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Sweden entrance in the NATO becomes a reality: what challenges it faced and what are the possible consequences

Updated: Apr 15

On 7th of March 2024, Sweden officially became the 32nd member of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), after over 200 years of military non – alignment.

This decision was prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022 which constituted a direct threat to the national security of both Sweden and Finland, which, as a consequence, applied to join NATO. The ratification process began with the invitation of Finland and Sweden to become members at the NATO summit in Madrid on 29th June 2022. By October 2022, all NATO members except for Turkey and Hungary had announced their support in favour of both countries’ applications, arguing that Finland and Sweden would strengthen the alliance in the Baltic.


In a brief ceremony, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken received the documents from Ulf Kristersson, the Swedish Prime Minister, and said: “Swedes realized something very profound: that if Putin was willing to try to erase one neighbour from the map, then he might well not stop there.” Blinken added that “none of this was easy, none of this was obvious," it had taken "nearly two years of tireless diplomacy" to integrate Sweden into the alliance. (The New York Times, 7th March 2024). Mr. Kristersson then stated that “Sweden will defend freedom together with the countries closest to us, both in terms of geography, culture, and values. We will strive for unity, solidarity, and burden-sharing, and will fully adhere to the Washington Treaty values: freedom, democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. Stronger together. Sweden is an outstanding country, and we are joining NATO to defend even better what we are and what we believe in: our freedom and our democracy” (Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson’s address to the nation, 7th March 2024).


The decision sends a powerful message that “aggression does not pay,” NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, told reporters. “President Putin wants Ukraine defeated. NATO down. North America and Europe divided. Instead, NATO is stronger than ever” (The New Yorker, 17th May 2022).


Historical background:

Sweden’s application to join NATO  marks an historical change from its status as a neutral state, dating back to 1812 during the Napoleonic Wars. During the 20th century, Swedish became a top aid donor per capita which gave it the label of “humanitarian superpower”. Sweden gradually transformed itself into an active foreign policy actor by promoting international peace and security through diplomacy, defence ties and international organizations.

Throughout the Cold War, Sweden used its neutral position to moderate the confrontation between the two blocs, while clearly aligning itself in support of democracy and human rights. After the Cold War, Sweden sought not only to improve its own security but also the security of the Nordic and Baltic Sea regions, including the newly independent states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, with which Sweden shares strong cultural, political, and social connections.

Russia’s military intervention in Georgia in 2008 intensified the fear of possible security threats to both Sweden and Finland. In addition, from 2008 onwards, Sweden discovered covert Russian submarine operations within its territorial waters in the Baltic Sea. In response, Sweden imposed strong restrictions on Russian commercial activities on Gotland and other Swedish islands.

Another further event which brought Sweden even more close to NATO was the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its intervention in the Donbas, namely the eastern region of Ukraine. Those two events prompted Sweden to recognize that it needed military cooperation and assistance from other states to realistically prepare for a possible Russian move in the Baltic Sea. Therefore, Sweden started to closely coordinate with Finland, and became an “Enhanced Opportunities Partner” of NATO, by focusing on political dialogues, joint training, and transparent information.

Additionally, Sweden proceeded to reintroduce military conscription in 2018 and to substantially increase national military spending. Nevertheless, none of these developments implied that Sweden wanted to join the NATO, but they helped to acknowledge the possible dangers to which it is constantly exposed, due to its physical location.


Turkey and Hungary opposition:

The origin of Turkey’s opposition to Sweden’s entrance in the alliance can be traced back to May, when Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan publicly criticized both Baltic nations for hiding Kurdish refugees, which Turkey regards as terrorists, and for giving asylum to some of them. Consequently, Turkey refused to grant its authorization unless some conditions were satisfied, the first one being that the authorities in Stockholm would cease protecting the PKK’s (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) activities of fundraising the network and recruiting people from Sweden. Another request from  Erdogan was the removal of the arms embargo imposed on Turkey in 2019 as a result of the latter´s military operations in Iraq and Syria against the Kurdish YPG militia. Eventually, in June 2022, the three countries signed a joint memorandum outlining steps they would take to address Ankara’s demands and in return Turkey said it would support Sweden and Finland’s memberships.

Formally, Hungary has not put forward any substantive objections to Sweden’s membership. In fact, unlike Ankara, which held highly structured negotiations with both countries, Budapest has not advanced any concrete demands. However, within the alliance, the Hungarian delay in ratifying Sweden’s entrance has been interpreted as a consequence of the close alliance between Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Erdogan.

Nonetheless, Orban and the members of his Fidesz party repeatedly accused both countries of behaving disrespectfully toward Hungary and of having unfairly accused the country of having a democratic deficit or being systematically corrupt. Yet, it is necessary to highlight that even though Hungary is an active member of the NATO, senior Hungarian officials still meet their Russian counterparts and are often publicly critical of western policies toward Moscow, especially since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.


Possible Consequences:

The accession of Sweden and Finland is of high strategic value to the NATO, especially if we consider two relevant aspects. Firstly, it will be the core of military activities in the northern part of Europe, and it will closely cooperate with the other Nordic countries, namely Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway. Secondly, Sweden will bolster the defence of the three Baltic states by providing rapid maritime and air support and by increasing the number of troops to be deployed in those territories.

 

Perhaps the most obvious advantage of Sweden joining NATO is that the Baltic Sea will turn into a so - called "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 biggest city of St. Petersburg.

 

Moreover, Sweden’s entrance in the alliance enhances not only NATO’s control over the Baltic Sea region but also over the Arctic, a strategically important area of dominance for both Russia and China which aspires to gain access to it as a medium to carry out its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In recent years, NATO has started to acknowledge the cruciality of investigating the geopolitical and ideological competition that China poses, primarily through deeper security partnerships with like-minded Indo-Pacific states. Stockholm, in fact, will most likely aspire to improve NATO’s programs with partner-states in the Indo-Pacific, such as South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

Sweden, as a NATO member, supplying military equipment to the region, will add to China’s and North Korea’s narrative against the NATO: that the U.S. policy is to bring NATO to expand eastwards. China has always accused the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad, which comprises Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.) of being an “Asia-Pacific NATO.” Such a scenario will not only increase the regional arms race but also further destabilize the Indo-Pacific.

One final aspect that many NATO officials point to as an added value is the military power that Sweden will bring to the alliance, both in terms of technological devices and in terms of weapons. As a matter of fact, Sweden is one of the world's biggest arms exporters, especially to the United States and is known for its guided weapons, anti-tank weapons, and armoured vehicles.

 

Conclusion:

In conclusion, Sweden’s entrance in the NATO marks an historical landmark by ending centuries of neutrality. However, the question that many might be afraid to ask is: “could the entrance of Sweden potentially lead to a further Russian’s military expansion? Would Russia attack one of these states, if threatened, and trigger the response of the other members, leading to another world war?”.

Despite these possible implications, Sweden will certainly bring benefits to the whole alliance, especially considering its strategic position. Besides, Sweden’s entrance emphasizes the cruciality of cooperation and assistance, both military and political, especially in a world which seems to have lost its equilibrium and appears ruled by conflicts and horrors. In such a dreadful scenario, fear has become a permanent feature and thus, it has become vital to be more open to dialogue and to diplomacy.

 

 

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