MUSKO NAVAL BASE, Sweden — With Finland now safely in the arms of NATO, the Biden administration turned its attention on Wednesday to the famously (and formerly) neutral Sweden, as Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said he hoped that objections to the country’s NATO accession would be ironed out by midsummer.
Turkey and Hungary, the two holdouts to Sweden joining the military alliance, will determine whether the Austin projection is rooted in reality. But in the first visit to Sweden by a U.S. defense secretary in 23 years, Mr. Austin promised to work for Stockholm’s “swift accession.”
“We’ll work hard to get that done before the summit,” Mr. Austin said, referring to a NATO meeting set for July in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. He said it was important that Turkey decide to allow Sweden to join the alliance “sooner versus later.”
Sweden had hoped to join the military alliance with Finland, which officially became a member early this month. Last year, after decades of official neutrality, the two countries took the initial plunge together, asking for NATO membership within weeks of President Vladimir V. Putin’s launch of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is up for re-election on May 14, has objected to Sweden’s membership, citing questions about the depth of Stockholm’s commitment to fighting terrorism. Mr. Erdogan has called for Sweden to extradite figures he regards as terrorists, including Kurds and others he believes supported the 2016 coup attempt against him.
So far, Stockholm’s efforts to placate him, including a new terrorism law, have failed.
Hungary, which is dependent on Russia for its energy, has said that it has grievances about Swedish criticism of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s policies. There was no immediate public response from Turkey or Hungary to Mr. Austin’s comments.
Finland is now protected by NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack on one country is an attack on all. But Sweden will not formally have such protection until it becomes a member of the alliance. The NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, has said that he would expect the alliance to defend Sweden regardless, but that is far from certain.
The Swedish defense minister, Pal Jonson, alluded to that uncertainty. American Marines have been in and out of Sweden for the past year, participating in military exercises in the country’s archipelago. The United States has also sent a number of warships, including the enormous U.S.S. Kearsarge, which sailed and moored in the middle of Stockholm’s harbor last summer as a potent symbol that the United States supports Sweden, despite the country’s previous neutrality.
Mr. Jonson told Mr. Austin, “You have, during this transition time into NATO, also provided the very important naval assets and aerial assets in a continuing basis, which has reassured us.”
Since Sweden’s last war, against Norway in 1814, it has maintained a nonaligned foreign policy during times of peace and proclaimed itself neutral during times of war.
However, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine brought into sharp relief the limitations of being in Europe but not having the security guarantees of NATO’s collective defense pact.
After a visit to Musko Naval Base, near Stockholm, Mr. Austin boarded the H.M.S. Harnosand, a Visby Class corvette warship, and had a view of the Swedish archipelago, with its tens of thousands of mostly uninhabited islands in the Baltic Sea. The islands are crucial, military officials say, because, should Sweden get into the alliance, the Baltic Sea would soon be encircled — save for the Russian areas around Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg — by NATO countries, with Sweden joining Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in that ring.
The Swedish military put on quite a show for the visiting American defense secretary. Swedish fighter jets buzzed his ship from above, helicopters roared overhead, and Marines launched amphibious assaults on an island nearby, their guns echoing. A few minutes later, a submarine emerged from the water and warships circled the ship carrying Mr. Austin.