Jesse Fleck's Blog

Another Perspective on Swedish-Ukrainian Relations

August 25, 2014

In light of the Ukrainian crisis, Sweden has started to consider providing a financial assistance package to Ukraine. While such a decision does not seem out of character for the beneficent country who has taken in almost 20 percent of the European Union’s asylum seekers last year[1], there may be other factors that have led Sweden towards this decision. One such influence could be Sweden’s fear of Russia—Russophobia.

The idea of Russophobia recently surfaced in March of 2014, when Sergei Markov, a personal envoy of President Putin, claimed that Sweden and several other European countries are Russophobic during an interview with Swedish Newspaper SvD Nyheter. Most of the attention, however, was directed towards Markov’s following statement, which suggested that these countries could cause World War III.[2]  While Markov’s veiled threat is certainly worth discussion, Markov’s statement on Russophobia in Sweden brings forth an equally interesting discussion about Swedish-Russian history that is relevant for understanding Sweden’s actions in regards to Ukraine today.


Where does Russophobia come from?


Historically, Sweden has had a strained relationship with Russia. The most memorable instance is the Great Northern War when Russia successfully campaigned against the Swedish empire in the 18th century. During this war, Russia claimed the area around present day Saint Petersburg and sailed across the Baltic Sea to burn down coastal towns in Sweden. While not necessarily a direct cause, these events also facilitated the subsequent decline of the Swedish Empire.[3] In sum, the Great Northern War gives an enticing reason to believe that Sweden should fear the might of Russia. For, it is hard to forget when a neighboring country sails across the sea and burns down your villages when you are an imperial power.


During the Cold War, the presence of Russophobia also lingered over the country. Some key decisions that Sweden made suggest that the country’s policy was influenced by this fear. Foremost, Sweden decided to remain as a neutral country choosing neither the Soviet Union nor the West. Although Sweden claims that it chose neutrality for the sake of abstaining from war, another reason could be the continued fear of angering Russia if Sweden leaned too far towards the West. Even though the country remained neutral, nevertheless, Swedish military experts recall that Sweden prepared for attacks from Russia. [4] At the same time, however, these experts failed to mention training in defense of an attack from western countries. If Sweden was concerned about any war, it would make sense to train for a variety of enemies rather than just one. Hence, Sweden’s decision to train against Russia in secret, but openly to choose neutrality suggests that it was trying not to provoke Russia’s wrath.


While one could argue that Russophobia limited Sweden’s decision-making, it also allowed Sweden to embrace a nuanced policy in regards to Russia and the West, a policy that deserves more attention. Sweden’s neutrality in the Cold War to some extent prevented Russia from feeling threatened, but at the same time Sweden was still able to practice military drills in the event of a crisis. Moreover, Sweden’s neutrality played an important cover for a secret agreement with the west. Beginning in 1965, Sweden agreed to spy on the Soviet Union for the West.[5] While Sweden was not a public proponent of the West, its neutral position gave it the opportunity to undermine the Soviet Union in a way that other major western countries could not. Moreover, no one expected such actions from Sweden, who presumably played a key role in the gathering of intelligence, based on the fact that this was not uncovered until recently.


Russophobia in Swedish-Ukrainian Relations


In light of this crucial and relatively unknown position that Sweden played in the Cold War, the country deserves more attention in relation to its actions in the current Ukrainian crisis and overall Swedish-Ukrainian relations. If Sweden felt a renewed Russophobia based on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the most obvious action would be to join NATO to further ensure its own sovereignty and to protect other nations in the Baltic Sea region. Sweden’s decision to remain currently outside of NATO despite continued participation in NATO operations suggests that Sweden is aware of the fine line created during the Cold War about leaning too far westward. NATO membership, then, could have the opposition desired effect of maintaining Baltic Sea security because Russia would feel threatened. For this reason, it is understandable that Sweden could not join NATO at this time and must seek a different approach.


This more nuanced approach of responding to the fears of Russian aggression is found in Swedish-Ukrainian relations. As a member of the European Union, Sweden understandably would join the bandwagon of other EU member states to demonize Russia and to aid Ukraine. Perhaps, for this reason, the world has not paid as much attention towards Sweden. The difference is that Ukraine for Sweden is a way to further weaken Russia without overt military or political actions that would affect the homeland (like joining NATO).  This notion is further encouraged by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt who stated that “every carrot to Kyiv is a stick to Moscow.”[6] While Bildt was speaking in general about how the United States and the European Union should respond to Moscow, the same stratagem remains true for Sweden; every carrot from Sweden to Ukraine will further prod Russia.


Sweden’s current discussion regarding a foreign aid package to Ukraine shows that the country is trying to abate Russophobia in a strategic manner. The discussion of the parliament in June 2014 decided that the stipulations for the aid should match those of the IMF to ensure that the aid is used effectively.[7] This decision places Sweden in a strong position among its Western allies because not only is the country providing aid to Ukraine, but also through a global institution that the other nations recognize. Hence, the focus from both a Western and a Russian perspective is on Sweden helping a lesser developed country rather than undermining Russia. If one considers that Sweden has also provided financial aid to several other countries such as Georgia, Belarus and Moldova, all of which have an important connection with Russia, an alternative reason behind simple altruism begins to form.[8] In each case, if Sweden assists these countries in becoming a stronger independent nation, it is thereby weakening Russia. Hence, once again Sweden is attempting to undercut its historic enemy through an indirect means, Ukraine.




While the debate in Sweden about sending aid to Ukraine is on hold due to the parliamentary elections, one can be sure that they will resume once elections come to a close in September. If everything goes as planned, Ukraine will also hold its parliamentary elections this fall and appoint a new fully functional government as well. With tension between Russia and Ukraine still high and Ukraine in persistent economic trouble, aid to Ukraine is desperately needed. Most likely, both countries will try to come to a quick agreement so that Ukraine can obtain the much needed Swedish aid. While Sweden is an altruistic country, it must be realized that Sweden may be aiding Ukraine to weaken overall Russian strength which could help Sweden in the Baltic. A fear of Russia has influenced Swedish policy in the past and as the Baltic Sea becomes a hotter topic, it is likely to do so again. Hence, in the future, we may find that Sweden will continue to provide aid to former soviet states for purposes that are more personal.


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