What Sweden's Accession Means for NATO

commentary

Mar 22, 2024

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (r), with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson during the NATO ratification ceremony as Sweden formally joins NATO at the Department of State in Washington, D.C.,  March 7, 2024, photo by Chuck Kennedy/ABACA via Reuters Connect

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (r), with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson during the NATO ratification ceremony as Sweden formally joins NATO at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., March 7, 2024

Photo by Chuck Kennedy/ABACA via Reuters Connect

This commentary originally appeared on Encompass on March 22, 2024.

Finland and Sweden's applications to join NATO broke both countries' longstanding traditions of military nonalignment, marking a radical change in their foreign and security policies. Joining at the same time reflected not only close political coordination between Helsinki and Stockholm but also interlinkages between each country's defence planning. Finland's path to accession last year proved much smoother than that of Sweden, whose entry was initially blocked by Turkey and Hungary before it joined on 7 March.

The Path to Membership

Sweden took its first tentative steps towards the alliance in the 1990s and 2000s but stopped well short of accession to NATO. In domestic politics, the idea of membership was long a taboo.

Historically, Sweden has often perceived Russia to be the main military adversary, and it is this threat perception that has broadly shaped its defence policies throughout the years. During the Cold War, the tradition of military nonalignment was preserved through heavily armed neutrality alongside a major diplomatic voice in international peacebuilding, and use of Sweden's robust defence industry to safeguard its sovereignty and security of supply. In the late 90s to early 2000s, in the perceived absence of a serious Russian threat, Sweden, like many other countries in Europe, dramatically dismantled and restructured its defences. Armed forces were significantly downsized and shifted towards civil defence and peacekeeping operations. Sweden became one of NATO's Partners for Peace in 1994.

Sweden has made longstanding efforts to ensure that national forces and equipment are interoperable and meet NATO standards.

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However, in the deteriorating security environment since 2014, Sweden has brought back its “Total Defence” model as the foundation of its defence policy. This approach encompasses all of society in the national defence effort and includes military, civil, economic, and psychological elements of defence. The latter has also been reinvigorated due to heightened concerns over Russian cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. It was also in 2014, following Russia's first invasion of eastern Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea that Sweden became a NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner (EOP). As an EOP, and through participation in different bilateral agreements and task forces, Sweden has made longstanding efforts to ensure that national forces and equipment are interoperable and meet NATO standards. This placed it in a position to integrate quickly into alliance structures and plans.

A Significant Contribution to NATO Capability

With the addition of its 32nd Member, NATO's toolkit gains Sweden's ground and air combat, nearshore and undersea warfare capabilities, as well as the country's expertise in niche areas such as cold weather operations. Substantial investments are needed to increase the capacity and readiness of the Swedish Armed Forces after several decades of underinvestment, prompting the government to boost defence spending to 2 percent of GDP and expand conscription.

Sweden's military employs a range of modern equipment and designs much of it at home through its disproportionately large and sophisticated defence industry, centred around Saab and a subsidiary of the UK-headquartered BAE Systems. This industry includes the manufacture of advanced combat aircraft (JAS-39 Gripen), artillery systems (Archer), infantry fighting vehicles (CV-90) and conventional attack submarines. Sweden also actively exports defence platforms and other equipment, including to countries in NATO. As such, Sweden provides a defence industrial contribution to European collective security that supersedes its wider economic weight.

Potential Contributions Go Beyond Hardware

NATO's resilience capabilities, highlighted as a priority area, will greatly benefit from Sweden's insights and expertise on societal resilience and the Total Defence model. The country knows how to counter hybrid threats and how to mobilise businesses, the media, and the general population in a crisis.

The addition of Sweden and Finland effectively doubles NATO's land border with Russia. The entire Nordic-Baltic region also becomes NATO-aligned territory, save the Russian coast and the small exclave of Kaliningrad. Sweden also brings new strategic and operational depth to NATO's position in Scandinavia, aiding with the defence of Finland and the Baltics if needed by offering a logistical hub for the reception, staging, and onward movement of NATO reinforcements arriving in a crisis.

The ability to use the more developed east—west ground lines of communication (GLOCs) through Swedish territory, including both road and rail links, will also help reduce pressure on the limited north—south GLOCs that currently connect southern and northern Norway. This will aid in the speedy reinforcement of both the northern-most Norwegian counties and Finnish Lapland. Similarly, Sweden's strategic position will aid power projection into the Baltic Sea, including possible positioning of radar, air defence, and anti-ship systems on the island of Gotland, or the transit of aircraft and other NATO forces to reinforce the Baltic States in a crisis.

Sweden's strategic position will aid power projection into the Baltic Sea.

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With Sweden and Finland in the alliance, Northern Europe and the North Atlantic also become a more integrated defence and deterrence space, with a wider presence of NATO forces in both the European Arctic and the Baltic-Nordic regions. Besides a more robust defensive posture, this means also improved information sharing and situational awareness in the maritime and air domains; opportunities for a more coherent approach to air missions in the North Calotte region where Norway, Sweden, and Finland intersect; and an increased focus on the High North as a zone of competition with Russia.

In these ways and more, Russia's failed invasion of Ukraine has yet again produced unintended consequences for the Kremlin—pushing neutral Sweden to embrace a role in Europe and NATO's collective defence and security, to the benefit of the NATO alliance.


Katja Fedina is a senior analyst and James Black is assistant director of the defence and security research group at RAND Europe.

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