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Sweden and Finland: From alongside NATO to inside NATO

The Hill logo The Hill 5/20/2022 Dov S. Zakheim, Opinion Contributor
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In the space of some six weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin successfully upended 208 years of Swedish history. Sweden had been non-aligned since 1814. If the NATO legislatures grant their approval, that no longer will be the case. Together with Finland, Sweden would become a full-fledged member of the alliance.

During the past decade or so, while a majority of the Finnish public swung round in favor of joining NATO, Swedish public opinion remained considerably more ambivalent. In particular, whereas the Moderate Party, Sweden’s leading conservative party, has outspokenly supported NATO membership, the ruling Social Democrats has been reluctant to get ahead of public opinion. Indeed, despite making it clear that it considered NATO membership a viable option, Finnish governments during those years likewise hesitated to launch a formal application process.

All that changed with Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine. And once Finland applied, Stockholm felt it could not be the only Nordic country to remain outside NATO.

In the past several days, a senior Swedish official pointed out to me that six weeks is indeed a very short time to reverse a centuries-old policy. It is true that Sweden already is well-integrated with NATO. Its forces have jointly exercised with NATO as a major alliance partner. Moreover, since the early 2010s it has developed an increasingly close relationship with both Helsinki and Washington; in May 2018, Sweden and Finland signed a memorandum of agreement with the United States to increase defense cooperation among the three countries. In addition, under Article 42.7 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, it is committed to employ “all means” in its power to any fellow European Union (EU) member state that becomes a “victim of armed aggression on its territory.” Moreover, Sweden’s deployment of a military presence on the Baltic island of Gotland certainly enhances Western deterrence against possible Russian aggression.

Nevertheless, as the official pointed out to me, the Swedish government recognizes that by joining NATO it will now take on the additional commitment to come to the defense of 30 — 31 when Finland joins — other countries under the terms of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. And its military, as well as civilian bureaucracy, which only months ago was not structured to function as a formal NATO ally, now will have to respond to the demands of a far speedier admittance process than has governed previous rounds of NATO expansion.

Sweden has committed itself to a significant increase in defense spending. With the consent of all its major parties, it plans to reach NATO’s target of 2 percent of GDP by 2028. With a technically advanced, highly professional military, Sweden’s entry into NATO would enhance the alliance’s posture in northern Europe significantly.


Video: Finland, Sweden Plan to Apply for NATO Membership (Bloomberg)

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At the same time, however, Stockholm would like to see an increased and more frequent American presence in the Baltics. Such a presence would further underscore NATO’s deterrent in the region, particularly vis-à-vis Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, which bristles with firepower including nuclear weapons. 

There is, of course, the possibility that despite the enthusiastic reception that the U.S. and most NATO states have granted to Stockholm and Helsinki, the alliance might not necessarily accept their applications. The governments of all 30 NATO states must approve the applications for membership, and not all of them are equally excited about the potential new entrants.

In particular, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has conditioned his approval on Sweden’s releasing to Turkey some 30 members of the Kurdish extremist PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) organization. Both Turkey and the United States have branded the PKK as a terrorist group, but my Swedish interlocutor made it clear that his country is not yet prepared to release these people to the tender mercies of the Turkish prison system.

Perhaps Putin’s rather low-key reaction to the Finnish and Swedish announcements was due to his anticipation that Turkey would block their accession over the PKK issue. As with his invasion of Ukraine, however, he may be guilty of a serious miscalculation again. Erdoğan might be satisfied with other forms of compensation, such as Washington’s permitting Turkey to rejoin the F-35 program, from which it was removed after Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles.

Alternatively, the Turkish president may simply withdraw his veto, given Turkey’s concern about potential Russian dominance of the northern Black Sea. Indeed, Ankara has provided critical support for Ukraine — not only with its supply of highly effective Bayraktar drones but also by refusing Russian warships entry into the Black Sea via the Bosporus and Dardanelles. Erdoğan may conclude that adding the two states to the alliance enhances NATO’s overall deterrent, on its southern flank as much as on its northern one.

Hopefully, the process of admitting Finland and Sweden to NATO will not drag on. In the interim, America and Britain have issued security guarantees to both countries, even as their defense cooperation with America proceeds apace. And when the two states ultimately do join the alliance that Putin has worked so hard — and failed — to sunder, he will have only himself to blame.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

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