Following the lead of Finland earlier this week, Swedish leadership has thrown its support behind Sweden joining NATO. Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson will submit a formal application likely by the end of the upcoming week. After decades of staunch neutrality, Sweden is choosing a side in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, Stockholm’s Road to NATO Membership did not start in late February of this year when the first Russian troops crossed the border. The process began in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its aggressive posturing towards NATO and the West. At this time Moscow’s relationship with Sweden and its neighbor Finland started to deteriorate. The security of the Baltic Sea region and Northern Europe became a major concern. Over the next seven or so years, Sweden and Finland enjoyed a closer relationship with NATO member-states in the Baltic Sea region. Mutual security concerns led to increased defense preparations and military exercises with the armed forces of neighboring nations. Over time, concern over Russia diminished. Then in late 2021, with Russia massing troops along Ukraine’s border, Sweden and Finland each started to reexamine the NATO Membership matter. Early this year, the push towards NATO membership slid into overdrive following a blatant show of force around the Swedish island of Gotland by Russian naval forces, followed a short time later by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the weeks leading up to the war, there were other matters that helped Stockholm and Helsinki come to the conclusion that NATO membership was the right choice for both nations, like Russia’s demand that NATO halt its eastward expansion.
Ukraine was the final straw for Sweden and Finland, however.
I wasn’t expecting to write on this topic today, but somehow I ended up doing just that. I was originally going to discuss India’s decision to halt wheat exports, unrest over food prices in Iran and other related matters. I will post on that either tomorrow or early Tuesday.
Finland has moved one step closer to applying for NATO membership. Its leadership officially extended its support for expedited membership in the transatlantic alliance. President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin made the decision and it is one that is enjoying heavy initial support among Finnish citizens and lawmakers. It a joint statement, Finland’s leaders said, “NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance. Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay.” Neighboring Sweden is expected to move forward with its own decision on NATO membership in a matter of days.
The leadership’s statement brings to bear a crucial question NATO will need to closely examine during the application process: Exactly what benefits do Finland, and perhaps eventually Sweden as well, bring to the table? Aside from aggravating Moscow, of course, and adding more fuel to Moscow’s NATO Expansion argument.
Russia wasted no time in saying it would consider a Finnish application to be a violation of international legal obligations. “Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of military and other nature, in order to curtail the threats that arise to its national security in this regard,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Moscow views the moves by the Scandinavian neutral nations to join NATO is viewed as a knee-jerk reaction to the war in Ukraine. With the war not progressing the way Vladimir Putin anticipated, Russia is now viewing events in Finland and Sweden with deep suspicion.
Wary of what the Swedish Armed Forces’ Commander of Joint Operations referred to as ‘extensive military activity in the Baltic Sea’ at present Sweden is moving to raise its military readiness. Both Russia, and NATO have been holding sizeable exercises, and running patrol operations in the Baltic region of late. The scale of activity has been on a level not seen since the Cold War. This, coupled with the uncertainty of the ongoing global pandemic, and disputed election in Belarus is creating a heightened security situation in the Baltic. The Swedes are rightfully growing concerned and this latest move is intended to send a signal to friend and foe alike that Sweden stands prepared to defend its sovereignty.
It goes without saying, however, that the signal is intended more for Moscow’s benefit rather than Washington’s, or London’s.
Sweden has not been shy about publicizing its deployments. On Tuesday, Swedish television broadcast video footage of armored vehicles arriving on Gotland amid vacationing families, and other tourists. In Stockholm, the Swedish government has been careful not to connect its military moves with the unrest taking place in Belarus. It has admitted the ongoing Russian military exercises are what finally moved Sweden to take action. Along with the armored vehicles, a number of Gripen fighter planes have also been deployed to Gotland. In the Baltic Sea, four Swedish corvettes are presently exercising with the Finnish Navy. Other nations are also moving military pieces around the Scandinavian chessboard. Over the weekend a US special operations aircraft landed on Gotland for a period of time, and farther north Norwegian F-16s, and US Air Force B-52s exercised together over the Arctic.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sweden became concerned about Russia’s intentions in the Baltic, and Europe. Following years of declining defense budgets, Sweden reversed course and started to spend more money on defense. Since 2014 the size and capabilities of the Swedish armed forces have increased with Russia now seen as an unfriendly, potentially hostile Baltic neighbor. Sweden remains unaligned, and neutral in most regards but that has not prevented Swedish forces from taking part in exercises and engaging in closer military relations with a number of NATO nations.