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No More Neutrality: Swedish Accession to NATO

In a seismic departure from its long-standing policy of military neutrality, Sweden has officially joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The decision, made against the backdrop of heightened Russian aggression and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, marks a significant turning point in Sweden’s foreign policy. As Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson poignantly said, “Sweden is now leaving 200 years of neutrality and nonalignment behind us.” Reversing two centuries of consistent foreign policy, this decision will prove significant in the face of both non-aligned and Western geopolitics. 

Motivations Behind Sweden’s NATO Membership Bid

The Russian invasion of Ukraine served as a wake-up call for many Nordic countries, including Sweden. The brazen violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and the subsequent destabilization of Eastern Europe prompted Sweden to reassess its security posture. With Russia’s assertive behavior in the Baltic Sea region and concerns about potential aggression, Sweden saw NATO membership as a necessary step to bolster its defense capabilities and ensure collective security. Policymakers were prompted to contemplate recalibrating their country’s defense strategy initially following the annexation of Crimea and more seriously during the ongoing war in Ukraine. In response to Russian aggression, the expansion of NATO’s influence closer to Russia’s borders would challenge Moscow’s regional hegemony and underscore a growing unity among many Western democracies. 

Amidst these geopolitical shifts, Sweden recognized the need for a robust and collective response to safeguard its national security interests. Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats initially spearheaded this change and applied for membership in May of 2022. Within months approximately two-thirds of Swedish citizens thought Sweden should join the alliance following Russia’s invasion. The prospect of potential Russian aggression at their border, coupled with the broader destabilization of the region, led Swedish leaders to consider NATO membership as a viable option to enhance their country’s defense capabilities and ensure collective security. By aligning with NATO, Sweden sought to leverage the alliance’s collective defense framework and military resources to bolster its own defense posture. 

Yet, Sweden continues to affirm their newfound hawkishness through other initiatives. Since Russia’s large-scale invasion began in February 2022, Sweden’s support to Ukraine has totalled around SEK 30 billion, or around USD 3 million. Sweden has provided military support, advanced weapons systems and humanitarian and economic assistance. In Sweden’s 2024 Statement of Foreign policy, Minister for Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström, noted that “Sweden is pushing for tougher sanctions against Russia,” amongst other public statements against Russian actions and accumulation of power. In regards to other human rights violations, Sweden has announced support for political prisoners in Belarus and calls for an immediate ceasefire in light of the catastrophic situation in Gaza. 

Russia’s Response and Strategic Implications 

Moscow has long viewed NATO’s expansion eastward with suspicion and has vehemently opposed the alliance’s presence along its borders. In 2016, Vladimir Putin warned, “When we look across the border now, we see a Finn on the other side. If Finland joins NATO, we will see an enemy.” Sweden, with a strategically important location in the Baltic Sea, aligning itself with the Western military alliance is likely to be met with similar considerable concern in the Kremlin. For Russia, Sweden’s accession to NATO represents a significant strategic setback. From a broader perspective, Sweden’s alignment with NATO would also signal a shifting balance of power in the Nordic-Baltic region. Alongside the Baltic states and Norway, Sweden’s inclusion would create a contiguous front of NATO members stretching from the Arctic to the Baltic Sea, significantly altering the security dynamics in Northern Europe. 

It is such political intricacies which have motivated Russia to openly resist Nordic countries like Sweden and Finland from joining NATO. In a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian officials boldly remarked that in response to Sweden joining NATO, the state would be forced to take “retaliatory steps” of both a “military-technical” and other nature in order to stop the threats to Russian national security. Although the state has not yet made official steps in combating this new accumulation of power, they threatened to deploy strike weapons systems at Western states. To address NATO expansion, Russia has proposed reforms which will include the creation of an army corps near the border with Finland. These reforms also entailed a re-establishment of the Moscow and Leningrad military districts through the dissolution of the current Western military district. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu even advocated to increase the armed forces to 1.5 million servicemen by 2026 from 380,000 Russians in 2021. Although Russia has openly opposed NATO’s expanding influence, aggressive military action remains unlikely. 

Sweden’s Contribution to NATO

Sweden’s accession to NATO expands the alliance’s geographic footprint and reinforces its credibility as a cornerstone of Euro-Atlantic security. Leaders like the United States’ President Biden have praised the state, remarking that “with the addition of Sweden today, NATO stands more united, determined, and dynamic than ever — now 32 nations strong.” With Sweden’s advanced military capabilities and strategic location in the Baltic Sea region, NATO gains a valuable ally in its efforts to deter potential adversaries and promote stability in Northern Europe. Providing a strong defense industry, high technological competence, and a uniquely large air force, Sweden significantly increases the resources of NATO. Sweden possesses one of the largest defense industries in Europe, amounting to around $3 billion in 2022. In respect to the technological achievements of this Nordic state, Sweden has been continually investing in cyber-industries, initiating a partnership between the Swedish Defense Forces, public universities, and private companies. Retaining at least 100 fighter jets, Sweden commands one of the largest air forces in Europe. This force is projected to dramatically bolster the Alliance’s number of fighter jets in the Baltic and Arctic regions.

However, this decision revealed fractures within the seemingly united military organization. Shortly after their application to NATO, Sweden’s accession was blocked by Turkey. Turkey claimed this veto was due to anti-Turkish activities enacted by Nordic states Finland and Sweden as they harbored members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). While Sweden and Finland agreed that Turkey would withdraw the vetoes in exchange for their lifting a partial arms embargo, Turkey only removed Finland’s veto. Turkey contended that Sweden did not fulfill their bargain, and thus continued to withhold the state’s membership. Despite Erdogan’s assertions, many speculate that other motives were at play. Turkey has maintained a relationship with Russia, consuming both Russian artillery and oil, causing the U.S. to back out of a deal regarding fighter jets. 

More overt in their Russian support is NATO member Hungary. Publicly, Hungary has cited scheduling hiccups and distaste for Sweden’s criticism of democratic backsliding by Mr. Orban’s increasingly authoritarian government. Informally, Hungary has developed a reputation for sucking up to President Putin. This reputation has been solidified by Hungary’s consistent blocking of EU critical statements towards Russia and its pursuit of Russian bilateral energy deals, including the controversial expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant. Despite facing criticism and scrutiny from its EU counterparts, Hungary remains steadfast in its alignment with Putin’s Russia, raising concerns about the cohesion and solidarity within NATO and the broader European Union.

Regardless of these dissentions, the ultimate approval of Sweden to NATO and its implications for the alliance may suggest an increasing shift toward unity. 

Instability on the Horizon? 

With the upcoming U.S. presidential election, the future of NATO may be under attack. “NATO would be in real jeopardy,” John Bolton, former U.S. President Trump’s national security adviser, stated. “I think he would try to get out.” If Trump were to win the 2024 election and subsequently lead the United States out of NATO, it would mark a seismic shift in global geopolitics with far-reaching consequences. NATO has been a cornerstone of transatlantic security. A U.S. withdrawal under a Trump administration would likely sow discord among allies, weaken the alliance’s deterrence capabilities, and embolden adversaries. Without their leadership, NATO’s ability to counter emerging security threats could be severely compromised. Furthermore, a U.S. exit from NATO would signal a significant retreat from America’s traditional role as a guarantor of European security. 

Such absence may also leave Sweden feeling once again exposed and vulnerable to potential aggression from Russia. In said scenario, Sweden may find itself increasingly reliant on its own defense capabilities and bilateral security arrangements with other NATO members, as well as intensifying efforts to strengthen its defense partnerships within the European Union. Additionally, Sweden may face heightened uncertainty and instability in the Baltic Sea region, potentially forcing it to reassess its defense strategy and diplomatic priorities.

Sweden’s recent decision to join NATO represents a significant shift in its foreign policy, driven by concerns over Russian aggression and the need for collective security. This move not only expands NATO’s geographic footprint and strengthens its deterrence capabilities but also signifies a growing unity among Western democracies in the face of common threats. However, challenges remain, particularly regarding potential instability within NATO and the broader geopolitical landscape. With the upcoming U.S. presidential election and the possibility of a Trump administration leading the country out of NATO, the alliance’s future hangs in the balance. Amidst these uncertainties, the implications of Sweden’s NATO membership underscore the complex interplay between security, diplomacy, and regional stability in Northern Europe.

Featured Image Source: The Atlantic

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