Jesse Fleck's Blog

Boiling the Baltic Pot: Forcing Sweden’s Hand closer to NATO

August 21, 2014

Although some pundits believe that no nation should consider joining NATO in light of Ukraine’s situation[1], the crisis nevertheless has fundamentally changed NATO’s relationship with Sweden. This change for Sweden comes due to a combination of already present concerns such as defense capabilities and reliability of alliances that have been given renewed attention. Hence, due to concern of over the security of the Baltic Sea, Sweden is slowly moving closer towards NATO.

Disrupting an Ideology

The recurring roadblock for Sweden’s shift from partner to member is not Russian threats, but a belief in non-alignment. To this day, Sweden remains out of international institutions and binding agreements based on the belief that the likelihood of an attack would decrease. Many Swedes claims that Sweden successfully remained unscathed in the two world wars as result of its non-alignment. Moreover, this confidence in the non-alignment has led some to believe that non-alignment has become part of Swedish defense ideology.[2]  Nevertheless, since Sweden has never been attacked in recent memory, many Swedes believe that continued non-alignment is in the best interest for Sweden.


Despite this policy’s debatable success, Sweden is beyond the point where it can realistically consider itself as non-aligned. Some believe that the entry of Sweden into the European Union in 1995 formally ended their neutrality.[3] In addition, Swedish-NATO relations further suggest the fallacy of believing that non-alignment still exists. Examples of Sweden supporting NATO operations in Bosnia and Afghanistan or even sending troops to exercises like BALTOPS in the Baltic Sea should disprove any beliefs of non-alignment.[4]


Even though operations with NATO or EU membership have not removed the idea of non-alignment, the Ukrainian situation has wakened Sweden from their illusion. The Swedish government’s statements to the public have become more concerned about the security of the Baltic Sea. [5] Since these events are happening during the elections of the Swedish Parliament, it is difficult to determine the effect on the parliament and the public. During election season, both the alliance (led by the Moderate party) and the opposition (led by the Social Democrats party) will not suggest anything that would turn voters away in what could be a very close election race. Nevertheless, even if the newly elected parliament is opposed to furthering relations with NATO, the government’s initial concerns have made the Swedish public more aware of that a risk to the Baltic Sea could mean a threat to Sweden. For, even if Sweden maintains its belief that it is a non-aligned country, this is only possible if other countries believe that is true as well.

Ending the ‘Splendid’ Isolation

While Sweden’s policy of non-alignment theoretically protects them from attack, it also means that institutions and countries are not obligated to provide aid to Sweden should such an attack occur. The costs of such a policy are now heavier in light of Russia’s aggression, especially since NATO is not required to come to the defense of Sweden. Even though NATO presumably would come to Sweden’s defense, there is no formal agreement obliging NATO to come to Sweden’s aid or in what shape that aid would take. In fact, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated on Swedish Radio in January 2013 that those who remain outside of NATO cannot obtain all that NATO provides.[6] Although Secretary General Rasmussen’s statement does not say Sweden will receive no help, it sends a clear warning signal that if Sweden desires complete support it will need to become a member.  


Sweden’s non-alignment has also had direct repercussions in relations with its Nordic allies. In 2013, Norway’s Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strom-Erichsen from the Labor Party stated on Swedish Radio that Norway may not come to Sweden’s aid if attacked because Sweden is not a member of NATO.[7] Defense Minister Strom-Erichsen’s response is a clear recommendation to Sweden that if it wants external protection should seek a formal alliance with NATO.


In consideration of NATO’s and Norway’s statements, if Sweden is attacked, it should not depend on the immediate aid of Norway or NATO, which leaves the country with only a few alternatives. Consequently, when the Ukrainian crisis began Swedish isolation took a whole new meaning. In June, Sweden and NATO began discussing a new agreement, which suggests that the Swedish government is reviewing the repercussions of non-alignment. Defense Minister Karin Enstrom of the Moderate Party reported to the Aftonbladet that the agreement would concern the placement of NATO troops and weapons on Swedish territory.[8] Within those general topics, concerns such as access for foreign troops to Swedish land, sea, air and the possibility of even a NATO headquarters to coordinate operations could easily become a necessary topic of discussion to make the implementation feasible.


The recent negotiations and their possible measures suggest that the agreement is to facilitate NATO’s ability to come to the aid of Sweden. The renewal of such discussions immediately after the Crimean annexation is not coincidence, but is further evidence of the shifting perspective in the Swedish government. While Sweden will preserve its non-alignment status as a partner, it will further suggests that Sweden is a partner in name only. Consequently, this move can only allow Sweden to go in one direction, towards NATO. Either this shift to allow NATO troops on Swedish soil will contribute to Sweden’s gradual embrace of NATO or if some countries find this stance too threatening, it may drive forward the need for complete membership in NATO.

Reassuring Swedish Defense

Another issue that has received renewed scrutiny due to the Ukrainian situation is Sweden’s defense capabilities specifically in relation to Russia.  For several years, news reports have suggested that Swedish defense is poor. In January 2013, the head of the Supreme Commander of Swedish Forces Sverker Goranson told the Swedish Newspaper Svenska Dagbladet that Sweden would not be able to protect itself for longer than a week.[9] Such concerns were similarly reflected in an opinion poll in April 2013, which found that 83 percent of those surveyed doubted if Sweden could defend itself.[10] Now that Russia is seen as a more aggressive nation, these comments on poor defense take new meaning.


Moreover, the Swedish military’s response to a Russian exercise drill last year has acquired a new light over Sweden’s questionable safety and defense capabilities. The incident took place on 29 March 2013, when Russia conducted an aviation exercise that according to Swedish military reports practiced bombing attacks on Stockholm and near Gotland.[11] Two heavy bombers TU-22M3 and four fighters SU-27 participated in this exercise. To add further concern, Swedish air force did not pursue these bombers, but rather NATO planes from Lithuania. Even though it was merely an exercise, the event shows that Sweden was either ill-prepared or was overly dependent on an institution that is not formally bound to aid them.


An additional concern raised by this air exercise is Sweden’s capability of protecting the territorial integrity of Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea. Some Swedish scholars have hypothesized that should Russia obtain Gotland, it would be able to control the Baltic Sea by setting up missiles on the island to deny NATO aircrafts.[12] Although far-fetched, the annexation of Crimea impressed this idea onto Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Jan Bjorklund, who in March 2014 suggested that Sweden review its defense policy.[13] Specifically, the Deputy Prime Minister argued that in consideration of Crimea’s annexation, Gotland’s integrity may also be in question.


If Sweden’s defense capabilities are actually as low as reports or past events suggest, then the concern for Sweden’s safety is a real issue. In light of the disagreements between the parliamentary parties on the best way to reestablish Swedish Defense[14], it would be substantially easier for the country to lean on NATO for support. Hence, the agreement to allow NATO troops on Swedish land, sea and air suggests that Sweden is trying to accommodate for these precise defense concerns.


The Swedish position of non-alignment seems almost destined for a revision. Although public opinion is still opposed to joining NATO, it has increased substantially in favor in the past year.[15] The hiatus of a stronger motion towards NATO should not be interpreted as a fear of Russia, but is primarily due to Sweden’s past preference for non-alignment and the current parliamentary election season. Once the dust settles, however, the Swedish government will return to action and be able to act more decisively. While membership is still unlikely in the immediate future, this change could speed up Sweden’s eventual membership. The government’s ability to pursue a closer relationship with NATO despite an overall negative disposition towards actual membership and in the midst of election season suggests that Sweden is ever moving closer to membership.


The main game changer for Sweden, which would hasten its membership, is the stability of the Baltic Sea. If the Baltic Sea becomes the next hotbed for the routine security dilemma between Western states and Russia, Sweden will need to present a posture of self-assured defense not only for its own people, but also for its surrounding neighbors. As reports on Swedish defense and alliances stand, if such a situation occurs, Sweden will need to turn towards NATO. Thus, the cooking pot is in Russia’s hands now. If Russia does decide to let the Baltic Sea boil, Sweden may jump out of the pot and into the open arms of NATO.



[3] Ibid,.


Share this article

Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
For business
For researchers
For students