When the Baltic States joined the EU and NATO in 2004, Sweden and Finland were left as the only non-members of NATO in the Baltic region. At the time relations with Russia were fairly stable, even if Putin showed signs of bold geopolitical ambitions which was to a large extent ignored by the West. The 2008 Georgian War should have been an alarm to both the EU and NATO, but instead of waking up, they pressed the snooze button and remained in a slumber until the annexation of Crimea in 2014. In the same year, Russia increased its military activities in the Baltic region, both in numbers and severity, to such an extent that it was impossible to ignore. Russia’s aggression and rhetoric have raised fears of a new Crimea in the Baltics, with potential hybrid warfare in an Estonian region with a large ethnic Russian population. A violation of Estonian territory would be a declaration of war against both the EU and NATO. Considering Article 5, the whole foundation of military cooperation would dismantle if they failed to protect their ally.
It is in the light of these developments that the policies of Sweden, a neighbour with strategic geographical location, are important. In 2013, Sweden experienced the so called “Russian Easter”, a series of violations of Swedish airspace, in which the Swedish forces received assistance from NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission (BAP).
Between March and October 2014, there were forty cases of Russian military violations, including violations of airspace, incidents at sea and bombing exercises, with a majority of them taking place in the Baltic region. Three of them were characterised high risk incidents. In September, one of the most severe violations in years took place with Russian bomb planes testing the capabilities of Swedish forces. In October, there was an extensive operation in the Stockholm archipelago when foreign underwater activities were discovered. These violations have occurred with regular frequency, in combination with statements by Russian officials that Sweden ought not to participate in NATO exercises. In 2015, Russian diplomats threatened that a Swedish accession to NATO would “have military and political implications requiring Russia to take retaliatory steps”.
Ironically, Putin’s actions have strengthened the resolve of the Swedish population rather than deterred it. Known for its neutrality politics, Sweden has for the first time ever recorded a broader support of joining NATO than not. In the annual public opinion polls of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), 48% of Swedes favoured membership, 35% were against and 17% were unsure. To put this into perspective, only 17% supported membership ten years earlier. Moreover, a significant majority wants to increase defence spending. In 2015, the Centre Party and Christian Democratic Party, both strong advocates of neutrality, reversed their stance in favour of membership. With the Moderate Party and the Liberal Party already positive to joining the alliance, there is a consensus among the centre-right. The centre-left and the nationalists remain against. The nominally opposed Social Democratic Party, whose support is crucial in this question, has become more NATO-friendly. A recent poll even suggested that young sympathisers of the Social Democrats are more in favour (33%) than against (30%). As Senior Correspondent Brian Whitmore put it: “Vladimir Putin has managed to do what no Soviet leader did: push the traditionally neutral Swedes toward joining a military alliance”.
Although Sweden very closely cooperated with NATO in the past decades, this was not subject to public debate. The Swedish partnership was known to the United States and the Soviet Union, but less so to Swedish citizens. The United States even described Sweden as one of their closest allies, at a time when “freedom from alliances in peace conducive to neutrality in war” was a holy mantra and the cornerstone of Swedish security policy. It remains a central doctrine, but EU membership has gradually changed its legitimacy.
In 2009, Sweden formally tied itself to the “Declaration of Solidarity”, which promises reciprocal military support to neighbouring EU-countries. Although Baltic officials have questioned whether Sweden would actually live up to this promise, this de facto military commitment has weakened the argument for neutrality politics.
Despite a parliamentary agreement to discuss future military cooperation, it is highly implausible that the current centre-left government with the pacifist Green Party will approach a NATO-membership. However, defence spending has slightly increased, cooperation with NATO has deepened and so has collaboration with Poland and other Nordic countries. Swedish politicians tend to include Finland when discussing military cooperation. At the moment, Finnish accession to NATO appears distant, but if they were to proceed toward membership it would have a great impact on the Swedish debate. A membership without further actions will not automatically solve any problems, but a Swedish accession to NATO would stabilise the Baltic region and send a clear message of unity to Moscow.