But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the decision now seems to receive broad political support in the Swedish government, parliament and population. Swedish public support for NATO membership has gradually increased over the past decade, by 58% now in favor and only 19% were against. The major Swedish political parties all decided to support membership applicationalso.
Sweden’s neutrality began after a catastrophic loss of territory to Russia during the Napoleonic Wars of 1812, and this security policy later enabled the country to distance itself from the changing military alliances in Europe during 19th century. During the 20th century, Sweden’s neutrality developed into an active internationalist foreign policy that promotes international peace and security through diplomacy, cooperative security arrangements and international organizations.
Through Cold War, Sweden used its neutral position to dampen the confrontation between the East-West blocs; while clearly adapting to support for democracy, human rights and liberal market systems. After the end of the Cold War, Sweden energetically supported the work of developing a new cooperative European security regime centered on rules on conflict prevention and respect for national sovereignty and borders, which are embedded in the agreements Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Within this framework, Sweden sought not only to increase its own security but also security in the Nordic and Baltic regions. This included the newly independent states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to which Sweden has a strong cultural, social and political connection.
Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign and security policy under President Vladimir Putin since 2004 posed increasing challenges to these goals. Although Sweden has not been a prominent focus of Russian government pressure and provocations, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have definitely done so. They became regular targets of cyber warfare and military incidents with Russian forces on their boundaries. Russia’s military 2008 intervention in Georgia increased security fears in the Baltics so that their neighbor could also intervene in their territory, and Sweden and Finland inevitably followed these security debates closely.
From 2008 onwards, Sweden discovered secret Russian submarine operations within its territorial waters in the Baltic Sea. It was frustrated that these incidents continued despite diplomatic protests against Russia. In response, Sweden reversed the liquidation of its anti-submarine warfareand forced strong restrictions about Russian commercial activities on Gotland and other Swedish islands.
The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the intervention in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine confirmed that Russia no longer accepted previously agreed national borders. It also strengthened the arguments within Sweden and Finland that Russian military activities in the Baltic Sea can signal preparation for an intervention in one or more of the Baltic States.
Neutral states know they can not rely on allies for military aid. So they invest relatively much in defense. For example, Sweden and Finland, which applied for at the same time join NATO, maintains strong territorial defense forces and is well equipped with relatively advanced weapon systems. As EU members, both countries became relaxed with interpretations of their neutralityin the sense that they followed the development of the EU’s common foreign and security policy, including parts of defense cooperation.
Defense has been added
Following Russia’s interventions in Ukraine in 2014, Sweden realized that it would need military cooperation and assistance from other states to realistically prepare for a possible Russian move into the Baltic Sea region. Sweden started working closely together in military matters with Finland, at the same time as Nordic defense co-operation with (NATO members) Denmark and Norway is increasing.
As EU members, Sweden and Finland could also make use of defense co-operation, even though these were considered insufficient for serious defense and deterrence against Russia. So they also quiet but fast developed defense ties with the United States and the United Kingdom. In May 2018, for example, Sweden, Finland and the United States signed a letter of intent to develop close cooperation on military exercises and interoperability, and defense preparedness.
In another significant move, Sweden reintroduced military conscription in January 2018 and in October 2020 defense bill included significant increases in military spending. It is also reintroduced a garrison on Gotland due to its strategic location in the Baltic Sea.
None of these developments meant that Sweden (or Finland) had plans to join NATO in 2021 – on the contrary, public debates on this issue were completely unresolved. But they provided a context for them to quickly establish shared understandings of the implications of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
After Swedish opinion on NATO membership changed decisively, the government and interested parliamentarians could quickly realize that NATO membership was a logical next step. The governments of Sweden and Finland closely coordinated the timing of their applications to join NATO, in order to avoid risks of political isolation and to reflect their defense co-operation. Strong Russian objections were foreseen, however is considered manageableespecially if both countries acted together.
Sweden and Finland each provide significant military resources as well as political forces to NATO, and it is very likely that their membership applications will be accepted fairly smoothly, despite initial Turkish objections. Their membership will strengthen both NATO and its focus on security and deterrence in the Baltic region.
In the medium to long term, NATO debates on the roles and deployments of nuclear weapons can be expected to increase, as both countries have traditionally supported nuclear disarmament. But in the next few years, issues of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the defense and security of the Baltic states are likely to dominate NATO and Swedish defense agendas.
Author: Owen Greene – Professor of International Security and Development, University of Bradford