Wallström-Lavrov meeting: The beginning of a thaw in Russia-Sweden relations?
On Tuesday 21st February, Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström travelled to Moscow to meet with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in their first meeting since the end of 2014 in Basel, amidst their iciest relations since the end of the Cold War. The agenda for the talks ranged from Crimea and the Ukraine crisis, to women’s issues (core to Sweden’s self-described “feminist” foreign policy), to Swedish investments in Russia, to cooperation in the Baltic and Arctic regions, as well as to so-called fake news and the domestic media images of their respective countries. The meeting also featured Sweden as having recently been elected as a temporary member to the United Nations Security Council, having occupied the presidency post in January.
Prior to her departure to Moscow, Wallström gave an interview about the impending meeting to one of Sweden’s leading newspapers, Dagens Nyheter. In the interview Wallström breaks with the now default perception of Russia by stating that Russia does not pose a threat to Swedish security (although she did emphasise that Russian “cyber-warfare” posed a serious challenge). She also referred to the recently released foreign policy declaration for 2017, outlining Swedish foreign policy, which included the desire to engage in dialogue with Russia.
Lavrov on his part expressed that while he does not assign blame for the hitherto freeze in relations, the de-facto termination of high level political dialogue between the two countries was initiated by the Swedish side. Sweden has been one of the last countries in the EU to resume high-level diplomatic contacts with Russia, something that Sweden says has to do with their strict adherence to EU decisions.
While the interpersonal chemistry between Wallström and Lavrov seemed to be somber, and the press conference subsequent to their meeting being delayed for nearly an hour due to “open-hearted” discussions on Crimea and Ukraine, Wallström commented to the Swedish media that she hoped that the meeting would mark a thaw in relations with Moscow, and that next time Lavrov might visit Stockholm.
These comments, along with the meeting itself marks a stark contrast to even recent Swedish attitudes to Russia. In December of last year, under pressure from Stockholm and the Swedish security expert community, Gotland municipality declined to lease one of the piers in Slite harbour to Gazprom for the construction of Nordstream-2. The contention from some experts was that Russian dockworkers could in the event of a West-Russia crisis over the Baltics result in those same dockworkers becoming “little green men” – a reference to the unmarked Russian soldiers deployed in Crimea following the coup in Kiev in early 2014 – and seizing control of the island for Russian anti-access/area denial warfare against Nato. A similar debate was held in Karlshamn, in the Swedish province of Blekinge, not far from the main Swedish naval base in Karlskrona. The outcome here was different, however, as the municipal council agreed to lease its harbour for logistical support in the construction of Nordstream-2, but even then the agreement was only with the company Wasco, a subcontractor for Gazprom.
Militarisation of the Baltic region and perceived Russian aggression and expansionism has prompted Sweden to embark on a programme of re-militarisation, even going so far as to re-commission old anti-shipping cruise missiles from military museums. This perception of Russia as a security threat reinvigorated the debate on Sweden’s neutrality status, with significant numbers of military experts lobbying for Swedish membership in Nato to guarantee Swedish security. Russia has repeatedly stressed that it has no interest in any conflict with either Sweden or any other country in the Baltic region, but does see the build-up of Nato personnel and equipment on its borders as a major threat to its security, and only to meet this threat has Russia reciprocated by increasing its military presence in the region. In an interview with the same Dagens Nyheter last year, Lavrov pointed out that if Sweden were to join Nato, they would not expect an attack from Sweden, but would need to adjust their defensive strategy in accordance, as Sweden would then be part of and subordinated within a larger military structure.
In this context, the meeting may well mark a turning point in Swedish-Russian relations. Europe has come under new pressure with the recent election of Donald Trump in the United States, who has repeatedly stressed a desire to cooperate rather than have confrontation with Russia. This has forced many European countries to re-examine their policy towards Russia, as if a détente and rapprochement were to occur between the US and Russia, nobody wants to be left lagging behind, singled out in their frosty relations with Russia. Sweden has shifted at the highest diplomatic level its tone towards Russia from being one of seeking to diplomatically isolate Russia, to one of engagement, albeit with strong criticism.
Russia seems to have welcomed this shift towards a more pragmatic attitude on the Swedish side, and both countries are now looking toward further cooperation within regional cooperation organisations such as the Council of Baltic Sea States and the Arctic Council. While many of the old sources for frustration in relations continue to exist, including Sweden’s insistence on keeping in place the existing sanctions regime, and strong internal forces in Sweden pressuring against improved relations with Russia, the resumption of high-level diplomatic dialogue between the two countries marks the first steps towards a thaw in their bilateral relationship.