OPINION: Why Sweden is drawing closer to Nato

An increasingly tense relationship with Russia may push the traditionally non-aligned Sweden further into the arms of Nato, argues Bryan Bayne.

OPINION: Why Sweden is drawing closer to Nato
Swedish soldiers patrolling the city of Visby, on Baltic Sea island Gotland. Photo: Karl Melander/TT

On January 7th, the Swedish Foreign Minister scrambled to Washington to meet senior State Department officials. Her task was to relay Sweden’s position and concerns regarding the high stakes Nato-Russia meetings the following week.

Shortly thereafter, the Prime Minister called Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg for the same reason. Sweden is a close partner to Nato, but not a member, which means it did not have clearance to attend the talks. However, Nato officials have repeatedly stated that Sweden could become a member overnight if it so desired.

This begs the question: to what extent is Sweden willing to deepen its transatlantic ties and might it one day join the alliance?

This question became much more prominent after Russia issued its demands for not invading Ukraine. Among the less-discussed points was that Nato should not admit any new members – including Sweden and Finland. This backfired in both nations, with politicians and leading officials rushing to affirm that it is their country’s sovereign decision whether to join Nato and that Russia should have no say in the matter.

The previous US ambassador to Stockholm once quipped that Stockholm is “a closer partner to Nato than many members of the alliance.” Although Sweden has been formally a non-aligned country since the Napoleonic Wars, it cooperates extensively with America and Nato. It has hosted large-scale Nato military exercises, for example.

The country has always generally supported the US-led world order and its security policy rests on the assumption that, should it be invaded, Nato would rescue it. Sweden is a member of the EU and Nordefco, a military alliance of Nordic countries which includes three members of Nato; thus, the assumption that any attack would trigger a cascading effect which would eventually bring the transatlantic alliance on board. For this reason, its security policy could be described as “neutral and alliance-free, but on Nato’s side”.

Nevertheless, there are signs that Stockholm may reconsider its position and join Nato. In 2020, the Swedish parliament approved a new security policy that created the “Nato option,” i.e. an authorisation from parliament for the government to apply to join the alliance should the government deem it necessary in future, and a 40 percent increase to the defence budget. It also removed nearly all mentions of “alliance-free” from official policy statements; the current position is “not join any alliance without Finland.” In 2022, parliament, now controlled by the opposition, will most likely raise defence spending even more.

More importantly, political opinion is changing. Most opposition parties, including the right-wing populists, either support the Nato option, or support joining the alliance outright — and they could win the next election.

Equally important, polling indicates that voter support for joining Nato has more than doubled since the 90s and sits at around 30 percent. Defence policy is becoming increasingly difficult for voters to ignore, as the government reintroduced conscription in 2017 and in 2018 sent a copy of the Om krisen eller kriget kommer (“If crisis or war comes”) brochure to all households.

This brochure plays an important symbolic role in Swedish society; it was distributed yearly during World War Two and the Cold War to all households, with instructions on how to spot disinformation and how to resist enemy occupation. Reissuing it led many Swedes to realise war could actually happen. Finally, Sweden is visibly fortifying the Baltic Sea. In January 2022, it deployed troops and armored vehicles to Gotland – a strategic island near the Russian Kaliningrad exclave.

This is all driven by fear of a more assertive Russia. Moscow routinely violates Swedish airspace and in January 2022 unidentified drones have been spotted flying over a nuclear power plant. While authorities still do not know the origin of these drones, they have contributed to raising tensions in an already-tense moment. Security had long been a low-priority issue in voters’ minds, but in 2022 regularly appears on the front pages of major newspapers.

Sweden is, thus, clearly preparing for conflict and willing to deepen its partnership with Nato. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that it would do so in the near term, unless attacked first.

The government said that joining the alliance now would raise tensions at a moment the world desperately needs more stability – but has refused to rule out joining in the future.

The opposition parties, which hold a majority of seats in parliament, support Nato membership, but cannot agree on how to do it: one party wants a referendum whereas the other four do not. The other scenario in which Stockholm could join the alliance is if Helsinki does so first. Like Sweden, Finland is unlikely to stoke tensions by joining now, but seems increasingly interested in joining at some point.

In any case, if current trends continue, it seems likely that Sweden will seek closer cooperation with Nato. Even more notably, joining the alliance, once thought impossible, is finally on the books. A Russian invasion of Ukraine will only confirm Swedish suspicions that Russian aggressiveness is here to stay, and thus propel Sweden to seek admission into the alliance when the timing is right.

Bryan Bayne is a European Studies MA candidate at the universities of Uppsala, Sweden, and Olomouc, Czech Republic. He also writes for the Euroculturer.

Member comments

  1. It is Imperative Sweden remains Neutral . It has kept it safe for 400 plus years , and falling into the American trap of the Drumbeat of War over a family dispute is not in her best interests . The Ukraine was part and parcel of Russia for centuries , and was known as the Breadbasket of Russia . During Operation Barbarossa The Germans did not head for Moscow when they invaded Russia their Panzers diverted their attack to the Ukraine to get the Oil and Gas fields and the rich farm lands . Millions of Russians fought tooth and nail to get them out of the Ukraine , so they do not play around with outsiders interfering what every Russian feels is Russian . It would take Putin no more than 48 hours to take back the Baltic States , and ten days to enter Stockholm if he so desired , and America will be nowhere to be seen . Germany and France are not stupid which is why in the case of Germany they are not allowing any arms bound for the Ukraine pass through Germany . Macron is the go between between Europe and Russia , so it’s only the soon to be sacked Boris Johnson of the UK and the hugely unpopular Biden who can not even stop his own country becoming an Autocracy that keep making noises , when the Ukrainians have asked them to stop provoking Russia . The last time Sweden fought Russia under King Charles XV11 , Peter the Great sent him packing and ended the Swedish Empire . The Afghan disaster should teach everyone concerned that America is no longer a winner if a Ragtag Army of Tribesmen fighting with fifty year old Weapons could kick them out of their country abandoning their allies and losing 89 Billion Dollars worth of arms , throwing away twenty one years of Warfare . Putin watched this , as he watched the storming of the Capitol . NATO is no longer relevant , it is just a name , Russia has been building its army up for the last twenty years into a modern hardened fighting force , it is not to be played with especially with a cut throat killer like Putin who only yesterday gave Boris Johnson a serious dressing down over the phone , as he has no respect for a former Empire without a serious Army . I repeat ten days , and Cossacks will be marching through Stockholm , so keep well out of this diversion from domestic problems by America led by an old man who does not listen to his Generals nor Ukraine .

  2. There certainly would be a response from NATO, if, ‘Cossacks will be marching through Stockholm’.
    Nevertheless, it is a truism that a cornered bear is an angry bear, and to prod the Russian bear, with additional nations joining the alliance at this dangerous time; although it is clearly
    within Sweden’s sovereign right to do so, might be an unwise move.

  3. The current situation is forcing many European countries to reevaluate their defense posture, they are feeling less safe.

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Sweden’s PM Magdalena Andersson in US to visit President Biden

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson is in Washington today alongside Finland’s president Sauli Niinistö. The two will visit US President Joe Biden to discuss the war in Ukraine and Turkey’s opposition to their Nato applications, which were handed in yesterday.

Sweden's PM Magdalena Andersson in US to visit President Biden

“The meeting is an important security policy signal,” Andersson wrote on her Instagram account from Washington DC.

The two Nordic leaders boarded their flight to Washington shortly after their Nato ambassadors applied to join the alliance on Wednesday morning.

At the meeting in the White House today, the delicate security situation in both Finland and Sweden will be discussed.

The US has given security assurances to the two countries during the gap between their applications to join Nato and the accession as members, as have Britain, France, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Iceland. 

“Biden Finland and Sweden are longtime, stalwart partners of the United States. By joining Nato, they will further strengthen our defence cooperation and benefit the entire Transatlantic Alliance,” Biden said in his statement. 

The US would maintain its “robust exercise activity and presence” in the Baltic Sea region, he added.

“While their applications for Nato membership are being considered, the United States will work with Finland and Sweden to remain vigilant against any threats to our shared security, and to deter and confront aggression or the threat of aggression.” 

Another issue on the agenda will be how to respond to Turkey’s moves to block the process until Sweden and Finland meet demands to, among other things, extradite people in Sweden the country claims are linked to terror organisations and end  its embargo on weapons sales to Sweden. 

The US, as the most powerful country in the alliance, could be able to put pressure on Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to back down, or offer other concessions, perhaps over its wish to buy US F-16 fighter jets.  

Andersson spoke to Biden on the phone on Friday and met him in Brussels at the end of March, but this is her first visit to Washington as prime minister. 

Final approval for Sweden and Finland’s bid could take up to a year, and Russia is expected to react to the two countries joining Nato in some way.

Sweden and Finland’s decision to join the Nato alliance was applauded by Ukrainians taking part in a demonstration outside the White House.