From Neutrality to NATO: Sweden’s Historic Shift and What it Means

More than 600 days after petitioning to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Sweden finally attained the desired outcome and ceremoniously ascended as the 32nd constituent of NATO.

On March 7, Swedish Prime Minister Kristersson officiated the submission of Sweden’s NATO membership documents at the U.S. State Department. The ambiance of the ceremony bore an air of tranquility. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken, alongside Kristersson, brandished a cerulean dossier housing legal formalities, quipping, “Those who exhibit patience are often rewarded.” He further remarked, “None of this transpired effortlessly; it took Sweden nearly two years of assiduous diplomatic endeavors to secure inclusion within the alliance.”

During the live broadcast, Kristersson paused briefly before remarking, “Today marks a historic juncture, and Sweden stands ever prepared to undertake the mantle of safeguarding security within the Euro-Atlantic sphere.”

On March 11, the Swedish ensign was hoisted ceremoniously at NATO headquarters in Brussels. John Blaxland, an erudite professor specializing in international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University, articulated to China News Weekly that the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO will indelibly refashion the European security paradigm.

“Obstructionist Hurdles”

Revisiting events more than two years prior, in November 2021, erstwhile Swedish Defense Minister Peter Holtqvist adamantly assured that Sweden would abstain from “entangling in NATO accession processes” during the tenure of the center-left Social Democratic Party.

However, a mere few months later, amidst the eruption of renewed hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, neighboring Finland petitioned to join NATO. Astonishingly, Holtqvist’s Social Democratic Party executed a complete volte-face the following day, extending support for Sweden’s bid to join NATO.

In the aftermath, while Finland seamlessly integrated into NATO within a year, Sweden’s trajectory towards the alliance was rife with convolutions and protracted deliberations. Vigorous opposition from Turkey and Hungary precipitated a temporary impasse in the process.

Established in 1949, NATO was conceived primarily to counterbalance the Soviet Union, orchestrated by the United States in concert with select European nations. In accordance with Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO espouses an “open door policy,” wherein any nation demonstrating adherence to the treaty’s tenets and augmenting security in the Euro-Atlantic region may receive an invitation for NATO membership.

However, aspiring NATO member nations must navigate through seven sequential stages. Foremost among these is the fourth stage, mandating unanimous consent from all incumbent NATO members to proceed with membership expansion. It was at this juncture that Turkey and Hungary’s dissent emerged as the most formidable impediment to Sweden’s accession to NATO.

While 28 other NATO members duly ratified Sweden’s accession protocol, Turkish President Erdogan forthrightly articulated, “Turkey cannot extend a cordial welcome to Sweden as a NATO ally unless they quell organizations deemed as security threats by Turkey, including the PKK.”

Founded in 1979, the PKK has persistently championed the establishment of an autonomous state within Kurdish-inhabited regions bordering Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Turkey categorizes the PKK as a terrorist entity and has recurrently conducted cross-border incursions to combat it. Sweden and Finland have openly espoused support for the PKK, permitting its activities within their territories and rebuffing Turkey’s entreaties for extradition of pertinent individuals.

A direct standoff between the two nations transpired in 2019 when Turkey initiated military operations dubbed “Peace Spring” against Kurdish factions in northeastern Syria. Subsequently, Sweden and Finland imposed an arms embargo on Turkey.

In a bid to assuage Erdogan’s apprehensions, a trilateral concord was brokered at the 2022 Madrid NATO summit, wherein Finland and Sweden acceded to recommence arms exports to Turkey, fortify anti-terrorism statutes, and intensify efforts to thwart PKK activities within their respective domains.

In September of that year, Sweden’s center-right coalition clinched victory in the general election by a slender margin, catapulting Kristersson to the helm as Prime Minister of Sweden. Predominant prognostications at the time posited that such an electoral outcome would facilitate negotiations with Turkey, given Turkey’s recurrent accusations against the erstwhile Social Democratic regime for purported ties with the PKK.

In January 2023, complications ensued. Pro-Kurdish activists suspended a portrait of Erdogan from a lamppost outside Stockholm City Hall, issuing veiled threats. Shortly thereafter, an anti-Islam agitator from Denmark immolated a Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm.

These unforeseen incidents elicited ire from Turkey. Erdogan’s administration declared a suspension of talks with Sweden regarding NATO membership and acquiesced to Finland’s accession to NATO in April.

“The Artisan of Negotiation”

Per Rich Ozen, a former military advisor within the U.S. State Department’s Office of Policy Planning, Erdogan is a master tactician. On the global diplomatic stage, he exhibits acumen as a sagacious negotiator. Erdogan is poised to eventually endorse Sweden’s entry into NATO; however, he is intent on maximizing concessions before acceding.

Unsurprisingly, Turkey’s maneuvers to impede Sweden’s NATO accession evoked a degree of consternation among the United States and its allies. Anna Weislander, Nordic director at the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based think tank, asserted that discrepancies concerning the Swedish conundrum laid bare the fault lines within NATO. Particularly, Turkey, devoid of European Union membership, has perennially felt marginalized within NATO, an organization predominantly constituted by EU member states. Moreover, amid a perceptible realignment of Western strategic priorities spearheaded by the United States, the shared interests between Turkey and other NATO constituents have progressively dwindled.

Niu Xinchun, vice president of the China Middle East Society, posits that Turkey has long adhered to a “pro-Western” orientation since its inception in 1923. The nation acceded to NATO in 1952, assumed associate status within the European Economic Community in 1963, forged a customs union with the European Union in 1996, and was designated a candidate country for EU membership in 1999. He imparted to China News Weekly that under Erdogan’s stewardship, Turkey’s policy autonomy has incrementally burgeoned.

Statistics illustrate that in 2008, Turkey’s alignment with the EU on foreign and security policies stood at a staggering 88%; by 2016, this figure plummeted to 44%; and by 2022, it plummeted to a meager 7%.

In recent years, Turkey has publicly espoused dissent vis-à-vis NATO on numerous international fronts. Erdogan has vociferously censured the West and the EU for reneging on commitments, all the while brandishing threats to inundate Europe with Syrian refugees, lambasting the West for double standards vis-à-vis Ukrainian and Syrian refugees. On the Palestinian-Israeli conundrum, Erdogan has unabashedly vilified Israel as a state sponsor of terrorism, contravening the overwhelming Western support for Israel and its actions, particularly in Gaza.

In the context of Sweden’s NATO bid, Turkey has persistently exerted pressure on the United States, the paramount NATO member, lobbying for the sale of advanced iterations of F-16 fighter jets and upgrades for extant F-16 variants. With Turkey boasting a fleet of 270 antiquated F-16s, it ranks as the third-largest procurer of this combat aircraft, trailing only the United States and Israel.

Albeit assertions by Turkish and U.S. officials that Sweden’s NATO membership remains divorced from F-16 procurement, a purported linkage between the two was implicitly alluded to during a telephonic exchange between U.S. President Biden and Erdogan in May of the preceding year. Per disclosures from U.S. media regarding the conversation, Biden intimated to Erdogan: “We shall engage in deliberations concerning the F-16 matter, and concurrently, aspire to reach a resolution with Sweden.”

Antecedent to his attendance at the 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius, Erdogan lodged an additional entreaty, urging European nations to rekindle long-dormant negotiations regarding Turkey’s accession to the EU. “As you pave the way for Turkey, we shall pave the way for Sweden, analogous to our facilitation of Finland.”

Ultimately, in Vilnius, Erdogan convened with Swedish Prime Minister Kristersson and EU Council President Michel respectively. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg heralded the bilateral discussions as a substantive breakthrough. Kristersson lauded Erdogan’s commitment to present Sweden’s NATO accession protocol before the Turkish Parliament, characterizing it as a “momentous stride” along Sweden’s trajectory into NATO.

The protracted wait culminated on January 25 of the current year, when Turkey formally sanctioned Sweden’s NATO membership. Ere the ink on Erdogan’s signature dried, the United States greenlit the procurement of 40 new F-16 fighter jets and the modernization of an additional 79 fighter jets. Media outlets reported the deal to be valued at approximately $23 billion.

“To traverse adversity and surmount obstacles on behalf of the other party.”

Turkey’s protracted negotiations spanning 20 months with Sweden and the United States have culminated, with Hungary emerging as the final impediment to Sweden’s accession to the treaty.

In contrast to Turkey’s extensive list of stipulations, Hungary’s demands remain nebulous. Moreover, Hungary is perceived as a ‘foreign’ entity within NATO.

Professor Blaxland contends that Turkey has consistently endeavored to maintain a conduit to Russia. Amid the Ukrainian conflict, Turkey navigates a nuanced stance, avoiding provocation of Russia while refraining from facilitating their triumph. Conversely, Hungary’s rapport with Russia often surpasses its relations with fellow EU members and most NATO allies. Since the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis in February 2022, Hungary has abstained from supplying armaments to Ukraine.

Furthermore, ongoing disputes persist between Hungary and Ukraine regarding the status of the 150,000 Hungarian residents in western Ukraine, exacerbating bilateral tensions. Hungary alleges infringement upon the linguistic rights of approximately 150,000 Hungarians in Ukraine. The leader of Hungary’s far-right party, “Our Fatherland,” even insinuated territorial claims over the western Ukrainian region inhabited by ethnic Hungarians in the event of Ukraine’s dissolution due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Over the past two years, Orban has publicly criticized the EU’s financial and military assistance to Ukraine while fostering amicable ties with the Kremlin. Concerning Sweden, Orban and members of his Fidesz party have reproached Sweden for purportedly displaying insufficient regard for Hungary and unjustly indicting Hungary for democratic deficiencies and systemic corruption.

Last year, Zoltan Kovac, the Orbán government’s state secretary for public diplomacy, publicly aired grievances, asserting that numerous issues must be addressed between Hungary and Sweden. He accused Swedish officials of perching upon a “precarious pedestal of moral ascendancy” and employing diplomatic means to assail Hungary’s interests. Kovac insisted on Sweden’s obligation to ameliorate bilateral relations before Hungary endorses Sweden’s NATO membership.

Among NATO constituents, the United States has been a staunch advocate for Orban’s acquiescence. U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman previously urged, “Now is not the time for dalliance; Hungary must take decisive action, and we implore them to do so.” British Foreign Secretary Cameron, who maintains amicable relations with the Hungarian government, similarly pressured Orban, demanding expeditious progress.

Following Turkey’s endorsement of Sweden’s treaty accession, Hungary found itself increasingly isolated within NATO. Peter Kreko, a scholar at the Institute of Political Capital in Budapest, posits that Hungary’s procrastination in ratifying Sweden’s NATO membership and obstructing EU resolutions will further erode trust between Hungary and its allies.

In light of these developments, Orban extended a personal invitation to Swedish Prime Minister Kristersson to convene in Budapest for coordination. Initially rebuffing the invitation as “superfluous,” Kristersson ultimately relented. During the summit, the two leaders superficially reconciled diplomatically. Orban remarked at the time that Sweden’s NATO accession symbolizes their readiness “to brave the most daunting challenges in solidarity.”

In a bid to fortify collaboration, Sweden and Hungary also concluded a defense industry accord. Hungary will procure four Gripen fighter jets from Sweden to augment its military capabilities.

On February 26, the Hungarian Parliament ratified Sweden’s NATO candidacy. Subsequently, on March 5, Hungarian President Schuyuk enacted legislation approving Sweden’s NATO accession.

Adieu to Two Centuries of Neutrality

On March 7, Sweden formally entered NATO. Neil Melvin, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, unequivocally asserted that Sweden’s decision “abrogated its longstanding neutrality and military non-alignment since the Napoleonic era.”

Following the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, Sweden embraced a policy of neutrality. Post-Cold War, Sweden’s neutrality evolved into a stance of military non-alignment. Since 1814, Sweden has refrained from participating in any armed conflict for over two centuries, adhering to a foreign policy rooted in nonalignment with military blocs.

According to Swedish government data, defense expenditure accounted for 2.6% of GDP in 1990. Subsequently, successive governments, irrespective of political orientation, further curtailed defense spending. By 2017 and 2018, defense expenditure dwindled to around 1% of GDP.

Despite its longstanding neutrality, Sweden has pursued an assertive foreign policy, earning recognition as a “humanitarian superpower” for its extensive aid to developing nations. John Blaxland observed that despite non-membership in NATO, Sweden fostered close ties with the organization, participating in the NATO Partnership Mechanism since 1994 and later joining the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997.

“The alignment of Finland and Sweden with the broader Western alliance is foreseeable. Despite their non-membership in NATO, these nations have consistently aligned with NATO’s principles and provided mutual support,” noted John Blaxland.

Following the full-scale escalation of the Ukrainian crisis in 2022, Sweden augmented defense spending, aiming to reach 2% of GDP “at the earliest opportunity.” NATO members had previously committed to achieving or maintaining a defense spending threshold of at least 2% of GDP by 2024. Recently, Kristersson affirmed that Sweden had fulfilled NATO’s requisites, dispatching over $1 billion worth of armaments to Ukraine.

Despite its modest population of 10 million, Sweden’s enduring neutrality necessitated the development of a formidable military-industrial complex boasting robust maritime and aerial capabilities. Its air force comprises over 90 Gripen fighter jets, complemented by a Baltic naval fleet comprising multiple frigates and submarines. Over the past two years, Sweden has mobilized its populace in readiness for conflict, evident in military advertisements adorning major urban thoroughfares.

Early this year, Swedish Armed Forces Chief of Staff Mikael Biden delivered a stark address, juxtaposing harrowing images from the Ukrainian front against Sweden’s wintry landscapes. He posed the poignant question to the Swedish populace: “Could this be Sweden?”

Merely two months after Biden’s inquiry, Sweden formalized its NATO membership. Initially, only Norway shared a border with Russia upon NATO’s inception, spanning a 196-kilometer frontier. Subsequently, NATO underwent successive expansions. By 2004, the NATO-Russia land border extended approximately 1,200 kilometers. With Finland’s accession in 2023, this border lengthened by roughly 1,300 kilometers.

Sweden’s entry into NATO substantially bolsters the alliance’s control over the Baltic Sea. Robert Dalscher, an analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Institute, unequivocally stated that Sweden represents the final piece in NATO’s Nordic puzzle. Consequently, the Baltic Sea becomes an internal sea of NATO. St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, pivotal regions in Russia, are situated on the Baltic coast. St. Petersburg lies a mere 170 kilometers from Finland’s border, while Sweden’s nearest point to Kaliningrad is a mere 280 kilometers away. Oskar Jonsson, a researcher at the Swedish Defense University, underscored Sweden’s capacity to host NATO forces and enhance collective defense capabilities.

John Blaxland underscored that Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession will redefine European security dynamics, precipitating significant alterations in the regional security paradigm.

Despite Putin’s assertion that Russia harbors no qualms with Sweden and Finland, and their NATO membership poses no direct threat, NATO’s expanded military infrastructure in these territories “will inevitably elicit a response from Russia.” The nature of this response hinges on the perceived threat to Russia.

Subsequent to Sweden’s NATO accession, Lithuania released intelligence indicating Russia’s substantial military buildup in response to NATO’s expansion in the Baltic region.

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