STOCKHOLM (AP) -- Turkey's president on Monday complicated Sweden and Finland's historic bid to join NATO, saying he cannot allow them to become members of the alliance because of their perceived inaction against exiled Kurdish militants.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doubled down on comments last week indicating that the two Nordic countries' path to NATO would be anything but smooth. All 30 current NATO countries must agree to open the door to new members.
Erdogan spoke to reporters just hours after Sweden joined Finland in announcing it would seek NATO membership in the wake of Russian's invasion of Ukraine, ending more than 200 years of military nonalignment. He accused the two countries of refusing to extradite "terrorists" wanted by his country.
"Neither country has an open, clear stance against terrorist organizations," Erdogan said, in an apparent reference to Kurdish militant groups such as the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
Swedish officials said they would dispatch a team of diplomats to Ankara to discuss the matter, but Erdogan suggested they were wasting their time.
"Are they coming to try and convince us? Sorry don't wear yourselves out," Erdogan said. "During this process, we cannot say 'yes' to those who impose sanctions on Turkey, on joining NATO, which is a security organization."
Sweden has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East in recent decades, including ethnic Kurds from Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
Turkey's objections took many Western officials by surprise and some had the impression Ankara would not let the issue spoil the NATO expansion. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg over the weekend said "Turkey has made it clear that their intention is not to block membership."
In Washington, Swedish Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter was among those who said they were taken aback by Turkey's objections.
"We have a very strong anti-terrorist agenda and a lot of, almost, accusations that are coming out ... are simply not true," she said.
Sweden decided Monday to seek NATO membership a day after the country's governing Social Democratic party endorsed a plan for the country to join the trans-Atlantic alliance and Finland's government announced that it would seek to join NATO.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson warned that the Nordic country would be in a "vulnerable position" during the application period and urged her fellow citizens to brace themselves for the Russian response.
"Russia has said that that it will take countermeasures if we join NATO," she said. "We cannot rule out that Sweden will be exposed to, for instance, disinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide us."
Moscow has repeatedly warned Finland, which shares a 1,340 km border with Russia, and Sweden of repercussions should they pursue NATO membership. But Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday seemed to downplay the significance of their move.
Speaking to a Russian-led military alliance of six ex-Soviet states, Putin said Moscow "does not have a problem" with Sweden or Finland applying for NATO membership, but that "the expansion of military infrastructure onto this territory will, of course, give rise to our reaction in response."
Andersson, who leads the center-left Social Democrats, said Sweden would hand in its NATO application jointly with Finland. Flanked by opposition leader Ulf Kristersson, Andersson said her government also was preparing a bill that would allow Sweden to receive military assistance from other nations in case of an attack.
"The Russian leadership thought they could bully Ukraine and deny them and other countries self-determination," Kristersson said. "They thought they could scare Sweden and Finland and drive a wedge between us and our neighbors and allies. They were wrong."
Once a regional military power, Sweden has avoided military alliances since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Like Finland it remained neutral throughout the Cold War, but formed closer relations with NATO after the 1991 Soviet collapse. They no longer see themselves as neutral after joining the European Union in 1995, but have remained nonaligned militarily until now.
After being firmly against NATO membership for decades, public opinion in both countries shifted following Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, with record levels of support for joining the alliance. The Swedish and Finnish governments swiftly initiated discussions across political parties about NATO membership and reached out to the U.S., Britain, Germany and other NATO countries for their support.
On Sunday, Andersson's party reversed their long-standing position that Sweden must remain nonaligned, giving NATO membership overwhelming support in Parliament. Only the small Left and Green parties objected when the issue was discussed by lawmakers on Monday.
Left Party leader Nooshi Dadgostar, whose calls for a referendum on the matter were dismissed by the government, said joining NATO would raise tensions in the Baltic Sea region.
"It does not help Ukraine," she said.
Andersson said Sweden would make clear that it doesn't want nuclear weapons or permanent NATO bases on its soil -- similar conditions as neighboring Norway and Denmark insisted on when the alliance was formed after World War II.
During a visit to Helsinki on Monday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said there is "very significant" support in Congress for welcoming Finland and Sweden to the alliance and that he expects ratification before the August recess.
In a joint statement, Nordic NATO members Norway, Denmark and Iceland said they were ready to assist Finland and Sweden "with all necessary means" during the application process.