By Sebastian Åsberg:
Following the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, an old debate has grown increasingly more heated in Sweden and Finland: should countries join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Having been non-aligned since the 19th century, Sweden – after intense debate – chose not to join NATO following World War II. Since then, NATO membership has been something of a non-issue in Swedish politics. However, Russian aggression in its near-abroad in recent years has made the issue more pertinent. Although Swedish public opinion has long been against NATO membership, polls have progressively started to register a change since the war in Ukraine broke out in 2014. Some of the latest polling figures for the first time show that a almost half of the Swedish population, 48%, favour joining NATO. In addition, 73% were concerned about developments in Russia, a rise of nearly 30% since the previous year.[i] Meanwhile, the issue of NATO membership has become more a topic of debate in Swedish media. In October 2014, a foreign submarine believed to be Russian entered Swedish waters near Stockholm, spurring on the discussions about NATO even further.
Oscar Jonsson, a PhD candidate at King’s College London, who has written about the subject in the past, is certain that Sweden joining NATO is a realistic scenario: “Absolutely, support for NATO has never been larger”. However, he also noted that prior to the Ukraine crisis “a major problem with the NATO debate [in Sweden] is that it has not really been waged. The Moderate Party, which has in its charter to push for NATO membership, have been satisfied, along with the Social Democrats, to remain silent on the issue”.
Both Sweden and Finland have chosen to deepen their cooperation with NATO, participating in major NATO exercises such as “Steadfast Jazz” and “Baltops”. In September, Finland and Sweden signed a Host Nation Support Agreement, which is set to be implemented in 2016.[ii] The agreement means that NATO can station forces in both countries.[iii] The agreement has been seen as a major step towards NATO for the two countries, both of whom already have close cooperation with NATO through membership in the Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. “You cannot get any closer to NATO than with the host country agreement” Jonsson says. “Considering that they agree to accept NATO stationing troops in both peacetime but also in times of crisis and war … It also reflects how little Russia would perceive Sweden and Finland as neutral”
One of the reasons why some Swedes might see NATO as a more sensible option is the belief that the Swedish military is wholly unprepared to deal with a potential Russian attack. Following the end of the Cold War, the Swedish military faced substantial budget cuts. In 2012 the Supreme Commander of Swedish Armed Forces, Sverker Göransson, stated that the Swedish military would be able to withstand a military attack no longer than a week.[iv] Due to the relatively weak state of the Swedish military, some worry that the Swedish island of Gotland may be at risk in the case of a conflict in the Baltic Sea region, due to the island’s strategic location.[v]
For Sweden to be able to join NATO, much hinges on the Social Democrats – the largest political party in Sweden – dropping their opposition to joining the alliance. According to Jonsson, “[neutrality] is very firmly rooted in the Social Democratic identity and self-image, which is something that hangs on from the Cold War”. But he adds that there is momentum for NATO membership within parts of the Social Democratic party itself: “The more it is discussed and debated, the more this self-image is challenged”. But for the time being the Social Democrats, who returned to power in 2014 after eight years in opposition, show no sign of changing their position. In the declaration of government following the 2014 election they affirmed continued Swedish neutrality.[vi]
But Sweden is not the only Scandinavian country debating the subject of NATO membership. The issue has also received more attention in Finland following the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict.
Following Finland’s defeat in World War II, the country was effectively prohibited from joining NATO by the Soviet Union through the 1948 Finno-Soviet treaty. Indeed, the term “Finlandization” stems from Finland’s forced non-alignment during the Cold War; not being able to join any pro-Western alliance in return for independence. Like Sweden, Finland chose to join the EU but not NATO following the end of the Cold War. But as the conflict in Ukraine has progressed, the Finnish public’s perception of Russia as a danger has increased.[vii] Finland has had its territory violated by Russian aircrafts and sea vessels several times since the start of the conflict.[viii]
Alexander Stubb, the Prime minister of Finland, who has been described as a “NATO hawk”, stated earlier this year that Finland should not exclude the possibility of seeking membership of NATO over the next four years.[ix] Jonsson pointed out that Finland has taken greater steps towards NATO membership than Sweden: “Finland has come a bit further in the public debate, they have investigated the question three times and have several former prime ministers and presidents who have expressed their support for NATO”. He adds that this is likely due to differing historical memories: “Finland remembers World War II and thinks ‘We don’t want to experience this again’, while Sweden thinks ‘our neutrality saved us, we should stay away’.”
However, unlike in Sweden, public support in Finland for joining NATO has not increased dramatically since the annexation of Crimea and remains relatively low, standing at 27% according to a poll conducted in January.[x] Having public backing for joining NATO would be essential for both countries as any application for membership would most likely be subject to a referendum. Finns may rely on their fairly robust territorial defence, consisting of some 250,000 personnel; yet critics note that the army suffers from problems of poor equipment and a reliance on conscripts.[xi]
According to Jonsson, Sweden and Finland would most likely be welcomed into NATO if they chose to seek membership, but given their close proximity to Russia, the question remains of what Moscow’s reaction would be. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in 2014, warning of “negative and dangerous consequences” if Sweden and Finland joined NATO.[xii] More recently, in April 2015, Russia voiced concerns regarding Sweden and Finland’s decision to deepen their defence cooperation with NATO countries Norway and Denmark through NORDEFCO (Nordic Defence Cooperation).[xiii]
“Russia would be vocal and create a commotion about it, they really don’t want this” says Jonsson. “But at the same time they already view Sweden and Finland, especially Sweden, as a part of the West and NATO indirectly. It would give them an opportunity to stir trouble, but it would not change much in substance.”
It appears that the debate is set to continue for the foreseeable future in both countries. Russia’s future conduct may be the factor that determines whether or not Sweden and Finland take the final steps to joining NATO.
Sebastian Åsberg holds a BA in International Relations from Malmö University, Sweden, and is currently reading for an MA in War Studies at King’s College London. His main interests include European security and defence policy, security cooperation within the EU and NATO, and the transatlantic partnership, as well as in Russia’s foreign policy in the region and beyond.
This article is the final part of a Strife series entitled ‘Russia and the World following Ukraine’. The series has examined the global reaction to the crisis in the Ukraine. In the first article of the series, Mike Jones discussed Britain’s handling of the Ukraine crisis and why it has not received more attention in the UK. In the second article, Conradin Weindl looked into the relationship between the European Union and Russia in the wake of the war in Ukraine. In the third article, Andrzej Kozłowski analysed Poland’s approach to the crisis and its implications for Polish security.
[i] Expressen, ”Nu vill de flesta att Sverige går med i Nato” 11 January 2015
[iii] NATO, ”Finland and Sweden sign Memorandum of Understanding with NATO”, 5 September 2014, http://www.aco.nato.int/finland-and-sweden-signing-a-memorandum-of-understanding-with-nato-for-operational-and-logistic-support.aspx
[iv] Holmström, Mikael ” Försvar med tidsgräns” Svenska Dagbladet, 30 December 2012
[v] Shapiro, Ari “Sweden’s Gotland A Crucial Square In Europe’s Military Chess Board” NPR, 27 January 2015
[vii] Sander, Gordon ”Could Putin’s Russia push neutral Finland into NATO’s arms?”, Christian Science Monitor, 15 October 2015
[viii] Witte, Griff “Finland feeling vulnerable amid Russian provocations” Washington Post, 23 November 2014
[ix] Rosendahl, Jussi “Finland should not exclude NATO application in next four years: PM”, Reuters, 22 January 2015
[xi] Dempsey, Judy “Should Finland and Sweden join NATO?” Carnegie Europe, 21 May 2014
[xii] de la Reguera, Erik ”Ryssland: Farligt om Sverige och Finland går med i Nato” Dagens Nyheter, 31 May 2014
[xiii] Gummesson, Jonas ”Svensk ubåt ska öva med NATO”, Svenska Dagbladet, 13 May 2015