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Swedish defense minister on decision to apply to NATO after decades of resistance

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's official. Sweden and Finland have applied to join NATO. The head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, is calling it a historic moment, and the alliance is promising to fast-track the applications. Two new members would expand NATO's territory, also its clout - a fact not lost on Russia, which is threatening to retaliate. It will fall to our next guest to lead his country's next steps in all this and navigate the very fast-changing security situation in Europe.

Peter Hultqvist is the defense minister of Sweden. Today he is here in Washington for meetings with his U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Peter Hultqvist, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Welcome to Washington.

PETER HULTQVIST: Thank you so much. Thank you.

KELLY: I have to say, this is a conversation I did not expect to be having because you have been defense minister since 2014. And all those years, you have opposed joining NATO. You were on Swedish TV just late last year saying, quote, "Sweden will never become a member of NATO as long as I am the minister of defense." You are still the minister of defense.

HULTQVIST: Yes.

KELLY: Are you now fully on board with joining the alliance?

HULTQVIST: Yes. You must understand the context and the situation also because Sweden and Finland - we decided to have a strategy to be military nonallied and, at the same time, develop military planning, building peace together in our two countries. And at the same time, we upgraded our military capability and have signed defense agreements with different countries. And that worked but became - until the situation when they started the war the 24 of February this year.

KELLY: When Russia invaded Ukraine - yeah.

HULTQVIST: Yeah. That changed the situation. Should we still be being nonallied by ourselves? And the result of that analysis was that we cannot do that. We must also be in NATO together with others.

KELLY: OK. So I was going to ask because I understand that, obviously, Russia invading Ukraine in February changed all kinds of things in Europe. But in terms of why it totally changed the calculus for you in Sweden - you don't have a border with Ukraine. You don't have a border with Russia. You're saying it was - suddenly it felt like you might be all alone.

HULTQVIST: You know, if we are out of NATO and all the other countries around us is in NATO, we will have a weaker situation in all these partnerships. And at the same time, when we are out of it, in that new scenario, we will be more exposed to Russia. So we have a bigger risk towards Russia, that they can make pressure on us when we are alone.

KELLY: How worried are you, now that you've applied, about retaliation from Russia?

HULTQVIST: I can say that they talked a lot about do something, and they also violated our border now twice in a short time. So they can do things. And what we prepare for is cyberattacks, hybrid attacks. That's the information we have in a decision. And Parliament said that we cannot exclude the risk for military attack, etc., etc. So there is a broad spectra (ph). They can sabotage. They can undermine. So we prepared for all these scenarios.

KELLY: You have a potential problem in Turkey. Turkey is raising objections to Sweden and Finland joining. And the rules say you need unanimous agreement from all NATO countries for it to happen. How confident are you it will, that your membership will be approved?

HULTQVIST: Our ambition is to solve the problem with Turkey in a dialogue.

KELLY: I mean, the specific objection that I'm seeing is that Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says - his quote - "Scandinavian countries are like guest houses for terrorist organizations." Is there any merit to his claims? Does Sweden have a problem with violent extremism that you need to deal with before joining NATO?

HULTQVIST: I don't think so. And I have no comment to what Erdogan says.

KELLY: You are speaking to us having just met today with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Can you give us a readout on the meeting? Did you come away with the understanding that the U.S. fully backs your joining NATO?

HULTQVIST: Yes. I think we have a very warm welcome here in Washington. And we also have a very warm welcome from Secretary Austin. And we have a same view of the problem in Russia, that we have a conflict between authoritarian view of society and democratic view of the society, and that we have a challenge against the European security order. And we have discussed all these things and also what we should do with the support to Ukraine. That's very important.

KELLY: Right. Is there anything the U.S. can do? Is there anything you're asking the U.S. to do to help in getting Turkey on board?

HULTQVIST: What we have talked about - that is something between us. And as I have said, I think we can solve it with a dialogue.

KELLY: Timeline? - NATO says they will fast-track your application. How fast is fast?

HULTQVIST: We can come back to that when we see the realities. As fast as possible is our ambition. And when I met the House of Representatives and the Senate here in U.S., it was very clear that they will do this as fast as possible for them. So they work with it now.

KELLY: Ah. Is your working expectation - are we talking weeks? Are we talking months?

HULTQVIST: You have to go with that answer from them. I think that is the best. But I think they have a very high ambition.

KELLY: Peter Hultqvist, the defense minister of Sweden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Sarah Handel