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Solidarity brings hope: why Swedish support matters for us Ukrainians

Karina Shyrokykh, spokesperson for the Nordic Ukraine forum, describes the surreal seven days since Russia invaded Ukraine. The solidarity people in Sweden and elsewhere have shown is a sign, she believes, of brighter times ahead.

Karina Shyrokykh, spokesperson for the Nordic Ukraine forum, speaks at a demonstration in Stockholm on Tuesday.
Karina Shyrokykh, spokesperson for the Nordic Ukraine forum, speaks at a demonstration in Stockholm on Tuesday. Photo: Private

When I went to bed on February 23, I was happy to have managed to submit a scientific paper for peer review before midnight. As I drifted off, I worried I could have formulated a few of the sentences differently. Little did I know that six hours later, I would wake to learn that Russia had launched a full-scale war on Ukraine.

I could not believe what I was reading and seeing on the news. Everything seemed so surreal. My immediate thoughts were with my family back in Ukraine. I felt disoriented and terrified. And it was not only me, every Ukrainian that I have spoken to said they woke that morning with the same feelings.

Within two hours, the Nordic Ukraine Forum, an NGO created to develop Ukraine-Sweden relations, arranged a protest next to the Russian Embassy in Sweden. It was painful to witness: people were not hiding their emotions, many cried. They were unsure whether their families were safe and felt desperate at not being able to help their loved ones.

But also, everyone was terrified by the fact that Ukraine’s very existence was being fundamentally threatened. You could also tell that the journalists who came to report from the protest were emotional, with some barely holding back tears. It was a very gloomy morning.

In the seven days since Russia launched its attack, the Ukrainian community has been gathering for protests in Stockholm on a daily basis, they organized the collection of humanitarian aid for Ukraine.

For us, Ukrainians, being able to help Ukraine has a therapeutic and bonding function. By gathering together, organizing aid collection and helping Ukrainian refugees, many escape the feeling of depression.

But it is not only Ukrainians in Sweden who organized themselves to help Ukraine. On a regular basis, I meet Swedish citizens and foreigners living in Sweden who have come to the protests arranged by the Nordic Ukraine Forum.

Some of them also cry. You can see that the war affects everyone and how much compassion and solidarity there is with Ukraine among “regular” local people. Despite the dark times, this solidarity brings light and hope.

Many locals in Stockholm come and donate aid to Ukraine which is being collected in central Stockholm on a regular basis.
Others come to express their sympathies. There are also those who come to express their feelings and let their emotions out. I remember a local woman in her early-60s, a total stranger, coming up to me to say how sorry she feels for the innocent civilians who are being targeted by Russian planes, how much it affects her emotionally and how desperate she feels because she does not know how to stop it.

To comfort her, I gave her a hug and she burst in tears — a total stranger who I had never met before and will probably never see again felt the pain inflicted by the war in Ukraine. The war affects everyone.

What these horrible days that we are living through have demonstrated is that despite all the suffering and pain that the war has brought, people are united in solidarity with Ukraine.

Nordic Ukraine Forum regularly receives messages from local people in Stockholm, as well as from other Swedish cities saying that they are ready to host refugees from Ukraine in their homes if necessary. Many are also offering help in transporting refugees from the Polish border to Sweden.

This solidarity shows that Europe is united, European people think alike, regardless of their nationality or political preferences. We all share in this unbearable pain, and we all fundamentally reject Russia’s aggression towards peaceful, pro-democratic and independent Ukraine.

This compassion and solidarity mean a lot to Ukrainians, both here in Stockholm and at home in Ukraine. Knowing that Ukraine is being supported also helps the Ukrainian army keep on fighting. The solidarity with Ukraine also demonstrates that we all share the fundamental refusal to accept Russia’s war, Russia’s preposterous claims denying Ukraine the right to exist. But what Russia’s leadership does not understand is that it is doomed to fail as a result of the solidarity that the world has shown with Ukraine.

Everyone can help Ukraine. You can support the Ukrainian army and people in Ukraine by donating money, by bringing items from the list posted on our webpage, by hosting refugees, by participating in protests, but also by just giving words of support to everyone who feels emotionally affected by this war.

Together, we will get through this horrible war, see the aggressor fall, and re-merge as a stronger and a more united Europe.

Because the truth always prevails.

As well as spokesperson of the Nordic Ukraine Forum, Karina Shyrokykh is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Stockholm University. 

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OPINION: We should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality

As Sweden prepares to join Nato, we should mourn the gradual passing of a neutral voice in global affairs, says David Crouch

OPINION: We should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality

In the spring of 1999, Russia’s prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, was on a plane to Washington for talks, just as Nato announced airstrikes on Serbia. The bombing campaign, aimed at halting Serb attacks on Kosovo Albanians, targeted Russia’s Slav and Orthodox ally. On receiving the news, Primakov turned his plane around in mid-air and flew back to Moscow. 

This was the first major confrontation between East and West since the end of the Cold War. Russian public opinion swung overwhelmingly behind the Serbs. Moscow liberals warned the conflict would lead swiftly to “a strongly anti-Western, Cold War-oriented regime”. Vladimir Putin became prime minister that summer. And the rest is history. 

This was “blowback” for Nato – the unintended adverse consequences of a foreign policy intervention. This week, Putin is experiencing blowback himself following his invasion of Ukraine, with Sweden rushing headlong to join Nato, whose actions helped unite Russia so suddenly against the West a quarter of a century ago. 

Joining Nato brings down the curtain on a remarkable period in Swedish and European history. The last time the country declared war was in 1810 against the British. Not a single shot was fired, and peace was declared again two years later. Since then, Sweden has pursued a policy of neutrality in all armed conflicts. 

That era ended on Monday. The government confirmed what everyone knew already – that it would apply to join Nato.  

During the Cold War, neutrality gave Sweden the freedom to manoeuvre between the two blocs led by Moscow and Washington. Sweden joined widespread condemnation of the Soviet suppression of Czechoslovakia’s democratic uprising in 1968. 

But its emblematic leader Olof Palme also backed the global movement against the Vietnam war, hosting a tribunal in Stockholm that symbolically put the USA on trial for war crimes in Indo-China. Here was a nation that had found a middle way between capitalism and communism, it seemed, with a diplomatic as well as an economic dimension. 

Sweden became a leading voice against nuclear weapons. Successive leaders pushed for a nuclear-free zone in the Nordic and Baltic regions. Sweden’s self-image was of a “humanitarian superpower”, its independence on the world stage spilling over into anti-colonialism and feminism.

Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Sweden sought to make the most of the “peace dividend” offered by the end of the Cold War, closing military bases, ending conscription and slashing defence spending. By 2012 the head of the armed forces admitted Sweden could withstand a limited attack for only about a week

All this is now behind us. The middle way is to become the Nato way. Sweden may continue to object to nuclear weapons, but it has opted for the US nuclear umbrella to ensure its security. It may continue to champion liberal causes, but it will have to bite its tongue as its allies with conservative Nato states such as Hungary and Turkey, not to mention the possibility of a second Trump presidency in the US. 

Beyond the immediate concerns about Russian intentions in Ukraine, Sweden is contributing to the return of a polarised world. The optimism and hope heralded by the collapse of communism 30 years ago have turned out to be a chimera. New generations will grow up in fear of the enemy and in the shadow of nuclear annihilation. In these bleak circumstances, we should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality in global affairs. 

It is unfortunate that Sweden’s historic pivot is taking place with unseemly haste. While public opinion has clearly shifted in favour of Nato since the invasion of Ukraine, the majority in favour is still relatively slim and is based on fear rather than thoughtful and thorough debate. In a poll at the end of April, 55 percent of Swedish men but only 41 percent of women said yes to Nato. There are signs that opposition to Nato among the young may actually be growing.

But the decision to join Nato is a minor tremor rather than an earthquake. While Sweden may have been non-aligned, it has not been neutral for a long time. 

Sweden’s pro-Western orientation during the Cold War was an open secret on both sides. As early as 1954, Sweden signed a top secret agreement with the US regarding collaboration and intelligence sharing, including spying on Russia, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed. Sweden already makes “particularly significant contributions” to the alliance, Nato says. Accession to the European Union in 1995 came at the cost of the abolition of neutrality as a principle. 

In this sense, joining Nato means Sweden is now shedding its mask of neutrality, rather than adopting a radically new stance.

Sweden in Nato means the post-Cold War era is emphatically over. The world is entering a new and unsettling phase. “Peace, love, Woodstock, Kumbaya, let’s dramatically slash defence spending and enjoy the peace dividend — that’s all over,” said Estonia’s president after Russia annexed Crimea. 

The point of any nation’s defence policy should be to provide its population with a secure space for peace, love and Kumbaya. There is an almost giddy excitement in much of the Swedish media about Nato membership. As we progress towards our armour-plated future, let’s not forget what we have lost.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.