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Finding Sweden’s role in a new NATO

Swedish Minister of Defence Pål Jonson said earlier this year that “war can come to us too.” Meanwhile, Minister of Civil Defence Carl Bohlin has appealed to the public to “mentally prepare for the outbreak of war”. Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces Micael Bydén has even warned that war in Ukraine is not the Kremlin’s ultimate goal but only a step to tear down the existing rules-based international order. In March 2024, Sweden officially became the 32nd member of NATO. However, the road for this Nordic country, which has not been at war since 1814, to join the strongest defence alliance in the history of the world has not been easy.

April 30, 2024 - Karolina Zub-Lewińska - Articles and Commentary

A Swedish Air Force Saab JAS-39 Gripen at Leoš Janáček Airport in Ostrava during NATO's air show in 2021. Photo: Kamil Petran / Shutterstock

The long road to NATO

Sweden has remained a non-aligned state for the past two hundred years and has consistently avoided joining any military alliances by taking a neutral stance during wars. After the end of the Second World War, the country gained a reputation as a “human rights promoter”. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, successive governments reduced military spending. In the 1990s, the question of possible NATO membership was not the subject of wide public debate. This was due to the widely held view that, in the face of changes in the European security architecture and a decline in the threat from Russia, the Alliance’s mission seemed to be exhausted. Furthermore, in Sweden, it was believed that an expansion of the Alliance could be considered provocative by Russia and prompt the world’s largest country to retaliate. The readiness of NATO to provide security guarantees to its new members was also questioned. Public support for Sweden’s accession to the North Atlantic Alliance was only 15 per cent in 1994. The country’s prime minister at the time, Ingvar Carlsson, said that NATO membership would weaken rather than strengthen Sweden. That same year, however, the Nordic country joined the Partnership for Peace, which provided an excellent foundation for later accession to the Alliance.

The Swedes have participated intensively in NATO’s peacekeeping and collective security activities aimed at non-member states. The Nordic country has gradually intensified its contacts with the world’s most powerful defence alliance through the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. Swedish soldiers also participated in operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1995), in Kosovo as part of KFOR (1999), and in Afghanistan as part of ISAF (2003). In 1999, the Swedish Armed Forces International Centre was designated as a Partnership for Peace Training Centre. It should be noted that participation in Partnership for Peace greatly facilitated Sweden’s reform of its military and has been crucial in interactions with other nations. The new orientation of the armed forces is focused almost exclusively on training and participation in international peacekeeping operations conducted by NATO, the UN or the EU.

Since 2013, Sweden has participated as a partner of the NATO Response Force, helping to create a multinational and high-tech rapid reaction force. This force could be used in the event of Article 5 being activated, as well as in various other types of allied operations (crisis response missions, force demonstration or critical infrastructure protection). Sweden also participated in two further partnership formats identified in 2014 at the NATO summit in Wales, i.e. the Partnership Interoperability Initiative and the Enhanced Opportunities Programme.

In 2014, the Russian Federation, in violation of all principles of international law, annexed the Crimean peninsula and started a war in the Donbas. These events and the clearly increasing activities of the Russian Federation in its immediate neighbourhood (the Baltic Sea region, Barents Sea and Arctic) became clear through numerous provocations by the Russian Air Force. This forced Sweden to revise its previous security policy and redefine its relations with the North Atlantic Alliance. In the symbolic year of 2014, the so-called “Host Support Memorandum of Understanding” was officially signed to conduct military exercises on Swedish territory.

In March 2015, an event took place that shocked Swedish public opinion. Around 33,000 Russian troops were practicing landing on and seizing strategically important islands located in the Baltic Sea such as Gotland and Bornholm. This entailed the largest military mobilization since the Cold War. The Swedish authorities announced increased defence spending and closer cooperation with neighbouring Finland and NATO structures. Debates about the country’s NATO membership began to grow through the Swedish political scene. Despite growing public support, which after the famous Russian exercises reached 41 per cent in favour of joining the Alliance, no clear decisions were made. As late as 2016, the country’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven argued that his country would remain militarily uninvolved and that further advancement towards the North Atlantic Alliance would not continue.

As a result, in February 2022, Swedish society was subjected to “shock therapy”.

Ukrainian “game-changer”

Sweden’s more than 200-year commitment to neutrality came to an end when the Russian Federation, showing the most monstrous face of imperialism, launched a full-scale attack on independent Ukraine. A few days after the invasion, the company Novum promoted a poll showing that, as of 2016, 41 per cent of Swedes were in favour of the country joining NATO (as many as 35 per cent of the public were against it). The first opinion poll in which a majority of the citizens of this Nordic country, 51 per cent, were in favour of membership dates back to early March 2022. Since then, public support has steadily increased, aided, for example, by the disclosure of war crimes committed by Russian soldiers against civilians in Bucha, Irpin and Izium in April 2022. A record level of support was registered in May 2023 and stood at 67 per cent (it remains more or less stable to this day).

In May 2022, the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland, despite threats from the Kremlin, including those hinting at the use of nuclear weapons, signed applications to join the North Atlantic Alliance. At the NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022, membership invitations were issued to both countries. This took place after they signed a trilateral memorandum with Turkey committing to meet Ankara’s demands in the field of counter-terrorism, as well as lifting the embargo on arms exports. While Finland became the 31st member of the Alliance in April 2023, the question of Sweden’s accession was delayed. It was influenced by Turkey’s objection, which, prior to the ratification of the accession treaty, demanded that the Swedish government become more involved in combatting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and other pro-Kurdish organisations that benefit from a high degree of freedom in Sweden. Despite the Swedish side’s compliance with Turkey’s demands, Ankara delayed ratification while escalating its demands (e.g. by demanding concessions from the United States on the sale of F-16 fighter jets).

Hungary also stood in the way of Swedish accession. For Budapest, delaying the ratification of the accession treaty served as a tool for exerting pressure on the authorities in Stockholm, who accused Hungary of violating the rule of law standards of a democratic state. In Hungary’s case, it is also worth noting that the highest state authorities openly and frequently demonstrate a pro-Kremlin stance.

Finally, on March 7th 2024, Sweden officially became the 32nd member of the North Atlantic Alliance. This is undoubtedly one of the most important security developments in the Nordic-Baltic region in recent years. Sweden brings to NATO a range of quality resources that could prove crucial in the event of a possible war with Russia.

The technological base of the north-eastern flank and an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”

Sweden contributes a relatively small but organised and well-equipped military to NATO. The military personnel of this country with a population of only ten million consists of approximately 14,700 regular soldiers, 5500 thousand conscripts (this number is to be steadily increased), 11,500 reserve soldiers (a large proportion of whom are still on active service), 9600 civilian employees and just over 21,000 soldiers in the Home Guard. It is also worth noting that, in the event of an enemy’s armed aggression, just over 60 per cent of Swedes are prepared to defend their country. As part of the preparations for NATO membership, a decision was taken in Stockholm to gradually increase defence spending, which had been kept at one per cent of GDP for years. In the “war” year of 2022, this was already estimated to amount to approximately 1.3 per cent of GDP, which translates into eight billion US dollars. The Swedes’ ambitious plan assumes a defence budget of 2.1 per cent of GDP (approximately 11 billion US dollars) in the current year. A significant acceleration can be observed here, as according to the Swedish government’s earlier plans, the official achievement of the two per cent required by NATO was not due until 2026.

Sweden is the country with the largest air force in the Nordic-Baltic region. It includes more than 100 (also manufactured in Sweden) Saab JAS 39 Gripen multirole fighters, which are integrated with RBS15 anti-ship manoeuvring missiles with a warhead of 200 kilogrammes.

Sweden’s unquestionable asset is its expanded navy that is the largest in the Baltic. In terms of surface forces, it consists of seven corvettes (none of the units have air defence systems). Stockholm has five submarines, which it produces itself. These are the most advanced conventional submarines ever built. It is very important to note that these vessels are designed to operate in shallow Baltic waters (unlike the vessels that the US has in its fleet). These units are supplemented by nine anti-mine vessels, 13 patrol vessels, a reconnaissance vessel, as well as logistic support and rescue units. The long coastline is protected by more than 100 assault and landing craft.

Sweden’s entry into the largest defence alliance in the history of the world effectively makes the Baltic Sea a “NATO lake”. This translates directly into a significant increase in defence capabilities in the event of war with Russia. One might venture to say that the Russian Baltic Fleet is losing operational capabilities in local waters. The North Atlantic Alliance, together with Sweden, also incorporates numerous islands and islets scattered around the Baltic Sea. The most important of these, however, is Gotland, which, due to its unique geopolitical position, allows for the control of shipping routes into the Gulf of Finland, the Gulf of Bothnia and the central Baltic. It is not without reason, therefore, that it was commonly said that “he who controls Gotland controls the whole Baltic.” As a result, it is not surprising that the Kremlin has used threats to seize Gotland all too often. Now the island has been incorporated into the North Atlantic Alliance system. Often referred to as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, it is one of the most crucial elements in the defence of the Baltic region, Poland and the Baltic states, which could become the target of the next attack by the Russian Federation.

Analysing geopolitical issues, it cannot be overlooked that Sweden’s presence in the Alliance provides a 1,600-kilometre stretch of airspace, extending from the Arctic to the southern Baltic. This Nordic state can also be considered as a link, connecting the eastern members of the Alliance to the Atlantic Ocean via the Danish Straits. Until Sweden’s accession to NATO, this maritime corridor was partly outside the control of allied forces due to the neutrality of Swedish waters. It is now in full control.

What about the Far North?

Considering the positives of Sweden’s accession to NATO, one should not forget the benefits for the Arctic, one of the most important regions in the global security system. As a result of rapidly advancing climate change, new strategic and economic opportunities are opening up in the Far North (access to natural resource deposits and new trade routes), making it an arena for competition between the two blocs of NATO and Russia (supported by China). Following Sweden’s accession, seven of the eight Arctic Council members are now NATO members. This puts the allies in a much better position when responding to any potential aggressive actions carried out by the Kremlin in the region (e.g. actions below the threshold of war). This is also true regarding securing economic interests and working out environmental policy solutions.

A huge advantage of Sweden’s presence in the largest defence alliance in history is that it facilitates allied forces’ access to the Kola Peninsula, where Russia’s nuclear arsenal is deployed. Any threat to the peninsula poses an existential threat to Russia. There is no doubt that in the event of an outbreak of a conventional war between NATO and Russia, cutting off Kola from the motherland will be one of the priority actions of the allied forces. This will help them gain a strategic advantage in the region.

Awareness of the importance of the Arctic region is demonstrated by one of the largest Nordic Response military exercises since the end of the Cold War, which took place in March this year on Norwegian territory just next to the Russian border. Approximately 20,000 soldiers from 14 countries of the Alliance (including Sweden, which became part of NATO at the time of the exercise) took part. Their aim was to prepare for military operations in the Far North by land, sea and air.

Sweden’s road to NATO has been long and bumpy but it can be said that the country’s presence in the Alliance changes the balance of power in the Nordic-Baltic region in favour of the allies. Sweden’s membership in the Alliance greatly increases NATO’s defence capabilities on the north-eastern flank and tightens its control of the Baltic. The country also brings knowledge, vast technological potential and, importantly, the mental readiness of Swedish society to fight the enemy.

Karolina Zub-Lewińska is a specialized translator of Russian (listed in the register of translators of the Polish Chief Technical Organization), Eastern expert looking at the post-Soviet area through the prism of security and business opportunities, and a researcher in the field of security. She is a member of the Polish Society of Sworn and Specialized Translators TEPIS, the Polish Society for Security Studies and Polish Society for International Studies (section on Russia and the post-Soviet area, section on international security, section on studies of polar regions).

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