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Cold friendship, or tepid panic? Behind the scenes of the Swedish narrative on Russia and NATO

An interview with Dr Gregory Simons, Associate Professor at Uppsala University, Sweden. Interviewer: Mario Giagnorio

Despite being at the political margins of Russia’s foreign policy, Sweden’s political élite is weighing the NATO option. Their choices in security will play an important role in the Baltic Sea area in terms of stability.

September 29, 2020 - Gregory Simons Mario Giagnorio - Interviews

Riksdaghuset, The Swedish Parliament in Stockholm. Photo: Biolchini (cc) flickr.com

MARIO GIAGNORIO: Sweden does not belong to any military alliance. What is the reason behind that choice which, as we know, is different from the ones that Denmark, Norway and Iceland made after the Second World War? Why did things not change after the end of the Cold War?

GREGORY SIMONS: If we look back historically, Sweden used to be the main Baltic Sea power, but its expansion was met by the expansion of Russia, which was rising under Peter the Great. The clashes began at the beginning of the 18th century and the not very wise decision to get involved in the Napoleonic War against Russia led to the further loss of lands, capacity and will, and the Swedish territory was heavily reduced. Given the disastrous consequences, it was decided to preserve what was left, and neutrality was preferred over engagement in other conflicts. Keeping neutral was the original intent, but it can also be stated that a more accurate definition for Sweden would be “non-aligned”: if you look at what happened in the past, like allowing the Nazi troops to go through Sweden to Nazi occupied Norway, this would not fall into the definition of “neutrality”. However, the idea of neutrality, this concept, is very popular and present in Sweden, a sort of sacred value and cherished, despite having a large military force. When the Cold War ended, there was no need seen for a large standing military, and the military budget was cut.

Today, the Swedish public opinion is against the idea of joining NATO or any other military alliance, based on these historical reasons. Yet, there is a split: Swedish mainstream politics, both left and right, are more favourable of a military partnership or alliance with NATO than the Swedish public, and the United States has been engaged in “military diplomacy” with both Sweden and Finland.

Why is the relation between the two states described as “asymmetrical”?

The asymmetry is due to the fact that, from the Swedish point of view, there is the theme that Russia is as an “existential threat”, because of the historical memory and the current geopolitical antagonism. On the other hand, Russia does not consider Sweden a threat at all and does not have a strong foreign policy focus on Sweden because it is very marginal, on the periphery. Finland means much more in the Russian foreign policy.

Sweden is also a member of the European Union. Has EU membership reduced the asymmetry for Sweden, or does it mean anything in terms of protection?  

It has not really changed anything. Sweden is still adherent to its “glorious” liberal values, such as liberalisation and multiculturalism, which existed before the European Union. Sweden is also somehow suspicious of the EU and it does not believe that the EU would protect from any possible foreign invasion. They have a very strange relationship and it has not balanced the asymmetry. While, if you look from the Russian perspective, it has changed as the EU is seen as hostile as NATO, especially after Ukraine and the sanctions.

If Sweden joined NATO, it could change its position significantly? In that case, would it change more for Sweden or for Russia?

Gregory Simons /
Uppsala University

Well, Russia made it clear that if Sweden joined NATO their relations would shift from a “cold friendship” to “enemy status”, since they would be part of a military alliance which has been considered hostile since its conception. This may change the status of Swedish cities, which may become new targets, while now they are now out of the radar. As an example from New Zealand, a Russian migrant to the country learnt about it when serving in the strategic rocket forces. They had a book with all “enemy” or potentially hostile countries (based on military alliances with the US for example), during his spare time he used to read this book and came to think of New Zealand as a place to move with his family.

What impact has the war in Donbas and annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation had on the Swedish perceptions of security threats posed by Russia?

What impact has the war in Donbas and annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation had on the Swedish perceptions of security threats posed by Russia?

There was little change. Basically, Russia has always been perceived as a threat, and nothing has changed. However, Crimea was seen as very “far away”, as “not immediately relevant” for Sweden’s security interests. What influenced them was the submarine exercises, which only took place in two non-NATO countries, specifically in the Helsinki harbour and the Stockholm archipelago, exactly at the same time, in 2014. The Swedish Ministry of Defence released a very small communique stating that it was not a Russian submarine, but it might have been an object belonging to the Swedish navy, we do not know. I did not believe it but many did, because there was an historical precedent in 1981, when a Soviet submarine stranded itself right outside of a Swedish naval base, in a very stunning display of incompetence. This triggered memory and people believed it, but at that time NATO was lobbying both so that they joined NATO, and it was a nice “coincidence”.

Recently, there have been tensions in the Baltic Sea, due to the “Ocean Shield” exercise conducted by Russia in August. As a result, Sweden deployed military forces in Gotland. Would you say that these military exercises, both “western” and Russian, have been affecting relations between the two states and mutual trust?

They are undermining it. You have the Aurora 17 exercise, in which there was Sweden, a neutral or non-aligned country exercising with NATO, or the counter response, as Zapad-17 or he Ocean Shield. Both sides are doing it. It is like an old dog barking to mark its territory, but it undermines any remaining trust.

This increasing security threat, be it actual or perceived, may fuel the NATO debate in Sweden. Could you explain the reasons for supporting or maintaining the status quo, and what the implications of joining NATO would have in a relatively low-tension region?

There are both international and domestic politics involved. Mark Brzezinski, the former US Ambassador to Sweden, used a very bad analogy, saying that Sweden should see NATO as an insurance policy, which needs to be present before a disaster comes. The media tend to be pro-NATO. As said before, the counter argument raised by Anders Österberg, a Social Democrat member of the parliament, is that NATO membership would rather increase tension. There are also the ones who are pro-military, but they do not want to join NATO even if they might not like Russia, because of the Swedish arms industry which would be affected. Joining NATO would fall in a realistic security strategy, based on the assumptions that Sweden is strategic for Russia, which would aim to take it over.

The public generally does not know what is happening given the highly politically charged atmosphere. A lot of stuff is happening behind the scenes, with a consequent lack of transparency and accountability when it comes to this kind of lobbying. There is a rhetorical label of “words but not deeds”: Sweden likes punching above the weight and being seen active in the international stage, championing the liberal-globalist view. With the exception of the coronavirus, they tend to follow the mainstream rather than going against it. Now it is increasingly popular to criticise Russia and China, but lots of thing are going around superficially. However, there is a very slow evolution transforming the sacred value of neutrality, but the debate is not as strong as it was, for example, 15 years ago and it tends to be driven by emotions and values rather than by interests. Nowadays there are other issues, such as migration, that have the priority.

I would like to ask one last question about the current situation in the Baltics and in Central Europe, considering the protests in Belarus and the NATO troops being moved to Poland. What is the public reaction to these events in Sweden public opinion and political discourse? Does it just confirm the image of Russia as a threat?

Sweden’s virtue is signalling and attempting to be seen internationally within the context of its self-constructed frame as a “humanitarian superpower” by emphasising the primary mainstream liberal view on Belarus. It is a rather naïve global liberal view of the events taking place in Belarus, and the growing military and politics tensions in Central and Eastern Europe. Even though events in Belarus speak clearly of a form of colour revolution taking place, Swedish mainstream discourse reads like those early narratives of the Arab Spring before the obvious and expected collapse of the narrative in face of reality. Various realities are ignored or erased, such as the foreign (i.e. non-Russian) involvement with the Russian mercenary coup narrative. There is a lack of will or ability to think critically and understand the likely medium to long term consequences of such geopolitical meddling in another country. Sweden just wants to be seen as an important and valued member of the international community, and to project this image, even if in reality the role played is very marginal.

Greg Simons is a researcher at the Institute of Russian and Eurasia Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden, and a lecturer at the Department of Communication Sciences at Turiba University in Riga, Latvia. His research interests include: Russian mass media, public diplomacy and soft power, crisis management communications, media and armed conflict.

Mario Giagnorio is a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe and a PhD student in International Studies at the University of Trento, Italy.

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