Sweden to vote on closer NATO ties

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Russia has threatened retaliation if either Finland or Sweden pursue NATO membership. [sbamueller/Flickr]

Swedish lawmakers are set to vote on 25 May on a Host Nation Agreement with NATO that would represent a step toward further cooperation with the alliance for a nation that has resisted alignment with multilateral military bodies for over 200 years, write Olof Kronvall and Colin Cleary.

Olof Kronvall is an expert on transatlantic and European security and teaches at Georgetown and George Washington universities. Colin Cleary is a US Foreign Service officer and interagency professional in residence at the US Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are their own.

The recent festivities of the White House state dinner in Washington for the five Nordic nations took place against the backdrop of a very serious foreign policy conundrum shared by all: how to handle the increasing signals of hostility from Russia, whether in the form of cyber threats or violations of airspace in the region.

The signing of the Host Nation Agreement in September 2014 that sent the pact forward for consideration by lawmakers was perhaps the most important development in Swedish-NATO relations in recent years. It would provide a legal basis for NATO forces to use Swedish territory, airspace, and waters–contingent on Sweden’s consent–during times of crisis or war.

Finland has signed a similar accord. While not entailing security guarantees, the agreements provide for a more integrated Western defence of the Nordic-Baltic area.

Like everything having to do with NATO, the agreement is controversial in Sweden. Other countries are also demonstrating a growing interest in Sweden’s relations with NATO. Sweden’s security is closely interconnected with that of Finland and a recent report commissioned by Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that any Finnish application for NATO membership should ideally be coordinated with Sweden.

Latvia’s president has gone further and urged Sweden and Finland to join NATO, noting that their membership would help reduce the Baltic countries’ vulnerability to Russian aggression. He also urged Sweden to continue to strengthen the defence of the Gotland Island, Sweden’s largest, in the Baltic Sea. Several defence experts have similarly pointed out that fully integrated planning with Sweden and access to Swedish territory would greatly facilitate US and NATO operations to reinforce the Baltics, and/or defend the rest of the region in the event of a Russian attack.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Russia is threatening to take military countermeasures if Sweden and/or Finland join NATO. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently repeated these warnings in an interview with a Swedish newspaper. Russian media elaborated on his statements by reminding their audience that Russian missiles can reach Sweden and drawing parallels to 1939-40, when Stalin attacked Finland and occupied the Baltic countries.

Russia’s neighbours in the Nordic-Baltic region have long been alarmed over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the country’s increasingly hostile behaviour toward them. The situation also poses enormous challenges for NATO – and for the US. The prospect of NATO’s Article 5 being put to the test in the Nordic-Baltic area is no longer far-fetched.

Many fear that the Baltics will become the next flashpoint in the confrontation between Russia and the West, and the Baltic countries are frantically calling for the US to strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence capabilities. A recent RAND report, based on war games simulating NATO’s defence of the Baltics, concludes that under current circumstances, Russian forces could reach Estonia’s and Latvia’s respective capitals in 60 hours.

While actual membership in NATO isn’t on the table for Sweden at the moment, neighbours Norway and Denmark are members and the Nordic countries are revising their security policies. Norway has abandoned its long-standing restrictions on NATO exercises in the northern part of the country and is reviving its Cold War practice of being prepared to receive reinforcements from the US Marine Corps.

After many years of focus on “out of area” operations in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, Denmark is increasingly preparing for defence of its own sovereignty – and that of other NATO members. Sweden and Finland are strengthening their ties to NATO, and in both countries there is a debate on membership.

Since the end of the Cold War, Sweden’s ties with NATO have become steadily closer. This has included increased participation in exercises, information sharing, military educational exchanges and industrial cooperation. It has also involved moving to NATO standards in military procedures, terminology, and procurement. Sweden has participated in NATO-led operations in the Balkans and is still participating in Afghanistan. Unlike several NATO countries, Sweden also took part in NATO’s 2011 Libya intervention.

Like many NATO members, Sweden downsized its armed forces following the Cold War and shifted their focus from territorial defence to expeditionary operations. The pendulum started to swing back after the Russian invasion of Crimea. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, along with other Russian actions such as violations  of Swedish airspace, have prompted Sweden to ramp up its  cooperation with NATO and individual member states, including the UK, Norway, Denmark, Poland and the Baltic countries.

Despite – or partially because of –threats from Russia, the Swedish parliament is expected to approve the HNA. The two parties who oppose it – the Left Party (formerly the Communist Party) and the nationalist anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats (SD) – do not have the votes to stop it.

The coalition that has ruled Sweden since 2014 – the Social Democrats and the environmentalist Green Party – will vote in favour, despite internal opposition to the Agreement. The four centre-right parties advocate NATO membership and will vote yes.

The parties’ attitudes to the HNA mirror their positions on NATO membership. The two parties that oppose the HNA are also against NATO membership, as is the red-green coalition. While condemning Russian threats and emphasising that Sweden alone determines whether it will apply for NATO membership, the Social Democrats have also stated that this option is not currently considered. Sweden’s policy of close cooperation with NATO without seeking membership is therefore likely to continue at least until the next national election in 2018.

A membership application would only be conceivable if the Social Democrats change their position, and/or if the centre-right parties were to form a government. However, one of them, the Centre Party, has made its support for membership subject to a number of conditions: that Finland apply at the same time, that Sweden (like Norway and Denmark) reject nuclear weapons and permanent basing of foreign military forces on its territory, and that Sweden promote in NATO the idea of a Nordic Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone.

Slowly but surely, the ground in Sweden is softening towards NATO.

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