The ghosts of Poltava
In May 2022, as a result of Russia’s renewed war of aggression against Ukraine, Sweden broke its long-standing official position of military non-alignment and applied to join NATO. The success of this application will depend very much on the goodwill of Turkey. While this whole situation will seem very odd to the casual outside observer, there is an interesting historical backstory that connects Sweden, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.
The conventional narrative is that Sweden lost its great power status and its eastern half (i.e., Finland) following a disastrous campaign against Russia in 1809. This was prompted by the Franco-Russian Treaty at Tilsit a few years earlier. Following the Napoleonic Wars, aside from an invasion to crush Norwegian independence in 1814, Sweden has not been at war for over two centuries. The terms “at peace”, “neutral” and “non-aligned” are often used colloquially to describe Sweden’s status during this period.
In fact, the 1709 Battle of Poltava in Ukraine between the army of Swedish King Charles XII and his Cossack allies on the one side, and the forces of Russia’s Peter the Great (which also included Cossacks) on the other, marks the turning point for Sweden’s role as the hegemonic power in Northern Europe. While this decisive battle of the Great Northern War is commemorated in Russia as a great victory, in the Swedish historical consciousness it was long remembered as a catastrophic defeat that left an imprint on the histories of many Swedish families.
A painting in the national Romantic style by Gustaf Cederström from around 1880 depicts the despondent Swedish king being advised by Hetman Ivan Mazepa to cross the Dnieper and try to regroup his shattered forces in the lands controlled by the Ottomans. Indeed, Charles and his remaining cadre ended up spending the next two years in the Moldavian town of Bender as guests of the sultan. When Sweden eventually took up the fight with Russia again, all initiative was lost for good. The country lost not only the territory around St. Petersburg but also its Estonian and Latvian provinces on the eastern Baltic littoral. This provided Peter with his much desired “window to Europe”.
Cederström’s emotionally-charged painting would suggest that, even in the late 19th century, Sweden’s martial and imperialist past was not regretted, let alone forgotten. In the Baltic, figures such as Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas have described this period as the “good old Swedish times”, albeit this being relative to the Russian rule that came after. The Swedes’ rejection of their time as an expansive great power would only appear in the 20th century. Indeed, from 1814 to 1914, Sweden gave military guarantees of support to Denmark against Germany over Schleswig-Holstein, hoped to regain lost Finnish territories as a result of the Crimean War, and almost went to war with Norway again in 1905.
Sweden’s policy of neutrality was also highly selective. This is probably due to the experiences of countries like Belgium in the First World War. Sweden subsequently became interested in collective security arrangements during the interwar period. It also proposed a “Nordic Defence Union” involving Denmark, Norway and Finland in the aftermath of the Second World War. However, Finlandisation and the founding of NATO ultimately made this a non-starter for Sweden’s neighbours.
Similarly, Sweden’s adherence to non-alignment – a mainstay of the self-image promoted by successive Social Democratic governments during and after the Cold War – was not always what it seemed. Sweden’s military planners always believed that the main threat to the country would come from Moscow, even though politicians would publicly demonise Washington. Prime Minister Olof Palme could arouse the ire of the Americans with his sharp criticisms of their actions in Vietnam, knowing full well that his country’s security ultimately depended on NATO and its nuclear umbrella in any conflict with the USSR. Stockholm acted accordingly behind the scenes. The post-Cold War generations of Swedish politicians, however, have often failed to appreciate this double game of “non-alignment”. Overall, they have taken it much more at face value than their predecessors. This has led to the untenable and highly selfish position of believing that Sweden is perfectly right to not promise to aid others in times of war, while fully expecting others to come to its defence if attacked. Events in Ukraine since February 24th have been a wake-up call that this is not how things work in the real world. Non-alignment is no longer widely considered to be advantageous, calling into question the Swedish saying that “solitary is strong” (ensam är stark).
In actual fact, Sweden has been increasingly integrating with NATO for decades, starting with the Partnership for Peace in 1994. Stockholm has not only deepened cooperation through membership in various NATO structures but has also sent troops to NATO-led operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan. In recent years, Social Democratic governments have pursued further integration with NATO through joint exercises and “Host Nation” agreements. As Sweden was already essentially a fully interoperable NATO member in all but name, its application to join was seen as unproblematic.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Turkey soon threatened to block the process. Diplomatic and military relations between the two countries stem from the aforementioned aftermath of Poltava and have resulted in benefits for both sides. Legend has it that Charles XII introduced now typically Swedish culinary elements such as meatballs, coffee and kåldolmar (cabbage rolls) to his home country following his sojourn in Bender. More recent evidence of the mutual benefits of Swedish–Turkish relations can be found in the city of Kulu in central Anatolia, where Olof Palme Park bears witness to the Turkish workers recruited by Swedish industry during the 1970s.
Sweden also became the new home for a significant number of Kurds, many of them refugees from conflicts and persecution in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Ankara’s view that the Kurds pose an existential threat to Turkey has also led to tensions between immigrant communities in Sweden. This dispute has even been felt in Swedish domestic politics. Over the past year, the fate of the Social Democratic minority government has often depended in parliament on the deciding vote of a single independent MP, Amineh Kakabaveh. A former peshmerga who came to Sweden as a refugee, Kakabaveh has demanded that the government increases its support for Kurdish groups in Syria in return for her support. The criticism that Kakabaveh and other prominent Swedish Kurds have directed at Turkey and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is viewed by Ankara as proof that Sweden tacitly supports the PKK. This armed group, as well as its allies and branches in neighbouring countries, are all viewed by Turkey as terrorist organisations.
The “Kurdish question” is subsequently raised by Turkey as a stumbling block to Swedish NATO membership. Naturally, it is a key point of contention in relations between the two countries. Ankara, however, has said that the situation may change after regular parliamentary elections in Sweden this September. This is because the vote could end the parliamentary deadlock that currently gives independent MPs bargaining power. At the same time, Kakabaveh’s decision to not run again removes a symbolic obstacle in the eyes of Turkey.
Turkey may also be hoping to gain its own influence over the Swedish political process. The radical nationalist Grey Wolves – classed as a terrorist organisation in several post-Soviet states – have been active in Sweden for years, cultivating ties with politicians and even being involved in violence. A noteworthy member of the liberal Centre Party was expelled in 2018 for having concealed his relationship with the Grey Wolves. In response, he went on to form a new party, Nyans (Nuance), which claims to offer a political voice to the Muslim, immigrant population of the deprived neighbourhoods surrounding major Swedish cities. Should this party gain seats in the Riksdag this autumn, it could serve as a lobby for Turkey’s interests. For example, it could push for the sale of advanced arms systems produced by Sweden to Turkey. These arms flows have been frozen ever since Ankara’s offensive in Rojava in 2018.
Just as in 1709, however, Russia’s attempts to change the geopolitical balance by deploying military power in Ukraine have served to bring the previously more disparate security interests of Sweden and Turkey into alignment. Sweden seeks greater protection for Gotland, an island so strategic that Russian military planners do not think a country like Sweden “deserves” it. Gaining as many allies as possible that can help deter Russia from seizing it is necessary now more than ever. Here, Turkey, whose weapon systems have been put to effective use by the Ukrainian defenders, can again play a key role in helping to provide Sweden with some respite while it rearms.
It would seem that Vladimir Putin is also tempted to draw parallels between the Great Northern War and the situation today. According to reports from the BBC, on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of Peter the Great’s birth, he told his audience that “You get the impression that by fighting Sweden he was grabbing something. He wasn’t taking anything, he was taking it back.” Putin believes that he shares a common historical mission with Peter to reclaim rightful Russian territories that were stolen by hostile powers. The Russian president then stated that “It is our responsibility also to take back and strengthen.” This attitude from the region’s self-appointed hegemon is a threat to Russia’s neighbours, requiring collective security arrangements to contain such threats of aggression. To achieve this, both Sweden and Turkey need reliable friends. Ukraine is also aware of this reality. As Charles XII’s counsel after Poltava, Mazepa, wrote in his poem “Duma”: “Alone I am bound to fail…”
Matthew Kott is a historian and researcher with Uppsala University.