Sweden’s Evolving Relationship with NATO and its Consequences for the Baltic Sea Region

Recent polls indicate that a plurality of Swedes now favor NATO membership—41 percent in favor, with 39 percent opposed. This represents a continuing shift of Swedish popular sentiment and is connected to public outrage over Russia’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine, friction resulting from Russia’s reckless infringement of Swedish airspace, and the deteriorating security situation around the Baltic Sea.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, a social democrat, currently leads a minority government. The Swedish Social Democratic Party historically has opposed joining NATO, so Prime Minister Löfven has a political tightrope to walk in Sweden’s relationship to the Alliance. Washington’s approach has been nuanced and wise—it has highlighted that Sweden is a valued and privileged partner to NATO and would be seen as a constructive potential future member of NATO. But Washington has equally stressed that NATO’s Article 5 security commitments only extend to alliance members, not partners, and underscored that such a decision is entirely up to the Swedes. The United States and NATO should continue on this diplomatic path—leaving it to the Swedish public to do the math and allowing support to continue developing from within; bolder steps, such as NATO overtly encouraging Sweden to join, could impact negatively on the growing Swedish relationship with NATO and trigger face saving anti-membership reactions from the current Social Democratic leadership.

These unprecedented numbers in support for Swedish NATO membership could presage a change of course within the Social Democratic Party, which took power in 2014 and which for decades has embraced neutrality and opposed joining the alliance. Opposition parties, the Christian Democrats and the Center Party, have recently announced that they fully support Swedish membership in NATO. All four Swedish parties in the center-right opposition “Alliance” coalition (which hold 40 percent of the seats in the current parliament) now favor NATO membership.

It is unlikely however that the current center-left minority government will change its stance in this legislative term, which runs until 2018. But as Russia has shaken the foundations of the European security environment, it has also reignited discussion in Sweden about its neutrality, and whether Sweden (and Finland) can rely solely on the promises of EU solidarity (enshrined in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty), or if Stockholm’s security requirements would best be met inside NATO. The Russian tactic of trying to divide and intimidate its neighbors to keep them out of NATO seems to be not only counterproductive but is the main catalyst for the Swedish public´s changing view.

What would happen if Sweden joined NATO? It goes without saying that Swedish membership would strengthen the alliance, both through the Swedish armed forces’ highly developed capabilities and Sweden’s strategic location. If Finland were to join along with Sweden, it would transform the buffer zone in the Arctic and Baltic Sea as well as create NATO’s longest border with Russia. Clearly, what Sweden decides greatly impacts the entire region..

Sweden’s attitude toward NATO membership has been evolving for some time. The most recent poll by TNS Sifo found that 41 percent of Swedes were in favor of seeking membership, with 39 percent against and 20 percent uncertain. This is up from 29 percent in favor in 2013 and 17 percent in 2012. The survey was carried out shortly after the opposition parties announced their support for Sweden’s membership in NATO.

Talk is cheaper though when you are in opposition—only a minimal fraction within the “Alliance” block dared to advocate for NATO membership when they ruled Sweden for eight years and until September 2014. This underscores the political sensitivity of formally abandoning the concept of neutrality, which many Swedes believe historically has insulated the country from geopolitical tensions between NATO and Russia.

But perhaps the most revealing finding from the TNS Sifo survey is the gradual and consistent shift of attitudes towards NATO among social democratic voters, with 30 percent in favor and 52 percent against membership. Still accounting for a minority view within the party, such levels of positive sentiments have increased from 11 percent in 2012 and 20 percent in 2013. Support for NATO has increased by around 10 percentage points per year which creates the possibility for the government to advance operational cooperation with NATO and gradually shift the party line on membership towards a more positive position in the long term.

There are some voices among Prime Minister Löfven’s advisors on foreign and security policy who believe that Sweden’s policy of neutrality is outdated and has been rendered obsolete by Sweden’s increasing cooperation with NATO—mainly through Partnership for Peace activities and by contributing troops to NATO-led operations in Libya, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. For years, successive Swedish governments have walked the tightrope by strengthening Sweden’s relationship with NATO while publicly dismissing speculation that such actions were a preparatory step towards NATO membership and a Swedish commitment to collective defense.

At the center of this somewhat contradictory logic is Sweden’s ambiguous concept of neutrality and its role in Swedish national security strategy. The decision to remain outside the Alliance in 1949 and instead to rely on neutrality and a considerable national defense capacity created room for international maneuver during the Cold War. By seeking a role as a pragmatic interface in the North between Washington and Moscow, while discretely engaging in military cooperation with the West, Stockholm identified a pathway to achieve security without having any binding obligations.

The somewhat vague and malleable concept of neutrality, and the promise of security without the burdens of alignment, remains deeply rooted in the public consciousness; therefore abandoning neutrality has been too risky for any government facing re-election. But given the altered security landscape in Europe, and Russian activity in Sweden’s airspace and in the Baltic Sea, there are clear indications of a shifting doctrine within Swedish defense policy.

Allied officials have reminded Sweden and Finland that membership has its privileges. When Supreme Allied Command Europe (SACEUR) General Breedlove met with military and civilian officials in Helsinki and Stockholm this year, he pointed out the obvious—that regardless of their strong partnership with NATO, neither of the two countries is covered by NATO’s collective defense commitments.

In recent years, Sweden has been an increasingly active NATO partner, culminating in the signing (along with Finland) of the Host Nation Support MOU at the Wales Summit and Sweden’s recognition as an “Enhanced Opportunity Partner” of NATO. Although a highly technical and administrative document, the MOU facilitates the presence of NATO troops during any type of military or civil mission when Sweden or Finland function as hosts, and such undertakings are in line with the two countries’ ambitions to deepen both political dialogue and practical cooperation with the Alliance.

In 2013, Sweden became a contributor to the NATO Response Force (NRF) and has played an active role within NRF ever since. As part of NATO’s efforts to build out its military crisis management capacity, Sweden has also contributed with its widely recognized Center for Gender in Military Operations, preparing officers from NATO member states for international engagement under the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and 1820 umbrella.

As current chair of Nordic Defense Cooperation or NORDEFCO, Sweden has taken considerable steps towards aligning its air force capacity with NATO standards, as illustrated by the Cross Border Training program, where Sweden together with Norway, Denmark and Finland have worked to increase intelligence sharing, synchronize monitoring systems and boost overall awareness in the skies over Nordic territory.

In considering Sweden’s and Finland’s attitudes toward possible NATO accession, it is worthwhile to compare it to its Nordic neighbors Norway and Denmark, which are among the more capable and active Allies. Denmark has generally spent 1.4 percent of its GDP on defense and has in terms of demographic size been one of the top three contributors to NATO-led operations around the globe, while Norway boosted its defense budget to 1.5 percent of GDP during 2014 and aims to reach 1.6 this year. Bearing in mind future cuts in Danish defense spending, Norway is now the largest defense spender among the Nordic countries.

In contrast, Sweden generally spends around 1.1 percent of its GDP on defense while Finland is up to 1.3 percent. Two years ago, military budget cuts by successive post-Cold War Swedish governments grew so severe that the previous Supreme Commander, Sverker Göransson, publicly stated that “Sweden could only hold out for a week if it were attacked”. However, Prime Minister Löfven’s government recently proposed its new strategic priorities on defense from 2016-2020, boosting the military budget by 11 percent over the period of five years and setting out more advanced goals on how to strengthen cooperation with NATO, within the EU and to make active contributions to UN peacekeeping operations.

Looking at strengthening bilateral defense relationships in the Baltic region, Swedish Minster for Defense Peter Hultqvist recently signed an MOU with his Polish counterpart to deepen bilateral cooperation and coordination with one of NATO’s leading members; Hultqvist also expressed a desire to substantially increase joint exercises, materiel supply, basic training and overall interoperability with the United States. Although Hultqvist repeated the Swedish mantra of a defense relationship defined by partnership with NATO instead of membership, both the tone and the actions suggest a shift in “normal” Swedish defense relations. This became more evident when Nordic and the U.S. deputy defense ministers met for the first time ever to discuss the deteriorating security environment in Northern Europe and in the Baltics.

The Swedish government is slowly adapting more nuanced language, leaving more options open than previous administrations ever did. In his annual address upon opening the Riksdag on September 15, Prime Minister Löfven devoted the first half of his speech to the emerging challenges to European security. Notably absent was the traditional section on how and why Sweden should stay out of NATO (as his predecessors ritually stressed), and there was no explicit mention of the strategic importance of neutrality.

It is possible that Sweden will continue to follow the logic of strengthening national defense and cooperation with NATO while staying out of the alliance. But when evaluating the pace and shape of this process, new nuances are visible and steps taken thus far are unprecedented.

Somewhat ironically, the Kremlin’s reaction may push things even further. In an unusually brusque interview with one of Sweden´s largest newspapers, Russian Ambassador Viktor Tatarinstev recently said that “the country that joins NATO needs to be aware of the risks it is exposing itself to.” Later in that same interview, he added that “Russia will have to resort to a response of the military kind and re-orient our troops and missiles.” Moscow did not distance itself from the remarks—to the contrary, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova announced that a Swedish drive for NATO membership would not only have politico-military consequences but would also require “retaliatory measures” from the Russian Federation, causing the Swedish Minster for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström to publicly state that bilateral relations had reached a historical low point.

In the case of Finland, public opinion remains more subdued, but also trending upwards. The latest poll from March 2015 indicated that only 27 percent of Finns back NATO membership, roughly the same number as last year, yet up from 17 percent in 2012. This discrepancy between the two non-allied Nordic countries mirrors the geostrategic reality for Finland, long defined by its proximity to Russia and sharing an 833 mile-long border, with a much more complicated (and confrontational) past with Russia than its Swedish neighbor.

Finland currently feels, more than any other Nordic country, the economic effects of EU-imposed sanctions on Russia. It has also endured significant pressure from Russia, such as speeches in the Russian Duma about retaliatory sanctions and senior Russian officials claiming that Finland would put itself in significant danger by joining NATO. Last year, Sergei Markov, a Russian foreign policy figure aligned with the Putin administration, told a Finnish paper that closer ties between NATO and Helsinki could risk triggering a “third world war,” a statement designed to stir fear among the Finnish public.

Despite all this, Finland’s newly elected center-right coalition has kept the NATO option on the table, although it is unlikely to pursue it in the short term. The center-right government has commissioned a study of NATO membership along with a revised security and defense white paper. Given Finland’s and Sweden´s geographical position in northern Europe, coordinated positioning towards joining NATO is a must. Should Sweden become a member of NATO, it would be risky for Finland to remain outside. This position was recently implied by Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini and has been reiterated by several high-profile officials within the Finish MFA.

Despite political differences on a wide range of areas, a special focus on strengthening Swedish-Finish defense capabilities is a top priority for both administrations, with broad support across party boundaries in both parliaments. From this perspective, a synchronized accession process would be more politically attractive for both sides than any attempts to play it solo. Eventual NATO membership would therefore likely be prepared extensively through diplomatic and military back channels before Helsinki and Stockholm publicly announced any further steps towards membership. For instance, after Stockholm announced it had named a special ambassador to evaluate its relationship with NATO and other international partners as well as present its conclusions to the government by August 2016, Helsinki announced shortly after that it would also study the strategic implications of joining NATO.

So is Sweden slowly changing its position on NATO, and when would the definitive change come? The answer is yes, but an application for NATO membership is not likely in the near future. Under pressure from the NATO-skeptic Green Party within its own minority government and from influential senior leaders within his Social Democratic Party, Prime Minister Löfven probably will consider membership off limits until the next election in 2018, unless Russia takes further drastic action to destabilize Europe. But with the Swedish opposition in favor of joining NATO, and public opinion possibly headed in that direction, the current administration has positioned themselves to have all options open, as they watch Moscow’s actions with caution and concern.

Carl Hvenmark Nilsson is a visiting fellow with the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

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Carl Hvenmark Nilsson