Impatient to see Sweden admitted as a member of NATO and as the days tick down to the alliance’s summit next month in Lithuania, a senior Republican senator blocked an arms sale to Hungary, one of the countries blocking Stockholm’s accession.
Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch said Wednesday he had placed a hold on an arms export package to Hungary out of frustration with Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government for dragging its feet in presenting Sweden’s membership to the Hungarian parliament for a vote of approval. That’s a necessary step for the Nordic country to be able to join NATO.
“For some time now, I have directly expressed my concerns to the Hungarian government regarding its refusal to move forward a vote for Sweden to join NATO,” the Idaho Republican said in a statement. “Given promises that were made to me and others last year that this vote would be done, and the fact that it is now June and still not done, I decided that the sale of new U.S. military equipment to Hungary will be on hold. Hungary should take the actions necessary to allow Sweden into the alliance, and soon.”
Although not required, the executive branch usually respects an informal “hold” on weapons exports by any one of the four Democratic and Republican leaders on the Senate and House foreign affairs panels. The holds sometimes remain in place for months or even years.
Once a hold is lifted, the arms sale can be formally notified to Congress and — assuming no legislation is passed by the House and the Senate to block it — officially approved.
The 31-member alliance requires all members to agree to admit a new member. Hungary and Turkey are the only holdouts in ratifying Sweden’s membership, thus far dashing hopes that Sweden could join Finland, NATO’s newest member, in fully participating at the summit on July 11 and 12 in Vilnius, Lithuania.
“Sweden is a … strong capable defense partner that shares NATO’s values and will strengthen the alliance that NATO currently has and also contribute to European security,” said White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre Wednesday. “We believe Sweden should become a NATO member as soon as possible without delay and we’ll continue to be very, very public about that as the president has been for the past several months and continue to be very clear.”
Lawmakers expect that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, having retained power in recent elections, will stop blocking Sweden’s NATO bid because he wants senior U.S. lawmakers, including Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., to lift holds on his country’s request to purchase a large number of F-16 advanced fighter jets.
Orban has largely followed Turkey’s lead in blocking Sweden from joining NATO.
The Hungarian leader has given varying answers, including that it’s about Sweden’s criticisms of democratic backsliding in Hungary under Orban. He has also strongly defended Erdoğan for blocking Sweden.
“It’s not right for them to ask us to take them on board while they’re spreading blatant lies about Hungary, about the rule of law in Hungary, about democracy, about life here,” Orban said in a February interview with the Kossuth Radio Program, summarizing what he said were the arguments for not yet allowing Sweden into NATO. “How, this argument runs, can anyone want to be our ally in a military system while they’re shamelessly spreading lies about Hungary?”
Congress hasn’t yet received formal notification of the Hungarian arms sale, leaving it unclear what’s in the package. But news reports said it was worth $735 million and included the Lockheed Martin-manufactured HIMARS rocket system. Demand for the high-mobility artillery rocket system has gone up sharply since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.
The delay in officially noticing the package to Congress mean Hungary might be in the back of a long and growing line of allies that are also seeking to procure their HIMARS systems.
“Hungary is one of many countries that is line to get HIMARS,” said Tyler Hacker, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “I think we are currently trying to deliver them in the next couple of years to Poland, Romania. Obviously, Ukraine has gotten them and is getting more. Australia is getting some. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are all in line for HIMARS.”
In a Thursday statement, the Hungarian Defense Ministry claimed it “has no intention of purchasing HIMARS missile systems.”
“In the previous government term, the Government Commissioner for Procurement sent a letter requesting information on HIMARS missile systems, with a March 2022 deadline. No reply was received from the U.S. side, and the ministry considered the matter closed,” the ministry statement said.
A Senate aide, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, said there’s not much strategic difference for the alliance if Sweden is admitted before the summit or shortly after it but it would be a different matter if it drags into the fall.
“They [Sweden] continue to be more vulnerable while they are in this interim period. The sooner we can do it, the more important it is for showing unity,” the aide said. “It’s not just about hostage taking tactics and it’s not just about the weapon systems. It is that this kind of bad behavior is not only not helping the alliance but it’s hurting the alliance because it’s giving [Russian President Vladimir] Putin another thing to hang his hat on in terms of fractures within the alliance.”
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.