When Sweden joins NATO, it would lose rather than gain from compliance with Article 5 – given its geographical position in the bloc. A more likely scenario would be that it would have to provide assistance to other members of the bloc rather than receive it, Oksana Grigorieva writes.
In the context of the consolidation of the Western forces, the position of the Kingdom of Sweden, which has demonstrated a rather deterministic line on the issue of joining NATO, looks quite interesting.
Sweden remains the last candidate country for NATO membership in the Baltic Sea region. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement that Sweden’s accession does not pose an immediate threat to the Russian Federation, the NATO ring may close in the Baltic Sea region, and the special position of the Northwestern Federal District and the Kaliningrad region will become the object of close attention, both among the Western countries and from Moscow.
Let’s look at the reasons for Sweden’s deterministic foreign policy in the field of defence and security. Phases of activism and determinism in Sweden’s defence and security policy followed each other: first of all, attention was paid to both public opinion within the country and the positions of its Nordic neighbours, but there were also individual Swedish politicians who forced security issues to the forefront. It is curious that three female politicians finally determined the status of Sweden’s membership in NATO – Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, Foreign Minister Ann Linde and her predecessor Margot Wallström. The latter two were instrumental in convincing regional branches of the SDPS that Sweden needed to join NATO. It is not for nothing that the two social democratic governments of Stefan Löfven proclaimed themselves to be feminist, and Sweden has long pursued a policy of gender equality both domestically and beyond. Don’t forget that the government of Magdalena Andersson went out on a limb risking its own prestige by announcing that the legislature could decide to join NATO without a popular vote. The Social Democrats are known for keeping a close eye on public sentiment and were initially opposed to any departure from Sweden’s two-hundred-year-old neutrality policy, supporting public opinion that equated the words “peace” with “neutrality”.
We can say that Sweden’s perception of itself as a neutral and “moral superpower” has collided with the pressure to build up its weapons, which, as we know, has dominated the European continent for more than a decade. Sweden did not escape this dilemma: the image of a “humanitarian superpower” came into direct conflict with the sense of threat that emerged in society.
Signs of a slowdown include the stagnating conflict in relations with Hungary and Turkey regarding their reluctance to ratify Stockholm’s application to join NATO. Hungary and Turkey accuse Sweden of condoning Middle Eastern terrorism, supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and a biased assessment of the state of democracy in Hungary. Neither did the Koran burning campaigns make Sweden more attractive for Erdogan, who considers himself a defender of the dignity of Islam and Turkey.
This whole knot of contradictions, including the development of the Arab-Israeli conflict, where Sweden and Turkey were on opposing sides, forced Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson to say on October 13, 2023, at the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) leaders' summit in Visby that “we have done our part of work”, and Sweden isn’t do anything more and should not do anything, thereby indicating the choice of a deterministic line on the issue of NATO membership. This had its effect when, on January 23, 2024, the Turkish Parliament approved Sweden’s application with 287 votes out of 346 present at the meeting. Having received certain benefits from the almost two-year game, Erdogan ratified the application. The price of Ankara’s consent was Stockholm’s more pro-Turkish position on the Kurdish issue, as well as the approval by the US Congress of the sale of F-16 fighters to Turkey. Now Hungary, left alone, will have to name the price for which it is ready to approve Sweden’s application.
What other reasons can be given when commenting on Sweden’s passive role in negotiations to join NATO? After the end of the Cold War, Sweden determined its foreign policy vector by joining the EU in 1995, and a year earlier by joining the Partnership for Peace programme. A milestone in the rapprochement between Sweden and NATO was the country’s participation in the national peacekeeping operation in Libya and the provision of eight JAS 39 Gripen fighters. Swedish participation in the fighting in Libya (mainly aerial reconnaissance, patrols and airstrikes) demonstrates that Stockholm had already seen nothing reprehensible in direct cooperation with NATO with respect to certain beneficial projects. An interesting fact is that over almost 20 years, between 1992 and 2013, the share of Swedish military spending on defence has halved (from 2.4% of GDP to 1.1% of GDP) and the number of troops has been curtailed from 70,000 thousand people to 16,100 people, but the volume of military exports increased from 4.37 billion Swedish kronor (440 million US dollars) to 11.94 billion Swedish kronor (1.2 billion US dollars). These figures determine Stockholm’s financial interest in participating in peacekeeping operations and demonstrates the strength of the Swedish military industry.
Real changes in this policy towards its convergence, it seems, nevertheless occurred after the reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation in 2014. Changes have become noticeable both in the consciousness of the elites and the general public – Russia has clearly and unequivocally begun to be considered a threat (this term appears in official documents), which is accompanied by a corresponding complex measure – for example, exclusively with the support of public opinion. Thus, the country has been demonstrating a policy of “non-alignment” rather than a policy of “neutrality” for more than ten years, but recently it seems ready to reconsider that too.
Sweden’s cautious foreign policy in the field of defence and security has deep roots: during two centuries of neutrality, the country managed to avoid not only direct participation in military conflicts, but also its consequences, such as material destruction and human losses. But how important is it, in the era of hybrid wars and multifaceted interpretations of the use of military power, to preserve the classical understanding of a policy of neutrality?
February 2022 led to a rapid increase in the militarisation of Europe, the preconditions for which had been building for many years. Sweden has become part of this trend. It is curious that a particularly ironic situation arose after Finland joined NATO in April 2023 – now all of Sweden’s land borders are with its member states. Taking into account Article 5 of the NATO Charter (the article on collective self-defence, according to it, an armed attack on any NATO member is equivalent to an attack on the entire bloc), in practice it is almost impossible to take any hostile action against Swedish territory without first violating the border of the bloc, which in the event of an armed violation of the border can easily be regarded as a precedent for the application of Article 5. In other words, at the moment a status quo has developed in which Sweden de facto enjoys the benefits of being in the bloc (at least, in terms of security), but de jure it has no obligations to NATO – including the well-known rule that 2% of national GDP must be spent on defence.
However, if the situation changes when it joins the bloc, in such a scenario Sweden would lose rather than gain from compliance with Article 5 – given its geographical position in the bloc. A more likely scenario would be that it would have to provide assistance to other members of the bloc rather than receive it. This is especially easy to see in comparison with Finland, which has a border with the Russian Federation – this article is more important for it. Taking into account Stockholm’s distaste for any form of international obligations, one gets the impression that the NATO accession may not be beneficial. Overall, for Sweden, NATO membership has more of a symbolic value – joining the club of Western liberal values that it has long championed, ranking among the top five countries in the Democracy Index.
Still, the scenario that Sweden joins the bloc should be taken into account. In this case, Stockholm will most likely build its relations with the alliance following the example Norway – that is, on the basis of mobile bases and, most importantly, the non-deployment of foreign nuclear weapons on its territory. The fact is that Sweden had its own military nuclear programme, which was developed from 1945 to 1968 and which it decided to abandon in favour of building a welfare state.
The importance of Sweden for the alliance is high, including because the Baltic Sea and the entire surrounding region (with the exception of the small Kaliningrad region itself and part of the Gulf of Finland) will be completely under the control of the bloc. The ring of the alliance will close and the Baltic Sea will practically become an internal sea of NATO. However, the behaviour of the players will be different. Sweden’s position will be more cautious and, hopefully, reasonable and rational. This is primarily due to the unofficial doctrine of rationalism and pragmatism which is especially reflected in the rationing of defence spending, as well as the advantageous position of Sweden, which has already ensured its security through participation in other organisations, for example, NORDEFCO.