Author: Nino Chanadiri, Contributing Analyst
The Russian aim to weaken NATO and “push it back from its borders” while invading Ukraine in fact had the opposite effect. As a response to the increased security risks in Russia’s neighborhood, Sweden and Finland, who have long positioned themselves as neutral countries, chose to become NATO members. The fact that two states, which were actively avoiding joining military alliances, changed their security agendas in such a sharp turnaround can be described as one of the most relevant examples of how the war in Ukraine has changed the security environment in Europe.
Even though Sweden and Finland had a close partnership with NATO before, joining the alliance was not on the agenda, nor was it supported by their citizens. Yet deepening concerns about security following on from Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine have been reflected in growing support towards collectively enhancing the security of the countries in Northern Europe. NATO immediately expressed support to the idea of accepting the two militarily strong and democratically stable countries with a history of trusted partnership to their ranks. While the assumption was that both countries would join the alliance together, Finland joined earlier (April 2023), while Sweden had to overcome a number of obstacles first due to political resistance from member states Turkey and Hungary.
This blog aims to review the reasons for that resistance to the Swedish desire to join NATO, and to analyze the driving intentions behind this process. Secondly, we will show the mutual benefits of Sweden joining NATO by looking into what each actor (NATO, and Sweden as a sovereign state) will gain once all NATO members ratify the decision to accept Sweden as a member.
A bumpy road for Sweden
Hungary was one of two NATO members who were against accepting Sweden into the alliance. Lacking basis, its resistance was portrayed as a response to Sweden’s criticism of the Orban government, seeing it claiming that Stockholm was trying to demonstrate “moral superiority.” However, it is also logical to assume that Hungary’s position was connected to its close relations with Russia, which is traditionally opposed to NATO’s enlargement, stating it poses a threat to its security. Hungary also supported Turkey in its own, much stronger resistance towards the Swedish desire to join NATO.
Turkey’s position was associated with number of concerns and demands made of Sweden, which were also used as a bargaining chip during the process. Turkey blamed Sweden for not taking a clear stand on terrorism when it came to Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by Ankara. Additionally, there have been cases when Ankara demanded the extradition of specific individuals who were perceived to be associated with the attempted coup in 2016, demands which Sweden rejected. Turkey claimed that Sweden wasn’t taking Turkey’s security concerns seriously. Additionally, an incident during a demonstration in Sweden, where the Qur’an was burnt, was used by the Turkish authorities to blame the Swedish government for not being able to prevent hate crimes. This further deteriorated relations between the two countries.
However, the situation changed suddenly during the NATO Vilnius Summit in July when Erdogan agreed to support Sweden’s desire to join NATO. It does not mean that Sweden automatically became a member state, and it will not happen until both Turkey and Hungary ratify the decision. There has been discussion about why Erdogan changed his stance so quickly. Special emphasis was put on the fact that Turkey had reached an agreement with partners that satisfied its interests in exchange for support of Sweden’s membership, namely, getting a green light from the USA to purchase US F-16 fighter jets to modernize Turkey’s existing capabilities.
What will Sweden give NATO and vice versa when the process is concluded?
Once both Turkey and Hungary ratify their decisions about Sweden joining NATO, the country will be able to officially join the alliance, but what will be the mutual gains for the two sides?
Even though Sweden appears to be a militarily secure country, in recent years, it has experienced security challenges from Russia by way of intelligence-breaching incidents. As a response, Sweden has increased its defense budget over the years since the Russian war in Georgia in 2008 and invasion of Ukraine 2014. The ongoing war in Ukraine finally pushed the Swedish security policy from neutralism to a desire to join NATO. Sweden has also deepened its cooperation with Ukraine with the aim of militarily and politically defeating Russia. Strengthened mutual political relations are embodied in Swedish military support to Ukraine and high level political visits between Ukraine and Sweden.
The partnership with NATO is not a new phenomenon for Sweden. However, in light of regional security challenges, the security guarantees derived from the alliance and its Article 5, which promises joint military protection in case of a military attack on a member state, are important for Sweden. Its membership in the alliance should also decrease the chances of direct provocative actions from Russia against it, which would result in a strict response not only from Swedish forces, but from NATO as a whole.
Accepting Sweden as a member is beneficial for NATO itself as well as for its capabilities. Having Sweden and Finland increases NATO’s presence in the north and gives it better access to the Arctic. Moreover, it will gain access to the strategically important Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. NATO’s significantly increased presence in the Baltic Sea will in turn strengthen the sense of security in other member states, as well in the Baltics. As for the military capabilities, Swedish forces are relatively small but modern and well prepared, plus, they have been in close cooperation with NATO forces before and have participated in various missions with them. All this will only serve to strengthen the alliance, a fact which is in the interest of every single member state.
Even though it was assumed that Sweden and Finland would join the alliance together, it appeared that Sweden had a more difficult path to tread, one which is not yet over. While Hungary’s resistance towards Sweden joining NATO was more superficial, Turkey had deeper political intentions. However, the process has reached a point where the two protesting countries have expressed their readiness to support accepting Sweden. Once they officially ratify the decisions, Sweden will be able to become a NATO member. Accepting Sweden will bring mutual benefits. Sweden will gain more security guarantees, while NATO will strengthen its roots in strategically important areas like the Baltic Sea; areas that are important for the security of other member states too. Strengthening the alliance as a whole is in the interests of each member, and having Sweden among the ranks will serve this cause.