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Beyond Neutrality: What is at Stake if Sweden Joins NATO? 

Three questions to Andreas Persbo

Beyond Neutrality: What is at Stake if Sweden Joins NATO? 
 Andreas Persbo
Research Director at the European Leadership Network

The neutrality policy that has characterised Finland and Sweden’s relations with both Russia and the West is at a turning point. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Nordic nations are considering applying for membership of NATO, marking a significant policy shift in the region. Andreas Persbo, Director at the European Leadership Network, considers the causes and potential implications of this debate. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is leading Sweden to consider joining NATO, thereby giving up its long history of "armed neutrality". Could you explain this tradition and the recent shift towards NATO membership?

During the Cold War, the Swedish policy was to remain free from entering into a military alliance during peacetime, with the intention of declaring neutrality in wartime. 

While never formalised, this approach has roots in the foreign policy known as the Policy of 1812, when Sweden adopted neutrality after losing Finland to Russia, largely ending the country’s direct involvement in warfare. The last major campaign involving Swedish military forces was the Norwegian War of Independence of 1814. After that, the Swedish armed forces have mostly been deployed in peacekeeping operations. Sweden itself has enjoyed more than two centuries of uninterrupted peace.

Sweden declared its neutrality throughout the First World War, carefully balancing its close ties to the German Empire and its mercantile interests with powers such as the United Kingdom and France. During the 1930s, it started to develop its policy of armed neutrality with defence spending dramatically increasing from about 2 percent of GDP in 1936, to around 15 percent in 1939. In cash terms, this represented a ten-fold increase in funding, mostly invested in the newly established Swedish Air Force (which at some point became the fourth-largest in the World).

This huge investment into defence might have been one of the reasons why Sweden successfully maintained its neutrality throughout the Second World War.

This huge investment into defence might have been one of the reasons why Sweden successfully maintained its neutrality throughout the Second World War. The main reason, however, is likely the deployment of a skilful (some would say deceitful) foreign policy. Swedish support for Nazi Germany at the beginning of the war would have tested the limits of ‘neutrality’, as would its tilt towards allied powers during the second phase of the war. Moreover, Sweden contributed about 10,000 troops (one of whom was this author’s grandfather) and material aid to help Finland defend against Soviet aggression in 1939.

Sweden emerged from the Second World War with an untouched industrial and scientific base. However, it also faced a Baltic Sea environment dominated by the Soviet Union, which at the time possessed the most powerful armed forces in the world, supplemented by a growing nuclear arsenal. For some time, the Swedish government appeared to have wanted to build up a strong conventional deterrent (mostly in the air but also on the sea). Sweden also built up a latent nuclear weapons capability (although this hedge was never used).

Over time, the spending grew untenable, leading to an ever-closer relationship with Western powers, the United Kingdom and the United States in particular. A 1992 government report on Sweden’s neutrality policies (SOU 1994:11) notes how Sweden faced the Soviet Union alone throughout most of the 1950s, but that increasing NATO capabilities in Europe allowed it to gradually relax its posture in the 1960s.

From 1970 to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sweden maintained its desire to remain "neutral in wartime" and "alliance free" in peacetime. In reality, however, its defence posture relied heavily on the presumed aid and support of Western European powers. After joining the European Union on 1 January 1995, the alliance free option, while still officially maintained, started to look hollow.

What is the status of the debate in Sweden on NATO membership today? Is there a consensus?

Sweden’s position as a NATO partner is not domestically controversial. As pointed out in my commentary for Institute Montaigne last year, Sweden remains a NATO "Enhanced Opportunity Partner", is a member of the NATO Response Force, and also maintains close military-industrial links with several European states.

There are electoral winds pushing towards full NATO membership. Moreover, defence and security matters are climbing on the list of electoral priorities and are now almost on par with traditional topics such as law and order, immigration and integration. If NATO membership is not resolved now, it may well become a central issue in Sweden’s 11 September 2022 parliamentary election. The electorate swung decisively toward NATO membership after Russia decided to further invade Ukraine in February 2022.

One recent poll indicates a narrow majority in favour, and that undecided and disapproving citizens are equally split. Opinion polls expect a further swing (perhaps more than 10 points) towards membership should Finland join the Alliance - a decision that is expected to occur by 14 May. Many Swedes, including this author, feel a strong kinship with Finland. It feels unthinkable that Finland would join, with Sweden still standing on the outside. A decision to do so would hurt in the upcoming election.

The electorate swung decisively toward NATO membership after Russia decided to further invade Ukraine in February 2022.

Polling indicates strong support for the ruling Social Democratic party, but the support for its smaller supporting parties (especially the Green Party) remains unclear. It is clear that the ruling party would want to address this question before the general election, but it is unclear whether they would be willing to jeopardize their relations with parliamentary allies over it.

There is, at present, a parliamentary majority for an in-principle decision to join the Alliance (phrased as an "option"). However, there is no cross-party consensus on full membership. The Left and the Green parties, important partners for the ruling Social Democratic party, remain opposed to membership. The official Social Democrat position remains opposed, but the party is now re-examining the matter, in light of recent security developments. The party leadership will decide no later than 24 May 2022 (about a week after Finland).

The Swedish Left Party has suggested that the matter be put to the people in an advisory referendum, but this has been dismissed by both the Social Democrats and the conservative Moderate Party. One fear is that putting it to a referendum would be an open invitation for Russia to conduct electoral interference on a grand scale.

It would make sense to let the people determine this decision. After all, votes were held to advise on Sweden joining the EU (in 1994) as well as on adopting the Euro (in 2003). Abandoning a close to 200-year old policy is a non-trivial matter, and should be dealt with carefully. On the other hand, concerns about electoral interference are real, and the polls, as well as this year's general election, are likely seen as adequate substitutes for a referendum.

What military implications would a NATO membership entail, for Sweden and for the Alliance itself? What reaction can we expect from Russia?

Sweden is undergoing defence transformation, with the defence budget expected to double in 2015-2025.

Sweden and Finland would bring considerable capacity to NATO, mostly in the air and sea domains. Together, the two countries would supply the majority of NATO naval assets in the Baltic Sea region. Carl Bildt, who has formerly been both Prime and Foreign Minister of Sweden, has noted in Foreign Affairs that combined, the Baltic Sea region would be covered by more than 250 modern fighters.

The island of Gotland could well be used as a forward operating airbase for NATO deployments in the Baltic, making the defence of the Baltic Republics easier.

Moreover, as has been noted in the IISS Military Balance, Sweden is undergoing defence transformation, with the defence budget expected to double in 2015-2025. Concerns about Sweden’s readiness to take on military tasks have led to an increase in activities in the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) format, as well as closer NORDEFCO-NATO coordination. The military reform is real, and is showing no indications of slowing down.

For Russia, this represents a serious military issue. Its military dominance of the Baltic Sea, so feared by Sweden in the 1950s, would evaporate completely. However, it has options available to respond. It has already demonstrated its willingness to use the airspace over the Baltic Sea (which can be traversed in minutes) to make provocative flights trespassing on Swedish airspace. It may also step up its underwater activities, and may well be forced to post more naval assets in the region (despite the vulnerability this would pose).

In a post on Telegram, former Russian President Dimitry Medvedev has already hinted at these measures by referring to strengthening ground forces and air defence in the region, as well as a "significant deployment" of naval assets in the Gulf of Finland. He also noted that Russia would deploy nuclear weapons in the Baltic (which wouldn’t be a radical departure from their present force structure).

Sweden’s security services, on their part, are concerned about a step-up of Russian influence operations in the country, and have already said that it has increased its vigilance. However, hile influence operations and increasingly provocative military actions are becoming more and more likely among the Russian response, an outright military intervention is not very likely.


Copyright: Paul WENNERHOLM / TT News Agency / AFP

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