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Sweden’s Accession to NATO: A Strategic Assessment

Until Russia invaded Ukraine, the prospect of NATO incorporating either Sweden or Finland was nonexistent.

The European Conservative – On March 7, Sweden officially became the 32nd member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the transatlantic defensive alliance that, since 1949, has bound the United States, Canada, and most European nations in a collective security structure. Sweden’s accession will follow that of Finland, which formally joined NATO in April 2023.

Even before Sweden’s formal accession, Swedish military forces began taking part in an 11-day, joint-service military exercise alongside 12 NATO members. The operation, which is held biannually, is focused on the Arctic “High North,” where Norway, a NATO member since the alliance’s founding, shares a short but strategically significant 195-kilometer land border with Russia. Until now, the operation has been called “Cold Response,” but given the new memberships of Sweden and Finland, which are hosting the exercises along with Norway, it has been renamed “Nordic Response.” More than 20,000 servicemen are involved, with 4,500 hailing from Sweden. The exercises overlap with NATO’s Steadfast Defender 2024 (SD24) operation, a series of maneuvers scheduled between January and May 2024 that involves a total of 90,000 troops drawn from all NATO countries (including Sweden) and constitutes the largest NATO exercises since the Cold War.

Like neighboring Finland, which also joined NATO in the wake of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Sweden abandoned decades of neutrality to protect itself from aggression that could only conceivably come from one large country to its east.

NATO expansion in Scandinavia is one of the great ironies of contemporary geopolitics. A major rationale for Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and for its general hostility to the West over the past two decades, is its perception that the Atlantic alliance is led by treacherous enemies eager to contain, diminish, and ultimately subjugate Russia. A significant part of the Kremlin’s apprehension is rooted in NATO’s expansion eastward, first into the former East Germany, then into Central and Eastern Europe, and finally to the former Soviet Baltic republics and to Balkan countries that Russia has traditionally insisted are under its protection. Possible NATO membership for Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova has infuriated Russian strategic planners, who assert continuing hegemony over all post-Soviet space and have acted to prevent those three countries from integrating with Western political and economic structures. The prospect of NATO membership for Sweden and Finland has also galled Russia’s leaders, who periodically threatened unspecified “retaliation” if either country should join the Atlantic alliance.

Russia’s objections have long resounded on the geopolitical stage, sometimes to sympathetic understanding among Western analysts and policymakers, even though NATO is purely defensive, only takes effect when a member state is attacked (this has only happened once: following the September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States), and, for a time in the 1990s, embraced the possibility of altering and pacifying its mission to accommodate some form of Russian involvement.

Until Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, however, the prospect of NATO moving to incorporate either Sweden or Finland was nonexistent. Majorities of both countries’ populations had long opposed NATO membership, even though their governments maintained regular military contacts with the alliance, enjoyed private security guarantees from the Americans, and joined the European Union in 1995 (Finland also adopted the Euro upon the transnational currency’s introduction in 1999, though Sweden has not). Finland, which shares a 1,340-kilometer border with Russia and was under Russian rule with limited autonomy from 1809 to 1917, effectively subordinated its Cold War-era foreign policy to Soviet interests in order to stave off invasion in the last months of World War II. It remained quiescent into post-Cold War times, giving the English international relations lexicon the verb “to Finlandize,” meaning “to neutralize” or “to render harmless.”

Despite Sweden’s storied martial past, it preserved a prudent neutrality for over two centuries, successfully avoiding both world wars through cautious diplomacy. During the Cold War, fear of provoking Swedish accession to NATO was a leading factor in the USSR’s more pacific approach to Finland, and in its speedy withdrawal from the Danish island of Bornholm, which the Soviets briefly occupied in 1945-1946 and voluntarily evacuated on assurances that it would remain demilitarized (Bornholm has a voluntary militia but no regular Danish military or NATO presence). After the Cold War, Sweden almost totally disarmed, reducing its army and navy by 90% and its air force by 70%.

This all changed in 2022, not because of Western “expansion,” but because of Russia’s naked aggression. With weeks of the war breaking out, a majority of both Swedes and Finns for the first time favored NATO membership, as did a nearly unanimous consensus among their political leaders. Their governments acted swiftly and won relatively rapid approval from the 30 existing alliance members. In the early weeks of 2024, Sweden’s accession overcame objections from two holdouts: Turkey, which has been angered by the Swedish government’s toleration of anti-Islamic speech and expression, and Hungary, which has objected to official Swedish criticism of its domestic government. By the end of February, however, both countries’ parliaments relented and approved Sweden for membership, following trenchant diplomacy sweetened in both cases by favorable arms deals.

Sweden’s entry into the alliance changes the balance of power in the Baltic Sea, which will essentially become a NATO lake. Except for Russia, whose Baltic access is limited to the environs of St. Petersburg and the former East Prussian exclave around Kaliningrad, all countries of the Baltic littoral are now NATO members. While Denmark and Norway already control egress from the Baltic to the open ocean, and Estonia and Finland bottle up St. Petersburg, Sweden’s membership will vastly improve NATO maneuverability and interception efforts across the maritime region. Just as the Soviets feared in Stalin’s time, Sweden’s membership advances NATO territory hundreds of kilometers closer to Russian territory and military assets. Sweden’s 3,200 kilometer-long mainland eastern coastline protrudes far enough into the Baltic to block any Russian naval movements attempting to gain local tactical or strategic advantage or to deploy nuclear-armed submarines beyond a very small operational area.

Gotland, the Baltic Sea’s largest island, which Sweden barely defended in recent times and officially demilitarized between 2005 and 2016, lies less than 300 kilometers from Russia’s major Baltic naval base at Baltiysk, in the Kaliningrad exclave, and only about another 40 kilometers away from the capital and military headquarters at Kaliningrad itself. NATO jets stationed on Gotland could obliterate both Russian military centers in a matter of minutes, while military units stationed on Gotland could play an effective supporting role for combat operations on the Eurasian mainland. Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city and Scandinavia’s biggest port, offers a close and convenient conduit for NATO troops and supplies if they had to be rushed in to defend the Baltic States, Poland, or Finland against Russian attack. And farther north, where Swedish forces are now engaging in joint maneuvers with future NATO allies, Sweden can augment Norwegian and Finnish operations to monitor and, if necessary, contain Russia’s Northern Fleet, which is armed with about two-thirds of Russia’s second strike, submarine-based nuclear arsenal.

Sweden could also play an essential role in regional military operations. Despite its post-Cold War disarmament, this year it is on track to spend 2% of GDP on the military, the agreed minimal threshold for all NATO members, and one that even some much larger alliance members perennially fail to reach. Sweden’s defense industry is high-tech and already producing or upgrading air and naval vessels of world class sophistication. The country also maintains a “Total Defense Service,” which requires all residents between the ages of 16 and 70 to participate in national service—including military service for those with the requisite training—in the event of a crisis. As Sweden begins to integrate its military into NATO, reports suggest that it is already primed to contribute troops to the alliance’s multinational force in Latvia. And in perhaps the greatest irony of all, with the bulk of Russia’s armed forces tied down in Ukraine, it is nearly inconceivable that Russia can now take any meaningful military initiatives elsewhere, including retaliatory measures against defiant Scandinavian democracies.

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