By: Jakob Lindelof
Picture credits: NATO via Flickr
On the 4th of April 2023, Finland became the 31st member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), however without its neighbour Sweden. It was assumed that they would join together in a 2-for-1 deal when they made their joint application in May of last year, and statements made by former Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö that they would become members at the same time. As the negotiation process between Sweden and Turkey dragged out, President Niinistö said that there was a possibility that Finland would have to join without Sweden, which they eventually did after Turkey ratified Finland’s application in March of this year. Now Sweden remains the sole Baltic country and Northern European country without NATO membership.
Swedish neutrality and the path towards NATO
The foundation of the last 200 years of Swedish foreign policy that saw the adoption of a policy of neutrality and non-alignment (alliansfrihet) stems from its historical relationship with Russia. It began with Sweden’s decline as a major European power following the Great Northern War (1700-1721), which in turn saw the rise of the Russian Empire as the dominant force in the Baltics. Later, after its involvement in the Napoleonic Wars, the loss of Finland in 1809 to Russia and its final war against Norway in 1814, Sweden saw the adoption of these policies that would formally keep it out of future continental European wars. In addition to this, following the end of World War 2 and the creation of NATO in 1949, Sweden chose to continue its policy of non-alignment, adopting an ‘armed neutrality’ strategy which meant maintaining a strong military to deter any outside aggressors. Sweden attempted to project an image of credible neutrality, as many of its neighbours who had declared themselves neutral during the war had nevertheless been invaded.
However, Sweden’s neutrality throughout these 200 years has not been so clear-cut. While it did not participate directly in the two World Wars, it did intervene in the Finnish Civil War in 1917 by sending troops to the island of Åland and military assistance in the form of weapons, aeroplanes and ammunition to Finland during the Winter War (1939-40). When NATO was formed in 1949, Sweden chose to stay out but maintained close relations with the West and to the military alliance. It was discovered in 1994 that Sweden had been given informal guarantees by the United States in the 1960s in the case of a Soviet invasion. This was not insignificant to Swedish military planners, as airfields were adapted to NATO aircraft, secret agreements were made with Denmark and West Germany for submarine warfare in the Baltics, and it was agreed to allow NATO aircraft to operate over Sweden in case of a wider conflict. Its entrance into the European Union in 1995 also complicated the Swedish stance of neutrality and non-alignment as the EU maintains a mutual defence clause that requests support from other member states if a member state is attacked.
Sweden’s relations with NATO have only grown closer since the end of the Cold War. In 1994 it joined the Partnership for Peace programme, and has since then participated in peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya. Sweden also regularly performs military exercises alongside NATO countries including the upcoming AURORA 23, which is the largest military exercise seen in Sweden since 1993. While it remains outside the alliance, Sweden maintains an informal relationship in terms of cooperation and military structure.
Swedish Public Opinion
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 played a major role in shifting the majority of Swedish public opinion in favour of joining NATO. According to Novus polls, in the years prior to the invasion the majority of the public wanted to continue the policy of non-alignment, with 43% being opposed to NATO membership and 32% being in favour in 2014. The same poll saw a rapid boost in support for NATO membership immediately after the invasion, rising to 41% in February and later to 53%. The same poll found 64% in support if Sweden were to join with Finland.
The invasion also marked a major shift in the alignment of the biggest political party in Sweden, the centre-left Social Democrats, who went from opposing NATO to supporting the entry of Sweden into the alliance, eventually submitting the application in May 2022. In November of 2021, Social Democrat Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist announced that Sweden would never join NATO under his term as minister. However, his party changed its stance once Russia invaded Ukraine. Previously, NATO membership was supported by centre-and right-wing leaning parties, none of which held a combined majority in parliament. As such, there is now a majority in the Swedish parliament that supports membership.
Turkey and Hungary
Because of theirclose relationship with NATO, Finland and Sweden presumed their joint application would lead to a quick and simple admission into the military alliance. This was, however, not the case. The NATO ratification process has been hindered by Turkey, who demanded concessions from the two prospective members, effectively holding the countries at ransom to enforce its will upon them. Ankara accuses Sweden of harbouring suspected terrorists with connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or linked to the failed coup in 2016, who Turkey would like to see extradited. Some argue that this stance against the Kurds is for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to signal and gain electoral support in the recent election.
To appease these demands, Sweden has changed its laws regarding membership of terrorist organisations and it has extradited people to Turkey. Despite this, the Supreme Court of Sweden has blocked several such extraditions due to the risk of persecution. Turkey responded to this by accusing Sweden of not having done enough to meet Turkish demands in order to gain approval into NATO. Turkish resistance to membership has only increased since the burning of the Quran in Sweden and the hanging of a puppet resembling Erdoğan.
Turkey is not the only country that has sought to hold Sweden hostage at the negotiating table. Ratification is also required by the Hungarian parliament, which has delayed voting on Sweden’s entry into NATO due to Sweden’s criticism of the weakening of the rule of law in the country and its “hostile attitude”.
Turkish and Hungarian resistance to Swedish NATO membership not only hurts Sweden but comes at the cost of the strategic interests and security of the Baltic NATO members and the entirety of the alliance itself. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania border Russia and require the assistance of NATO to defend themselves. The strategic location of Sweden to the Baltic Sea, especially the island of Gotland would be vital to the defence of these countries, by allowing supplies and troops to pass through Swedish territory or by safe passage through the sea. The island of Gotland would serve as a stronghold in the middle of the sea for aircraft and naval support for these countries. Russian ports in Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg that face the Baltics would also be hemmed in within a ‘sea of NATO’, ensuring a Russian naval threat would be dealt with. It must be said that the entry of Finland does negate this by moving pressure away from the three Baltic states towards Finland, and Finland’s membership does enclose the Gulf of Finland that leads to St. Petersburg.
By blocking Swedish accession into NATO due to interstate grievances, Turkey and Hungary undermine the unity of the alliance and the principle of Article 5, that an attack on one is an attack on all.
It signals disunity by having individual countries go against the wishes of the rest of the alliance about matters that do not directly concern NATO and creates distrust about whether countries are willing to support one another. In short, it benefits sitting President Erdogan for his election whilst putting NATO’s interests at risk.
With the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Sweden sought to formally align itself with NATO as it was seen as the best way to ensure its protection from potential Russian aggression. In the post-Cold War era and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sweden began a programme to reduce its military capacity, and by 2009 had scrapped conscription in favour of a volunteer army of around 50,000 from its 300,000 strong military in 1995. However, after the 2014 invasion of Crimea and increased tensions with Russia, Sweden reintroduced limited conscription and has sought to increase its military budget to 2% of GDP (in line with NATO’s) by 2028. This investment into the military, however, will take time and until then, Sweden requires other guarantees to protect itself against an external threat. A NATO membership would shore up these security concerns by providing assistance in case of aggression.
Since the war broke out in Ukraine, the strategic island of Gotland, seen as important for maintaining control of the Baltics, has been remilitarised over fears of a Russian attack. Without NATO as a deterrent, a neutral Gotland would be vulnerable to occupation, as Sweden fears. This island is important to both Russia and, as mentioned previously, to NATO. A NATO-aligned Gotland would secure transportation of military and supplies to the Baltic countries and Finland whilst keeping Russia locked in Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg. To Russia, Gotland would mean improving its strategic position in the Baltics while being able to threaten the Baltic NATO states by surrounding them from three points, Kaliningrad, St. Petersburg and potentially from Gotland. To NATO, besides important strategic location, Sweden can also offer its navy and its domestically produced air force in protecting the Baltic Sea and its neighbours.This has the advantage of reducing the commitment needed by other NATO members in protecting its northern flank.
Sweden’s future in NATO is dependent on whether Turkey and Hungary decide to ratify their application. For Sweden, much speculation is put on how the ongoing Turkish election will impact their prospects for a ratification in the near future as Sweden hopes that once the election is over that it will pave the way for membership.These hopes may come from the belief that Erdogan is just taking a hard stance against Sweden for its connection to the PKK as a strategy to gain electoral support from nationalist elements. Once he has achieved this, then he may lighten up the demands put on Sweden and potentially allow for a faster entry.
Another future concern as the process drags on is Sweden and Finland’s pre-existing military cooperation. As Sweden now stands alone, their close cooperation is now potentially under threat as Finland has to focus on its NATO membership, leaving Sweden even more vulnerable than they are now.
It is in both the interest of Sweden and the members of NATO that Sweden joins as quickly as possible. The longer it takes the longer it leaves all parties involved vulnerable, goes against it’s security interests, and highlights to the world the disunity that prevails with the alliance