WASHINGTON, July 19 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday backed Finland and Sweden's accession to NATO, paving the way for the full Senate to vote on the most significant expansion of the 30-member alliance since the 1990s.
The 22-member panel approved the expansion by voice vote, with just one member - Republican Senator Rand Paul - asking to be recorded as "present."
The accession documents need to be ratified by all 30 North Atlantic Treaty Organization members before Finland and Sweden can be protected by Article Five, the defense clause that states that an attack on one member is an attack against all.
The full 100-member U.S. Senate is expected to approve Finland and Sweden's membership by more than the two-thirds majority required.
"They are ideal candidates for membership and will strengthen the alliance in countless ways," Senator Bob Menendez, the committee's Democratic chairman, said before the vote.
"Finland and Sweden will be excellent allies, will strengthen NATO politically and militarily and offer the alliance new capabilities, most specifically in the Arctic," said the committee's top Republican, Senator Jim Risch.
Ratification by every member is likely to take up to a year but in the meantime Helsinki and Stockholm can already participate in NATO meetings and have greater access to intelligence.
The countries applied for membership in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but were met with opposition from Turkey, which accused the Nordic countries of supporting groups it deems terrorists.
Finland, Sweden and Turkey signed an accord at the NATO summit in Madrid last month to lift Ankara's veto in exchange for pledges on counterterrorism and arms exports. Turkey has said it will closely monitor the implementation of the accord to ratify their membership bids.
Russia has repeatedly warned both countries against joining NATO.
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