Since the well-publicised mock attacks on Stockholm by Russian Tu22-M3 heavy bombers over Easter, and the subsequent lack of a Swedish military interception, the local media has returned to an oft debated issue – that of NATO membership. For a nation that was last officially at war in 1809 (against Russia, incidentally), the idea of abandoning the policy of neutrality is one that is somewhat unpopular.


A Tu-22M3 heavy bomber, NATO codename "Backfire"

Yet the foreign policy objectives that once underpinned Swedish neutrality have ceased to exist – Europe is no longer divided into two ideological camps between whom it is wise to be strategically placed. In terms of Swedish politics, NATO membership is as much a domestic issue as it is an international one. But the reasons against joining the alliance have become increasingly flimsy. 

One hurdle seems to be EU membership – since it joined the union, much has been made in Sweden of the security guarantees that the membership brings. Yet although these guarantees are part of the Lisbon Treaty, it has become increasingly hard to imagine the EU reacting in a decisive and effective fashion to anything, let alone real military emergency within its borders. Indeed, the EU has yet to make its mark militarily in any substantive manner whatsoever. Its regional battle groups, ready to respond to crises abroad have yet to see action – perhaps partly due to the omnipotence of NATO itself. Whilst of course it is true that the EU would not stand idly by and see one of its member states overrun, a full-scale invasion is not the only example of the kind of day-to-day threats that NATO provides protection against. Some Conservative MEPs have commented that the only reason the EU created defence and security policies is to justify its own existence and further expansion. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen fell short of being quite so critical, but commented that new institutions by themselves are “hot air” and that new capabilities are needed. There remains much scepticism as to the effectiveness of the EUs military institutions and with good reason.

Another stumbling block on the road to membership is the lack of direct threats to Swedish integrity that existed during the Cold War. Even if you look towards Sweden’s traditional enemy – Russia – it is unlikely that the current occupant of the Kremlin, Mr Putin, will cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war towards Sweden or its eastern neighbours in such an overt way as might have been the case in times past. But he is ramping up defence co-operation with Belarus – four anti-missile batteries are to arrive next year to counter NATO presence in the Nordic and Scandinavian region. More worryingly for the future is the fact Russian democracy (if such a thing really exists) is often unstable and prone to fierce nationalistic tendencies at the best of times. No guarantees can be forged as to the sanity or morality of future leaders of this vast and heavily militarised country. Let us not forget that it was less than two decades ago that the ramblings of the fervently nationalistic politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky caused jitters in neighbouring Finland and the Baltic states. His repeated statements detailing how he would like to see a military invasion to reclaim parts of “Greater Russia” caused much disquiet within the region. Zhirinovsky, as an example, has retained a loyal following and is currently Vice Chair of the State Duma.

Sweden’s top brass have been brutally honest about its lack of military preparedness, concluding that at best it would be able to defend itself only for a week. So why cling to a policy of isolationism when such a policy can only be regarded as rational if there is enough of a military force present to justify it in the first place. In Sweden’s case this is the crux of the issue – it is isolationist in name only. Since joining the Partnership for Peace (NATO “lite”) in 1994, it has become an ever-closer partner, providing troops for peacekeeping and even sending its own ambassador to the organisation. This blurred arrangement means Swedish troops can be put at risk in the field whilst their own government was not a fully-fledged participant at the discussions which deployed them. If Sweden wishes to contribute to the future security of Europe then it makes sense to formalise the ties that already exist to ensure adequate representation and a seat at the decision making table.

Contrast this with the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. NATO members since 2004, they are active alliance participants in the alliance and enjoy considerably the protection it brings, especially the Baltic Air Policing mission. Interestingly enough, it was two fighter planes from this patrol that were despatched to intercept the Russian bombers on manoeuvres over Easter (even though they arrived too late).

Despite a widespread lack of faith in Swedish defensive capability amongst the public (somewhere only 6% believe the military is capable of defending the country), NATO membership remains a fairly unpopular idea. There is a combination of lingering anti-Americanism, a consequence of the George W Bush years and a lingering hostility towards nuclear weapons that mean the task of convincing the public won’t be easy. But it is absolutely necessary. The EU neither competes with nor complements NATO and considering its present sluggish pace and general lack of consensus, I don’t think it will do either in the near future.

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