June 2022, under which Turkey agreed to approve the bid.
Turkey has sought the extradition of dozens of Kurds and suspects it accuses of links to illegal militants and an attempted coup attempt in 2016.
Erdogan’s demands have gained urgency as he approaches elections in May, where he needs a decisive vote from nationalist supporters to extend his two-decade-long rule.
The Turkish leader expressed displeasure with Sweden, a country with a large Kurdish diaspora and a long-running dispute with Ankara. Finland and Sweden initially opposed the idea of breaking up.
But Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Christensen, who has made joining NATO a priority after taking office in October, acknowledged on Tuesday that Finland’s chances of independently joining the bloc had “increased”.
Finland’s president on Friday called Erdogan’s decision “very important for the whole of Finland”. But he added: “Without Sweden, Finland’s application would not be complete.”
Sweden expressed disappointment at being excluded from the current round of NATO expansion.
“It’s a development we don’t want, but we are prepared for it,” Foreign Minister Tobias Bielstrom told reporters in Stockholm. The Ankara talks put more pressure on the Hungarian parliament to end its approval delay.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and has had numerous disputes with NATO and the European Union. Earlier this month, Hungary’s parliament began debating two NATO bids.
But the timing of the vote was complicated by another dispute between Budapest and Brussels over blocked EU funding and Hungary’s commitment to the rule of law and fighting corruption.
Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said Orban’s ruling Fidesz party “supports Finland’s entry into NATO”.
“Parliamentary vote will be held on March 27,” Kovacs said in a Twitter message. Matt Kossis, head of the parliamentary group in Auburn, said Fidesz “will decide on the situation in Sweden later”.