Moscow has threatened to retaliate if the neutral Nordic state joins the Western military alliance.
Sweden should consider closer cooperation with the U.S. military but not go as far as joining NATO, according to a government-commissioned report to be released this summer.
Concern about Russian aggression in Ukraine has forced Stockholm to reconsider the 200-year-old policy of neutrality in armed conflicts, but the left-leaning government is eager to avoid any move that could antagonize Moscow.
The ruling Social Democratic-Green coalition asked career diplomat Krister Bringéus last September to study all of Sweden’s security relationships — but the most consequential chapter will be the one focused on NATO.
Bringéus’ brief prevents him from recommending a clear Yes or No, but a source familiar with the content of the report, which is due for release in August, said he will not even hint at NATO membership.
That cautious conclusion will be a nod to growing domestic pressure in Sweden to respond to the Russian threat, without going so far as to provoke a Russian reaction.
“The government wanted to avoid a NATO report at all costs, and this report on all of Sweden’s security alliances is a compromise with the opposition,” said Sven-Olof Petersson, a retired ambassador.
The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow will “take necessary measures” if Sweden joins NATO.
Sweden’s parliament is expected this month to ratify a Host Nation Treaty with NATO, which will allow the alliance’s forces to exercise on Swedish territory and come to the country’s aid if there is a crisis. This agreement, too, is less likely to rile Russia than a Swedish application to join the Atlantic alliance.
Moscow has made its concerns over Sweden’s direction very clear.
In late April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter that Russia will “take necessary measures” if Sweden joins NATO. Asked what measures, Lavrov said it was up to the military to decide.
The Swedish government reacted forcefully, with Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist calling Lavrov’s threats “completely unacceptable.”
Not so neutral
Lavrov’s intervention comes as Sweden grows increasingly concerned about its exposed position in the face a growing Russian threat. Neither Sweden nor its neighbor Finland are currently members of NATO; both cooperate closely with the alliance and have dithered for years over whether to join. They have long been expected to join NATO together, or abstain together.
For months, pressure has mounted on Sweden’s government to think about NATO membership. After many years of cutbacks, pushed particularly hard by the center-right coalition that governed between 2006 and 2014 and oversaw the end of conscription, Sweden is now increasing military spending.
This year’s defense budget is 43.3 billion krona (€4.6 billion), up from 43 billion krona last year, and is equivalent to 1.1 percent of GDP, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Last year the government decided to allocate an additional 10 billion krona in total until 2020; the first 1.3 billion krona was added to this year’s budget.
But the budget increases are small, and Sweden’s armed forces only number some 50,000, one-tenth of their Cold War strength. That has made NATO membership a hot topic. Though the Social Democrats — Sweden’s dominant party during the Cold War, who now govern in a coalition with the Greens — have long opposed joining the alliance, Russia’s changing behavior has given the idea new urgency.
Public opinion is correspondingly jittery. In a new poll by the Som Institute, 37 percent of Swedes surveyed said they supported NATO membership, versus 31 percent who opposed it; however, in a separate question in the same poll, 60 percent wanted the country to retain its traditional neutrality.
Support for NATO membership has grown steadily in recent years, with 31 percent in favor in 2014 and 17 percent in 2012.
Lavrov’s interview coincided with a Finnish government committee’s recommendations on NATO membership. The report, commissioned by the foreign ministry, recommended that if Finland does decide to join NATO, it should do so jointly with Sweden.
“Finland would be more exposed and vulnerable than it currently is if Sweden alone were to join NATO […] Finland joining NATO with Sweden staying out would create a strategically awkward situation, leaving Finland as a strategic outpost without territorial continuity with NATO,” the report said, adding that the EU can’t solve Finland’s security needs.
Finland has increased its cooperation with NATO to the point that it’s no longer possible to cooperate more without joining the alliance, the committee noted.
The Swedish report is very unlikely to go that far, sources said.
If Bringéus did present a scenario favouring NATO accession, it would embarrass a government that doesn’t want it.
But Mats Johansson, a former MP who now chairs the Free World Forum, a think tank in Stockholm, said: “He can still say things that matter, primarily suggesting closer Swedish cooperation with NATO, Finland, and the United States. Sweden could, for example, expand its joint military exercises with the United States.”
Sources said the cabinet will downplay Bringéus’s report when he delivers it in August — and has already made up its mind not to join NATO. Even Hultqvist, the normally pugnacious defense minister, believes NATO membership is a step too far.
Last week, Foreign Minister Margot Wallström underlined her and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s opposition to joining NATO, pointing out in a statement that the possible election of Donald Trump as U.S. president makes NATO a less attractive option.
“I think we agree we do not want Donald Trump to have a dominant influence on our security and foreign policy,” she wrote.
Island in the Baltic
For their part, the Greens are fundamentally opposed to membership. Most mainstream opposition parties support NATO membership, while the far-right Sweden Democrats, the third-largest party in parliament, and the Left Party are opposed.
Unlike Finland, whose location makes it mostly concerned about the direct impact of Russia’s intentions, Sweden is worried about the situation in the three Baltic republics. All three are NATO members but have small militaries and are seen as vulnerable to a Russian attack.
Sources said Bringéus is likely to point out that the risk of war in Sweden would increase if the Baltic states were attacked.
NATO is considering deploying four new battalions to Poland and the Baltic region. Russia said earlier this year that it plans to create three new divisions, totaling about 30,000 troops, to counter what it sees as a growing NATO threat — though Moscow insists it has no intention of invading the Baltics. Russian warplanes have also buzzed U.S. Navy ships in the Baltic Sea.
In his report, sources said Bringéus is likely to point out that the risk of war in Sweden would increase if the Baltic states were attacked, as it would trigger a race to establish a presence on the strategically located Swedish island of Gotland, lying in the Baltic Sea between mainland Sweden and Latvia.
“Gotland plays a decisive role if NATO is to defend the Baltic states,” said Karlis Neretnieks, a retired Swedish general and former commander of Gotland. “If the Russians take the island and manage to place long-range air-defense systems there, NATO will have face incredible difficulty defending its Baltic allies.”