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14 April 2022

Sweden’s decision to join Nato isn’t just about security

Will Sweden join Nato? The country looks set to join Finland in applying for membership, but the debate in Stockholm is far from straightforward.

By Megan Gibson

The island of Gotland, which sits in the middle of the Baltic Sea about 200 kilometres south of Stockholm, is famous for its rauks. These column-like formations, forged over time by wave erosion, rise from the sea and sand along the island’s coast, like soldiers standing at attention. Gotland’s rauks have helped make the Swedish island a popular tourist destination. More recently, however, the island has been regarded less for its geological features than for its geographic vulnerability.

When Russian fighter jets violated Swedish airspace just east of Gotland days after Russia invaded Ukraine, alarm bells sounded in Stockholm; the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad is just 350km from the shores of the island. In an address to Sweden’s parliament, the Riksdag, on 24 March, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said, “Russia has started discussing how to occupy Gotland, your island.” It is this vulnerability, alongside Vladimir Putin’s unpredictability, that has reignited the question of Nato membership, long thought dead in Sweden.

Unlike their Nordic and Baltic neighbours, Sweden and Finland are not members of Nato, though they are viewed as partners of the transatlantic alliance. It’s been long said that if they were to join, the two nations would apply in concert. A joint press conference with Sweden’s prime minister Magdalena Andersson and Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin in Stockholm on 13 April, in which they both pledged to continue cooperating on security matters, solidified that idea. (In an earlier press address, on 5 April, the alliance’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said that he expected both nations would be welcomed by current member states.) 

[See also: Sweden’s Nato applications marks historic shift away from neutrality]

For weeks now, signals out of Helsinki have strongly suggested an intention to seek membership – with as many as 68 per cent of the Finnish public wanting to join and the vast majority of MPs in favour – and indeed Marin noted in the press conference that the country would make a decision within “weeks, not months”. Yet the picture from Stockholm has been murkier.

For the past two centuries, Sweden has largely avoided involvement in military conflicts, maintaining neutrality throughout both world wars, as well as the Cold War. This long history of non-alignment has not only been a sustained foreign policy, it has also sunk deep roots in the country’s self-perception. “Sweden views itself as the world’s conscience in a way,” said Oscar Jonsson, a researcher at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm. Remaining outside of Nato, however aligned it might be with the alliance, has been Sweden’s way of maintaining that self-image.  

Stockholm’s position on Nato has relied on two assumptions: that an attack on the country is unlikely to ever take place; and that if one were to occur, military help would be offered up. The war in Ukraine has upended both those assumptions. On 11 April, the governing Social Democrats released a statement saying that the party would be conducting an urgent review of its security policies, noting, “when Russia invaded Ukraine, Sweden’s security position changed fundamentally”.

But this rethink is not only a security move – for Andersson and the Social Democrats, it’s now politically expedient. With an election looming in September, the party doesn’t want to seem out of step with public opinion on any issue, from knife crime to Nato.

The Social Democrats have reason to be concerned. Andersson has led a minority government since November 2021, and her election followed many months of domestic political turbulence. Once considered the natural governing party, the Social Democrats have seen their influence – and number of seats in the Riksdag – shrink in recent elections. While Swedes generally seem to view Andersson as a competent leader, Russia’s war has raised doubts in some corners. One diplomat living in Stockholm told me that many felt the prime minister took too long to publicly address Russia’s build-up along Ukraine’s border before the war began; many commentators have noted that in the weeks since the invasion, she has appeared too passive over the Nato question, preferring instead to let the Finns take the lead.

What’s more, her party is seen as the main hurdle to joining Nato. As recently as early March Andersson said, “if Sweden were to choose to send in an application to join Nato in the current situation, it would further destabilise this area of Europe.” Though the Social Democrats have historically opposed Nato membership, so has the country at large. But after recent polls found more and more support for joining Nato, opposition parties have been changing their public position and ramping up the calls to join. Crucially, the centre-right Moderates and the far-right Sweden Democrats – the largest opposition parties – have rallied behind the idea.

For the government, this has given new urgency to the Nato question. “The Social Democrats do not, in any way, want this to be an election question,” said Jonsson. By joining Finland on its apparent march towards Nato membership, Andersson and the Social Democrats stand to take the teeth out of the opposition’s campaign strategy.

Yet joining Nato wouldn’t be without risks, as Andersson herself stated at the press conference with Marin. While public opinion is changing quickly, support in Sweden still isn’t as high as in Finland (recent polls have hovered around 50 per cent). There is still plenty of room for political missteps.

Far more serious, however, is the security risk. Nato’s leadership, and its current members, have indicated that Sweden and Finland’s accession to membership would happen swiftly. Yet even if the countries applied immediately, the process would still likely take months at the least. In that intervening period, between application and full membership, there is a risk that an enraged Vladimir Putin could strike out, launching an attack of some kind on, say, the island of Gotland.

Moscow made that risk explicit on 14 April when Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, threatened nuclear escalation in the Baltic Sea if Sweden and Finland were to move to join Nato. Politicians in the Baltic, such as Lithuania’s defence minister Arvydas Anušauskas, have dismissed the threat as little more than bluster. But Lithuania is a Nato member. Sweden may soon be one, but Andersson will likely move only cautiously in that direction.

[See also: The new Iron Curtain]

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