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How Sweden’s Entry Into NATO Reshapes Baltic and Arctic Security

  • Sweden's membership in NATO fills a strategic gap in the alliance's security architecture, bolstering military activities in Northern Europe and reinforcing defense efforts in the Baltic states.
  • The inclusion of Sweden in NATO transforms the Baltic Sea into a "NATO lake," enhancing control over critical maritime territories and strengthening regional security against Russian threats.
  • Despite Sweden's historical neutrality and contradictions in its foreign policy, its decision to join NATO reflects a significant shift in national security strategy and underscores the country's commitment to collective defense in Europe.
arctic

NATO has had to wait nearly 18 months for Turkey and Hungary to finally sign off on letting Sweden join the military alliance. Despite the long wait, there is a good deal of excitement in Brussels about the 32nd member. One NATO diplomat told me that Sweden's membership was the "missing piece of the jigsaw," completing the alliance's security architecture in the Nordic, Arctic, and Baltic regions.

To understand, it's enough to just look at a map. Sweden is the fifth largest country in Europe -- bigger than Germany -- stretching 1,600 kilometers north to south and with a coastline twice as long. From conversations with various NATO officials, it is clear that Sweden's role in the alliance will be focused on two major areas.

Firstly, it will be a hub for military activities in the northern part of Europe, linking Sweden with the other Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway -- all in the same military union for the first time in modern history. Back in 2009, the quintet agreed on the Nordic Defense Cooperation (Nordefco), which, while not a mutual-defense pact, does have some similar features -- for example, allowing participating states access to each other's airspace and military infrastructure. As Sweden joins, there is already a good deal of regional integration and cooperation.

Secondly, Sweden will bolster the defense of the three Baltic states -- NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- providing rapid maritime and air support and beefing up troop numbers -- for example, deploying 800 officers to the NATO brigade in Latvia from 2025. There was previously more emphasis on so-called "tripwire forces" in the Baltic states, with a strategy of slowing down the enemy and then counterattacking and retaking lost territory. But with Swedish support, the focus will instead be on not giving up an inch of territory.

Deep Background: Perhaps the most obvious advantage of Sweden joining NATO is that the Baltic Sea will become something of a "NATO lake," with NATO member states essentially surrounding the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and also controlling the northern and southern shores of the Gulf of Finland that leads to Russia's second city of St. Petersburg.

Gotland, the biggest island in the Baltic Sea, will suddenly be of key importance. Part of Sweden but only 300 kilometers from Kaliningrad, the island will benefit from new military facilities. The main military harbor on the island will be expanded, and a local regiment that was disbanded years ago will be brought back to life.

Sweden will upgrade its railway network so it is capable of transporting larger military loads across the country. Sweden's second city and biggest port, Gothenburg, on the country's western coast, will see its military capacity increase as well, likely becoming a major hub and entry point for NATO military equipment and troops.

Related: This Could Be A Gamechanger For Natural Gas In Europe

Sweden is already well-acquainted with NATO and has been part of the alliance's Partnership for Peace (PfP) program since 1994, becoming an Enhanced Opportunity Partner (EOP) for the military alliance 20 years later. That has meant deeper cooperation, regular joint exercises, and more interoperability with the Western alliance, with the country's troops serving under NATO commanders in Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Sweden has already achieved the desired NATO target of spending at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, an achievement that many members of the alliance have yet to meet. Stockholm signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) with the United States in December 2023 that will allow U.S. military equipment and troops on Swedish soil. But just like the other Nordic NATO nations, Sweden will not host nuclear weapons or permanent NATO bases.

Drilling Down

  • Another aspect that many NATO officials are pointing to as added value is the arms that Sweden will bring to the alliance. The country is considered to have two world-class military assets: submarines that can control large parts of the Baltic Sea, matching Russia's every move; and JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets produced by Sweden's SAAB. Sweden joining NATO will bring the entire Nordic fleet of fighter jets to over 250, and Stockholm is considering sending some to Ukraine. Sweden could become a very active participant in NATO's air-policing, not only over the Baltic Sea.
  • It isn't just fighter jets. Sweden is one of the world's biggest arms exporters, notably to the United States, and is known for its guided weapons, infantry anti-tank weapons, and armored vehicles.
  • There are some glaring weaknesses, though. At 38,000, Sweden's troop strength is relatively small, and expanding it could prove to be costly. The country also lacks bigger maritime assets, such as large battleships, relying more on smaller corvettes that have inferior air-defense capabilities.
  • The Nordic/Baltic region will be divided into two different Joint Force Commands. Sweden will join Denmark, Finland, and the Baltic trio under the NATO command headquartered in Brunssum, Netherlands, whereas Norway is under the Norfolk, Virginia, command, which deals mainly with security issues and challenges in the Atlantic. From speaking to NATO officials familiar with the issue, it was symbolically important for the alliance to not "cut" the Baltic Sea in two, leaving Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on one side and Sweden on the other.

Sweden's Uncomfortable Neutrality

What You Need To Know: To many, Sweden joining NATO is a no-brainer. A strong and reliable democracy, menaced by an increasingly belligerent Russia, is joining a club in which its Nordic brethren -- Denmark, Iceland, and Norway -- have been a part since the alliance's inception in 1949. Finland joined in 2023.*

That is all true, but Sweden joining is also a historic moment -- perhaps even more significant than Finland joining in 2023. With its long border with Russia, Finland's hands have always been somewhat tied in terms of foreign policy and defense. Whether it's in NATO or out of NATO, Finland's goal is clear: to defend itself against Russia. Because of that, the country has an impressive army and universal male conscription.

For Finland, joining NATO was a bonus. As one Finnish diplomat conceded, speaking anonymously because they weren't authorized to speak on the record, Finland was "always ready to face a possible Russian attack alone." The diplomat then added: "But with NATO, we can suddenly count on others."

The option of membership hadn't always been there for Helsinki, with NATO traditionally seeing the country's neutrality as a vital factor contributing to regional stability. That all changed in February 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale attack on Ukraine, and the Kremlin warned that NATO could not accept new members, especially in what it saw as its backyard.

Sweden, however, probably could have always been a NATO member. Historically, the official reason for not joining was so that it wouldn't abandon Finland, leaving the Nordic country as a lone buffer between the Western alliance and the Soviet Union. So, when Finland started banging on NATO's door in spring 2022, for Stockholm, the decision was as good as made. Being the lone non-NATO power around the Baltic Sea (excluding Russia, of course) would not have been an attractive prospect for Sweden.

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To understand how much of a Copernican shift this has been for Sweden, a country that, for two centuries, has stood outside every major European conflict, let me share a few personal observations from Sweden, the country where I grew up.

Deep Background: For my generation -- I was born in 1982 -- and those preceding it, "Sweden being neutral" was as much a part of our DNA as giving children candy on Saturdays and getting absolutely smashed on schnapps and herring on Midsummer night.

With its neutrality, Sweden was unique -- something that can be seen even in recent policy. Take the migration crisis of 2015-16 as an example. While most European countries either put up walls or rolled out the barbed wire, Sweden welcomed migrants with open arms and generous handouts. And while border checks and more restrictive measures were introduced later to cope with the hundreds of thousands of migrants who entered the country, Sweden remained open to family reunifications and was still welcoming political refugees, despite taking in almost twice as many migrants per capita than any other EU state.

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Or look at Sweden's approach to the coronavirus pandemic. When other countries locked down, Sweden kept most of its businesses open, with the world keenly following this Nordic experiment with one part curiosity, one part dread. The jury is still out on whether Sweden chose the correct path, although when looking at a couple of key metrics -- excess mortality rates and economic performance -- the country did well.

Drilling Down

  • Not having seen war, conflict, or revolutions on Swedish soil since Napoleonic times has helped forge this national identity of neutrality and independence. And, whisper it quietly, but guilt over Sweden's role in World War II has also contributed to the country's neutral stance, with the prevailing notion that the country shouldn't belong to any political or military blocs, as that only increases the chance of conflict. While Sweden was officially neutral during World War II, the country's iron ore and other exports fed the Nazi war machine. Jews fleeing the Holocaust were not welcome in Sweden before 1943, and the German army was given free passage for an attack on Sweden's neighbor, Norway.
  • While the rest of the continent was in ruins after the war, Swedish infrastructure fared much better. The country capitalized on this by building up a welfare state that was envied across the world.
  • Sweden has always had an odd relationship with patriotism. The National Day of Sweden didn't become a national holiday until 2005, and people are still unsure how to mark it. When I went to school, instead of our national day, we celebrated United Nations Day on October 24. Rather than belting out the Swedish national anthem, we locked hands and sang the 1980s hit We Are The World. At the end of high school, students don't even need a passing grade in history to graduate, because, much like patriotism, the study of history was thought to be a thing of the past. It was something for other countries -- countries not like Sweden. Instead of looking back to the past -- glorious or otherwise -- we could boast about the things we were doing for the world now: inventing Bluetooth, the pacemaker, the walking frame, and oat milk. Not to mention contributing to the furniture-industrial complex with the ubiquitous Ikea.
  • Sweden has always been steeped in contradictions. How could it push for peace and reconciliation worldwide while also being a leading arms exporter? This has been a bit of a rude awakening for some Swedes, especially when traveling, because they aren't used to being told about the looting their ancestors did during the Thirty Years' War. Or finding out that Sweden's historical brutality even got a shout-out in Poland's national anthem.
  • That naivete has also had more serious consequences. The fact that both a Swedish prime minister (Olof Palme in 1986) and foreign minister (Anna Lindh in 2003) were assassinated in the middle of Stockholm, after walking around without bodyguards, is mind-boggling for most foreigners. For many Swedes, though, it is entirely normal. Such things, after all, just don't happen in Sweden. Or they shouldn't happen.
  • Yet now it seems that both history and reality are catching up fast with Sweden. Earlier this year, the country's commander in chief of the armed forces, Micael Byden, sent the country into a frenzy when he warned that all Swedes should prepare for war. People took it seriously, downloading maps of bomb shelters and an information packet titled If Crisis Or War Comes. Even my own mother, now approaching 80, rushed out to buy a portable gas stove and a flashlight that could run without a battery.

Looking Ahead

The biggest NATO exercise since the Cold War, Steadfast Defender, is under way, with the bulk of the troops currently in Poland. A team from RFE/RL is there on the ground, so look out for our coverage later this week.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will on March 5 present a new strategy for the European defense industry, which will include proposals for Brussels to step up defense spending in the near future and to encourage joint EU procurement in both the production of arms and ammunition.

By RFE/RL

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