Nato for the first time has openly acknowledged the possibility of Finland and Sweden joining the military alliance separately, breaking a taboo over their previous insistence they join as a pair, as their bids are being held up mainly by Turkey.

The prospect of the two Nordic neighbours being delinked represents an admission that diplomatic efforts to lift Ankara’s block on Stockholm have so far failed and a willingness among Nato officials to allow Helsinki to skirt that dispute.

“So the main question is not whether Finland and Sweden are ratified together,” secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Tuesday. “The main question is that they are both ratified as full members as soon as possible. And I’m confident that both will be full members, and are working hard to get both ratified as soon as possible.”

Both were in a better security position than they were before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago, he added.

Stoltenberg’s statement is the first time he has veered from the official line from Nato, Helsinki and Stockholm that the neighbours’ applications should be treated as one joint bid. Other officials from the alliance told the Financial Times that his comment reflected a shift in attitude.

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has indicated he is willing to ratify Finland’s Nato membership but not Sweden’s, accusing Stockholm of harbouring Kurdish activists and allowing a Koran to be burnt in front of Turkey’s embassy in the Swedish capital.

Asked about the possibility of Finland being approved before Sweden, Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson said that “we will always respect each other’s decisions”. He insisted that Finland going first would not be a “failure” and underscored that both countries wanted to proceed together but that their applications were “formally” separate.

In addition to Turkey, Hungary has also dragged its feet on ratifying the two countries’ applications, but its opposition is seen as less insurmountable. While the government defended Erdoğan in his stance towards Sweden, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán said he would not stand in the way of Nato enlargement. He blamed the delays on alleged work overload in parliament stemming from his dispute with Brussels over EU funds and said that Budapest would approve both bids in a parliamentary session starting in late February.

Finnish officials have publicly committed themselves to joining with Sweden. Last year, the Finnish president and centre-left government spent considerable time convincing their more reluctant neighbour that joining Nato would be the right response to the current security environment.

But senior Finnish officials say that if Turkey were only to ratify Helsinki’s application, it would be unthinkable for Finland — with its 1300km long border with Russia, the longest of any EU country — to refuse to accept it.

Nato diplomats told the FT that Finland’s border with Russia made it more critical that the country be admitted as soon as possible, even if that meant it leaving Sweden behind.

Finnish officials have again in recent weeks been travelling to Stockholm, Nato headquarters in Brussels, and other European capitals to hear how allies would react if Finland were accepted ahead of Sweden, people familiar with the discussions said.

“It is essential that Finland is in Nato as soon as possible. Of course, we want Sweden in there too, but if we have to wait a month or two extra for that, I don’t see that as a problem,” said one senior European diplomat.

A western diplomat said the change in Nato’s attitude was prompted by a “reality that we may face rather than it being desirable or acceptable. Ultimately, it can only be acceptable or not to those countries.” The diplomat added that the consequences of last week’s devastating earthquake in Turkey could also play a role in how the discussion evolves. 

US officials said they hoped both Finland and Sweden would join the alliance by the time Nato leaders meet in Vilnius before the summer, if not before. But they said they were less concerned with the exact sequencing.

“We’re not so much focused on who goes when or how, that’s really up to those countries. But we are very focused on making this happen as soon as possible,” a senior administration official said.

Additional reporting by Marton Dunai in Budapest

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