The Baltic Region’s Security Gap: Understanding Why U.S.-Swedish Military Cooperation Is Key

As Russia probes for weakness within the transatlantic security architecture generally and the Baltic Sea region specifically, Swedish-American defense cooperation is becoming an increasingly important element for the security of the region. As Secretary of Defense Ash Carter meets with Sweden’s Minister of Defense Peter Hultqvist to consolidate the bilateral partnership between NATO’s most resourceful member and its perhaps most capable partner, the scope of the discussions will likely set the tone for the Pentagon’s ability to interpret and react to Russia’s increasingly provocative behavior around the Baltic Sea Region.

In a joint declaration released during the recent U.S.-Nordic Leaders Summit on May 13, President Obama and the five Nordic heads of state reaffirmed their commitment to “take measures to increase regional security that are mutually reinforcing and contribute substantially to stability in Europe.” For Sweden and the United States, this means beefing up already existing structures for coordinating joint exercises, intelligence sharing, and engaging in a closer political dialogue and military cooperation at a time when the NATO alliance is focusing on how best to overcome anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) challenges in the Baltic region.

The strategic benefits of having early access to Swedish (and Finnish) airspace, as well as deploying equipment on the island of Gotland, was concretely underscored three months ago when NATO carried out its 20th Crisis Management Exercise (CMX), which featured a hybrid/conventional attack on the Baltic countries conducted by the Russian Federation. Similar conclusions were also highlighted by the Estonian think tank, the International Centre for Defence and Security, in its report Closing NATO’s Baltic Gap. A strong U.S.-Swedish partnership is vital for closing this gap. However, despite increasing public support for membership (38 percent support), Sweden is likely to remain outside NATO for many years. So, how can NATO provide deterrence and predictability in Europe’s perhaps most vulnerable corner? And what role does the U.S.-Sweden defense relationship play?

For several decades, Sweden has been firmly guided by a security doctrine based on military nonalignment by relying on the EU Declaration of Solidary in the Lisbon Treaty, as well as a series of bilateral agreements on reciprocal crisis assistance with some of its Nordic neighbors. Similar to its Finnish neighbor, Sweden’s ambivalence to joining NATO is rooted in a public skepticism, decades of slashing its defense budget, and its delicate relationship with and geographical proximity to Russia.

But Sweden’s security environment changed after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, a regional wake-up call for the Baltic region and an indication of the Kremlin’s low threshold for achieving its political and security interests through military means. Stockholm’s preferred partnership status within NATO through the Enhanced Opportunity Partnership framework has generated new areas of practical cooperation. For example, a Host Nation Support agreement, which allows NATO to more easily operate on Swedish territory during training and in the event of a crisis, was recently passed in the Parliament with an overwhelming majority (291 to 21 votes). Also, public support in Sweden for NATO membership has swayed from a negative to a positive perception. In an extensive polling exercise, published in May by the SOM Institute, the proportion in favor of Sweden joining NATO now exceeds those opposing membership (38 percent against 31 percent). Although a large bulk of the population is still undecided, this is the first time such a shift has been statistically documented since the polling began in 1994.

Such developments have not gone unnoticed in the Kremlin. In an interview with a Swedish newspaper on April 28, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia reaffirmed that a Swedish accession into NATO would have clear “consequences” for Russia’s defense posture in the north. A few hours after the interview was published, Russian media channels such a Ria Novosti and Sputnik News were full of statements from Russian experts stating that the Kremlin would have to boost the presence of short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad and strengthen naval resources around the Baltic Sea in such a scenario, which would “jeopardize national security.” These statements can be added to a growing list of provocative and assertive rhetoric as relations between Moscow and Stockholm are at a historic low.

It is for these reasons that Minister Hultqvist’s meeting with Defense Secretary Carter must deepen U.S.-Swedish bilateral defense cooperation in several critical areas. First, there should be a more robust collaboration on cyber and intelligence-sharing capabilities between Sweden and the United States, which would provide significant value to NATO’s interoperability in this space given Sweden’s strategic location and its ability to closely observe Russian tactics. Sweden experiences daily cyber attacks aimed at destabilizing its infrastructure and observing how Sweden’s military responds to them. According to Supreme Commander Micael Bydén, the Russian military is constantly accumulating experience and adapting. It is also conducting destabilizing activities on the ground. In its annual report, Sweden’s Intelligence Agency (Säpo), suggested that almost a third of the diplomatic corps at the Russian embassy in Stockholm is affiliated with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.

Perhaps the most vivid example of this activity was a fabricated letter that appeared on Swedish news sites in which Minister Hultqvist purportedly congratulated a local arms manufacturing company for exporting lethal weapons to Ukraine (a policy the governing center-left coalition strongly opposes). This act of disinformation led to a Russian diplomat being declared persona non grata, which was followed by a reciprocal gesture by Moscow. The United States should take note of such hybrid activities, understanding the increasing pressure that Sweden (and Finland) is subjected to by Russian proxies in retaliation for its deeper ties with NATO. A possible Swedish contribution to NATO’s Riga-based Strategic Communication Center of Excellence is currently being prepared at the Swedish Justice Department and should therefore not only be seen as a step for Sweden to strengthen its competence in this field but as a possibility for the United States and NATO to build cooperation with a key partner that has significant eyes and ears in the region. This will add overall strength for efficiently countering disinformation and Kremlin-based Maskirovka in the Baltic region, aiming at confusing and blurring events on the ground and thereby gaining the upper hand in controlling the situation. As emphasized during U.S. Army Europe commander Lt. General Ben Hodges’ recent visit to Sweden, efforts should be made to conduct more joint exercises between U.S. and Swedish troops, particularly by allowing the United States to transport defense installations to Swedish territory (by air and sea). Given that Sweden is also modernizing two of its corvettes, expanding its undersea sensor nets, equipping its mine clearance vessels with antisubmarine weaponry, and overall improving its submarines’ capabilities, fruitful bilateral collaboration can also be undertaken in the area of maritime capabilities and undersea warfare.

The meeting between Hultqvist and Carter should also be seen in light of a recently concluded visit to Stockholm by Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, where senior representatives from the Baltic trio and the Nordic quintet jointly outlined ideas for accelerating the counter-ISIL campaign, addressing challenges in Afghanistan, and collaborating around the Pentagon’s Third Offset Strategy.

Sweden also plays a vital role in supporting and expanding regional frameworks within Europe that aim to cut administrative red tape and establish broad levels of military communication, despite the many individual differences that sometimes restrict such actions. Sweden, holding the chairmanship of the intra-Nordic defense forum NORDEFCO in 2015, has been a strong proponent of increased collaboration among Nordic nations with regards to maritime security in the High North, shared air space, and exchanging information about incidents/provocations orchestrated by Russia. It is also an active member within the so-called Northern Group, a military forum where the Baltic and the Nordic countries coordinate their defense policies together with the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, and the Netherlands. Such forums play a vital role in breaking down unproductive silos between NATO members and partners in the North, since the region needs to be fully synchronized in the event of a crisis. Given the many overlapping maritime security interests in the Arctic, transnational terrorism, and the altered security architecture in Europe, Washington should focus on a broad agenda with Stockholm, using the talks to accelerate existing military and political collaboration. Sweden is a necessary partner in addressing NATO’s Baltic gap and in providing greater stability and interoperability in the Baltic Sea region.

Carl Hvenmark Nilsson is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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