Sweden’s long and winding road to NATO

  • Themes: NATO, Sweden

The Russian threat has put the Nordic states at the centre of global affairs. Sweden's accession to NATO is a natural consequence.

A Swedish ship partakes in a naval exercise by Götland.
A Swedish ship partakes in a naval exercise by Götland. Credit: Jeppe Gustafsson / Alamy Stock Photo

At last, Sweden is to become a member of NATO. The escalation in Ukraine on 24 February 2022 triggered an earthquake for European security. It also made the Swedish government realise that its security doctrine of ‘military non-alignment’ was fundamentally untenable.

Finland moved first. Following the full-scale Russian invasion, Finnish public opinion shifted quickly in favour of NATO membership. According to Swedish journalist Mikael Holmström, on 25 February, Finland expressed interest in starting the accession process, and participated with Sweden in a NATO Summit at which a top-secret mechanism for information exchange between Sweden, Finland and NATO, ‘Modalities for Strengthened Interaction’ (MSI), was activated. When the Finnish President Sauli Niinistö visited President Biden at the White House on 4 March it was obvious that Finland had decided to apply for membership.

This extraordinary haste had its explanation in history. Several times in the past Finland has moved quickly to renegotiate its dependence from an authoritarian Russia. This was the case regarding independence from Russia in 1917-18. In a similar way, when the Soviet Empire broke up in 1991, Finland quickly renegotiated its straitjacket of neutrality from the Cold War-era. Speed was also essential after 24 February; as Russia was bogged down in Ukraine, Finland could, to use Niinistö’s own metaphor, ‘jump down from the fence’ and move for protection with the West.

Meanwhile, in Stockholm things moved more slowly. The initial reaction from then-Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson was to make sure that Sweden would not abandon military non-alignment, something that would ‘destabilise’ northern Europe. The long-standing identity and policy of the governing Social Democrats was to have good relations with NATO, but to pass on NATO membership. However, the Finnish decision created a dynamic process that was impossible to avoid even for the Social Democrats. Apparently, four alternatives to NATO membership were carefully considered: the hopes for a European defence pact under Article 42.7 in the treaty on the European Union; an armed military non-alignment; a non-aligned defence pact with Finland; and a defence pact with Finland with security guarantees from the US. On April 11 2022, at 8:15 in the morning, then-defence minister Peter Hultqvist accepted that NATO membership was the only reasonable option.

Freedom of action, which is the ultimate point of non-alignment, becomes both meaningless and potentially dangerous in a situation where Norway, the Baltics and Finland could end up at war with Russia. It only takes a quick glance at the map to understand that NATO’s defence of these countries requires access to Swedish territory, in one form or another – something that Russia is also well aware of. In other words, a war in northern Europe immediately puts the great powers’ focus on Swedish territory, and what is the point of freedom of action if Sweden is automatically involved in operations? Furthermore, if Finland had joined NATO alone, Swedish-Finnish defence cooperation, initiated gradually over the last decade, would have been impossible to implement, as Finland would then be loyal to Article 5 planning first and foremost. These strategic reasons, together with the fact that Sweden had an upcoming election, decided the issue for Magdalena Andersson.

The accession process proved to be painful and surprisingly complicated. For domestic and foreign policy reasons, the Turkish President Erdoğan resisted Swedish and Finnish membership for a long time. He used the accession process to get NATO to back away from criticism of Turkey’s increasingly brutal internal affairs, and to get out of the diplomatic deep freeze he was placed in by the West after the procurement of Russian-made S-400 SAM missiles. For his part, Viktor Orbán is essentially sympathetic to Putin’s agenda and has tried his best to stall and delay the process. The rhetoric was opportunistic and in the end Turkey and Hungary both backed down.

Swedish and Finnish NATO accession marks the end of a long farewell to neutrality. During the 1990s, the Baltic Sea region was a backwater and something of a laboratory for what scholars described as ‘multi-level security governance’. Since the annexation of Crimea, the low-intensity conflict in the Donbas, and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the region has become a confrontation point between Russia and the West, and it has started to attract high-level attention in Washington and Brussels. The recent attack on the gas pipeline ‘Balticconnector’ (on 7 October 2023, the same date as Hamas’ attack on Israel), conducted by a Chinese registered ship with Russian crew, underlines the growing risks for the region becoming ‘entangled’ with other powers which challenge the US (i.e. Russia, Iran and China).

One of the most common observations in discussions about a Swedish membership of NATO is that the Swedish armed forces have developed a close cooperation with the alliance, and therefore would very easily become part of its activities.There is already extensive military cooperation between Sweden and the alliance members through operations in the Balkans, Libya and Afghanistan, and through continuous regional (Nordic) training activities such as Trident Juncture, Cold Response, BALTOPS and Nordic Response.

It is important to underline that in the defence there was an asymmetry between the Nordic countries and their partners. In one stroke Swedish and Finnish membership has come into the framework of NATO’s joint defence planning. The external threat, the geographical circumstances and the dependence on the United States have united the Nordic and Baltic countries.

The point is that the entire step-by-step process that has taken Sweden from neutrality to solidarity now guides defence planning. Membership requires an equal voice not only in the exchange of information with allies, but also in the design of a common plan for the northern flank. It is notable that Sweden and Finland will now join Norway and Denmark in establishing bases with American military equipment via a bilateral treaty with the United States.

Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO will mean a planning revolution in Swedish defence. Sweden can play an important role as a staging and transit area for American units. It will also provide operational depth for Finland (especially its air force) as well as covering Norwegian defence. Sweden, furthermore, has a natural place together with Denmark and Norway in the great powers’ trip-wire presence in the Baltic States. The islands of Åland, Gotland and Bornholm are central to the potential dangers in the Baltic Sea. The Swedish Navy will have an important role for the convoys that are crucial for NATO’s Polish-Baltic defence plan.

An important task for Sweden’s security policy elite in the next few years is to learn more about the internal dynamics of NATO. Sweden must learn to listen to its neighbours in order to safeguard its own interests within the alliance. The first test of this Nordic-Baltic agenda will take place in the run-up to the Washington Summit from 9 to 11 July. How can conventional and nuclear deterrence best be strengthened? How should the staff capacity within the alliance be strengthened and located? What role should Britain and Germany play on the new northern flank? In these and other issues, Sweden has every opportunity as a new member state to be a constructive player.


Magnus Christiansson