Sweden’s FM talks about Ukraine’s NATO aspirations, support for Kyiv

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Sweden's FM talks about Ukraine's NATO aspirations, support for Kyiv

The 2024 NATO Summit is underway in Washington, with leaders of all 32 of the allied nations in attendance, and support for Ukraine among the top issues being discussed.

Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Tobias Billstrom spoke to VOA’s Ukrainian Service about the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, along with Sweden’s relationship with the country. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VOA: Thank you so much for talking to us. What has been Sweden’s reaction to the Russian attack Monday on the civilian targets in Ukraine, including a children’s hospital?

Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Tobias Billstrom:

Well, this of course has to be condemned and the Swedish government did this. But this is exactly what we can expect from Putin and Russia. This is the kind of tactics that they deployed in Syria where they did the same kind of horrendous bombings on civilian installations, targeting civilians deliberately and this is the way they have been acting throughout the entire Russian aggression against Ukraine. But still, attacking a children’s hospital of course has to be condemned in the harshest possible terms by the rest of the world.

VOA: It happened just before the NATO summit. Do you think Putin is trying to send a signal and what that might be?

Billstrom: You never know with Russia. I think that what we can see is a display of power from his side. The way that he thinks and the way that the Russian mind works is that there are no civilian installations, you are entitled to target everything which is in your way.

This is exactly why we have to combat the Russian attitude. This is exactly why we have to provide as much military support to Ukraine as possible, including air defense to see that Ukraine can protect itself and defend itself against these terrible Russian attacks. And this is the policy of the Swedish government.

VOA: Do you think this attack influenced in any way the agenda of the summit, the talks at the summit and possibly an outcome of the summit as related to Ukraine?

Billstrom: I think that it influences the debate because, once again, it is shown how vitally important it is for us all to support Ukraine to the utmost when it comes to military means. And this is why Sweden welcomes the decisions which [we] are going to be talking about at the summit, to see to it that we can become more coordinated in our response by seeing to it that NATO is giving a more prominent role in the coordination of the support … This has been discussed as you know at length and it is vital because NATO has a better possibility for providing the coordination than the more, I should say, random display that we have had so far during the Russian aggression against Ukraine.

VOA: For many years, Ukraine has been striving to become a member of NATO and now the U.S, administration is talking about some well-lit bridge to NATO. What is the Swedish position on Ukraine`s accession to NATO?

Billstrom: Well, Sweden stands fully behind the conclusions that were reached at the last Summit in Vilnius in Lithuania in 2023 where it was said that there should be a path for Ukraine towards NATO membership. This is of course something which can come about when Ukraine has fulfilled the criteria because after all this is a merit-based process, but for Sweden, it’s obvious that that would be a path, an irrevocable path for Ukraine toward the membership.

VOA: And you’re the latest member of NATO. Obviously, the situation is drastically different from the Ukraine situation, but if any lessons are applicable, what would they be?

Billstrom: Well, I think that there are three lessons. One is of course that we always have to be patient about these processes and I understand that this is a bit more difficult. I say this without any irony when it comes to Ukraine and for Sweden. But at the end of the day the message being sent from the summit about the possibility for Ukraine to become a NATO member is an important one.

Secondly, we have to see to it that the NATO process and the EU process are very much interlinked. The reforms which Ukraine is undertaking now when it comes to reformation of its legislation, its constitution, the fight against corruption etc., is of course, also, it’s part of an EU accession, but it is also part of a NATO accession. So, everything that is being done within those two processes reinforce one another.

And thirdly and last of course, this is also something which is good from Ukraine’s perspective; when you join NATO it will have the most experienced army and the most perhaps well-equipped armed forces within the alliance on the European continent because of the war. Again, I’m saying this without any irony or sarcasm, but this will be the fact so there won’t be any problem, I think for Ukraine to fulfill the military criteria for NATO membership when the time actually comes.

VOA: But membership in NATO for Ukraine can be or maybe not a part of negotiations with Russia as some people suggest. Can it be a negotiation chip?

Billstrom: I have said many times before, it is up to Ukraine and only Ukraine to decide when the time has come to start any negotiations. President Zelenskyy’s peace plan has been presented already. It is only credible and I should say only credible and sensible peace plan that we have on the table and Sweden stands fully behind this peaceful formula, but whether that should be interlinked to any sort of negotiation with that, that’s up to Ukraine. It’s not up to Sweden to decide this.

VOA: Sweden provided a lot of military help to Ukraine. One of the items that was discussed is Gripen fighter jets. Sweden planned to provide them and then halted the provision of Gripens. What happened and can you kind of give a little bit of background on the Gripen situation?

Billstrom: We have to understand that Ukraine has been given the opportunity to be provided with the F-16 air fighters which are of course more in abundance within the NATO family, more countries have after all F-16 and would have Gripen air fighters. It has nothing to do with the decision by the Swedish government. This decision was brought about because Ukraine reached the conclusion that to bring on board two air fighter systems at the same time, both F- 16 and Gripens, were to be too much. After all, we are talking about systems. It’s not just a question about receiving airplanes and training pilots. These are complicated systems and to have two of them at the same time being implemented was too much, but that is not to say that Sweden is not open to continue with Gripens air fighters if and when 16 programs have been concluded.

Since we couldn’t go forward with the Gripens air fighters since the F-16 are coming aboard, we decided to provide Ukraine with other capabilities which Sweden has and we have given Ukraine ASC 890 surveillance systems and that will mean that we will give something to Ukraine that Ukraine can use in collaboration with the F-16 air fighters. It will provide Ukraine with the ability to perform better when it comes to air fighting and surveillance and also battle leading in the air and that is something which is going to be very good for Ukraine.

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