Fear Won in Sweden’s Battle Between Neutrality and the Russian Threat

This is how the debate in Sweden changed, leading to the announcement Monday the country will join Finland in seeking NATO membership

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A demonstration against NATO membership in Stockholm, Sweden, Sunday.
A demonstration against NATO membership in Stockholm, Sweden, Sunday.Credit: Anders Wiklund/TT via AP
David Stavrou
David Stavrou
Stockholm, Sweden
David Stavrou
David Stavrou
Stockholm, Sweden

STOCKHOLM - Until a few months ago, nobody would have bet on Finland and Sweden joining NATO at all, much less doing so at lightning speed. Public opinion opposed the idea, as did both countries’ political establishments; neither country’s political system was built for rapid decisions on defense affairs; and most importantly, both countries had a decades-old tradition of avoiding military alliances.

In Sweden’s case, this was an ideological approach. The last time Sweden was involved in a war was in 1814. Throughout the 20th century, it tried to position itself as a humanitarian superpower that, instead of taking sides in wars, tried to mediate between the parties, while also supporting international institutions, mediating conflicts and taking in refugees. Thus, it ostensibly remained neutral in World War II and nonaligned during the Cold War.

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Sweden's Speaker of the Parliament Andreas Norlen walks past a manifestation against Swedish membership in NATO, outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, Sweden, today.Credit: TT NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS

In Finland’s case, its neutrality stemmed from fear of the superpower next door. Finland shares a border with Russia that is more than 1,300 kilometers long. It was once part of the Russian Empire, fought against the Soviet Union during World War II and was threatened by Moscow during the Cold War. The last thing it wanted after the Soviet Union fell apart was to get involved in a new conflict with the Russians.

But then Russia invaded Ukraine, and both countries’ unalignment policies melted away.

Finland and Sweden were always completely Western in their orientation. And practically speaking, it’s an open secret that they have been cooperating with NATO for years.

Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson at a press conference in Stockholm, Sweden, on Monday.Credit: Henrik Montgomery/TT /AP

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine revealed a flaw – if Ukraine could be ruthlessly attacked by Russia while the world settled for economic sanctions and condemnations, who would protect Sweden and Finland? After all, just like Ukraine, they are independent countries that aren’t under the protection of the NATO alliance, and particularly the treaty’s Article 5 which states that an attack against one NATO country is considered as an attack against them all.

Consequently, the invasion of Ukraine produced a turnaround in Finnish and Swedish public opinion. Immediately after the invasion began, polls published in both countries showed that for the first time in history, there was widespread public support for joining NATO.

In Finland, 50,000 people signed a petition to join the alliance, and parliament began feverish discussions that culminated with Prime Minister Sanna Marin and President Sauli Niinisto saying in a joint statement that “Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay.” To enable the implementation of this decision, parliament will hold a vote on the issue in the coming days.

Sweden isn’t lagging far behind. Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist, who asserted in the past that “As long as I’m defense minister, I can promise that we won’t join” NATO, told Sweden’s national broadcaster last week that “Nordic mutual defense will be strengthened if Sweden and Finland join.” Explaining why he changed his position, he said, “There’s before February 24 and after February 24,” referring to the date when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Swedish Army tanks participate in a military exercise involving thousands of troops from NATO countries, Sweden and Finland, in Norway, March.Credit: REUTERS/Yves Herman

Over the weekend, a parliamentary committee submitted a report about the worsening of Sweden’s security situation following the invasion of Ukraine. Many saw this as further support for those who advocate joining NATO. The ruling Social Democratic Party announced on Sunday that it had changed its position and would support joining NATO, and took the formal decision to apply on Monday after a debate in parliament.

“In Finland, the question of joining NATO was always a practical one, but in Sweden, it’s a more sensitive subject,” says Hans Wallmark, a veteran Swedish parliamentarian from the center-right Moderate Party who has supported joining NATO for years. “For part of the left, not being a member of NATO was almost a religious position, so for some politicians, supporting joining NATO is like converting to another religion. Therefore, it’s difficult and painful.

“When Russia invaded Ukraine and the Finns began their joining process, the Swedish Social Democratic Party was more or less pushed into the process,” adds Wallmark, who is deputy chairman of parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. Nevertheless, he said, Sweden shouldn’t join NATO just because it’s forced into it, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Badges are pictured outside the Social Democratic party's office where protesters gathered during a demonstration against NATO membership, in Stockholm, Sweden, this week.Credit: TT NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS

“There are three reasons why Sweden should join NATO,” he continues. “First of all, there’s Article 5 of NATO’s treaty, with its principle of ‘one for all and all for one.’ Second, there’s a need for joint defense planning with other countries in the region, and third, this is an issue of solidarity with European and North American countries.”

Deterrent power against Russia

On the other side of the Baltic Sea, Jouni Ovaska, a member of Finland’s parliament representing the Center Party since 2019, made many of the same points as his Swedish colleague. As a member of his parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, he is also involved in the parliamentary proceedings to enable Finland’s membership bid.

“Membership in NATO will guarantee Finland’s security, because of the alliance’s substantial deterrent power,” he says. “And of course, the most important thing is Article 5 of the treaty.”

Nevertheless, he says, Finland must continue investing in its own military and training its soldiers, just as it has until now, and continue cultivating its other international partnerships.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto sign a declaration between the U.K. in Helsinki, Finland, Friday.Credit: Lehtikuva/Antti Aimo-Koivisto via REUTERS

“The European Union is our main partner, and most European countries are NATO members,” he notes. “I hope joining will strengthen European countries so that they can take care of defense on their own. Sweden is our closest partner, and if it, like all the Nordic countries, becomes a NATO member, this will provide greater security for the entire region.”

Ovaska says the Finns have moved very swiftly to join NATO. “February 24 changed everything,” he says. “We have cooperated with Russia in the past, but the invasion of Ukraine showed that we can’t trust it. That’s why we rethought the situation. Public opinion changed very quickly, more quickly than change happened among elected officials.”

He says the change in public opinion stemmed directly from the war in Ukraine: “What was done to Ukraine dredged up memories from the past. It’s not like something from the 21st century, it reminds us of atrocities from many years ago, and we have to make a change.”

However, there are some who oppose joining the military alliance. The Swedish Green Party, for example, argues that Sweden should be an independent power that promotes democracy and peace in the world, not part of a military alliance that possesses and bases its power on nuclear weapons. According to the Left Party, Sweden will defend itself better if it adheres to the policy of refraining from military alliances, which it says has served the country well for many generations.

The two parties that oppose joining NATO have a total of just over 40 seats out of 349 in the Swedish parliament. In Finland, opposition to the move is even smaller, and at this point is heard only on the fringes.

Therefore, it seems that Sweden and Finland’s rush into NATO is inevitable, although the process itself is not short. “After the official request is submitted to Jen Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, in Brussels, Sweden and Finland will enter what is called the Membership Action Plan,” Prof. Ann-Sofie Dahl explains.

A destroyed Russian main battle tank in Ukraine, earlier this month.Credit: REUTERS/Vitalii Hnidyi

Dahl, who lives in Denmark and serves as a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., has written extensively about the NATO alliance. “Usually this is a process that takes a long time, but Sweden and Finland are very close to NATO, so that this time it will be just a formal process that will probably take only a day or two,” she says, explaining that the initial process will be followed by the ratification process.

“They will also try to accelerate this step, but because there is a need for the approval of the parliaments of the 30 member countries, it will probably take at least four to six months until the formal membership of the two countries goes into effect,” Dahl says.

Naturally, in both Sweden and Finland there is some concern regarding the interim period between their decision and the validity of membership. Dahl note the guarantees of security that have been obtained in recent months. “British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Sweden and Finland this month and declared that the United Kingdom will guarantee the security of the two countries,” Dahl says. “

That is a very important declaration, because Britain is an important player as well as a nuclear power,” she notes, adding that there is apparently a less official, and less overt, commitment from the White House. It is known that the Finnish president has met in Washington with President Joe Biden, and the Swedish foreign minister recently also held meetings in the U.S. capital. In addition, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin visited Berlin and received a promise from Chancellor Olaf Scholz that their countries “can rely on German support if they submit a request for NATO membership.”

“I think that after the decision to join NATO – and certainly from the moment the candidacy is submitted – we’ll see a lot of ‘Russian noise,’ but not a military assault,” says Dahl. “We may see things such as a cyberattack or an attack of disinformation, but Moscow is busy in Ukraine and probably, as happened during the previous NATO expansion process, Russia will make a lot of noise – but will then continue as usual.”

Wallmark, the deputy chairman of the Swedish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, is also aware of the anticipated saber-rattling by Moscow. However, he anticipates that “the Kremlin will bark, but nothing more than that.” His Finnish colleague, Ovaska, finds it difficult to say what the Russian reaction will be. “We’re ready to make decisions and we’re ready for anything that happens because of them,” he says. “But it’s important to remember that even when we’re part of NATO, Russia will remain our neighbor. It’s important that in future, in some way, we find a way to cooperate with them.”

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