High Time for Sweden’s NATO Membership
In 2014, after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, I called for Finland and Sweden to join the Alliance and explained why it was time for “Nordic NATO”.
High Time for Sweden’s NATO Membership
Jan Joel Andersson is Senior Analyst for security and defence at the EU Institute for Security Studies. He writes here in a personal capacity.
In 2014, after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, I called for Finland and Sweden to join the Alliance and explained why it was time for “Nordic NATO”. I argued that Russia’s invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea had to be countered by more than limited economic sanctions and that its brazen assault on the European security order had to incur a geopolitical cost. Finnish and Swedish NATO membership would do just that and deter Moscow from moving further into Ukraine and Europe. For Russia, the loss of historically neutral Sweden and Finland to NATO would have represented a serious geostrategic blow, one outweighing any gains made from the annexation of Crimea. Showing Moscow’s concern, then Russian Prime Minister and former President Dimitri Medvedev stated in June 2013 that any expansion of NATO to Sweden and Finland would be an upset to the balance of power in Europe.
Unfortunately, it did not happen then, but following the full-scale Russian re-invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, first Finland and then Sweden changed course and quickly applied, hand in hand, to NATO in May 2022. While too late to have any impact on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Finnish and Swedish membership applications were warmly welcomed by NATO Heads of State and Government who unanimously invited the two Nordic neighbours to join the Alliance at the Madrid Summit on 29 June 2022. This was not only proof of NATO’s open-door policy but also that the Russian invasion was backfiring on Putin. Instead of less NATO, as he had demanded in the draft treaty presented to NATO in December 2021 that would have prevented any further enlargement of the alliance, he was now getting more NATO. Underlining how prepared Finland and Sweden were for membership, their accession talks were completed in just five days and the accession protocols were signed by NATO on 5 July 2022. By the end of September, 28 of 30 NATO allies had ratified in record time the accession protocols of both Finland and Sweden.
On 4 April 2023, Finland finally became NATO’s 31st member. Sweden, however, still lingers in the waiting room with Türkiye and Hungary refusing to ratify Sweden’s accession protocol. The assumption is, however, that it is just a question of time, and officials in Brussels and Washington express confidence that Sweden, too, will become a full NATO member by the July Summit in Vilnius. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly stated that “it is not a question of if but when Sweden becomes a NATO ally,” while U.S. President Joe Biden has said that he “looks forward to welcoming Sweden as a NATO member as soon as possible.” Both know, as does the rest of NATO, that Sweden fully meets the requirements for membership, and call on Türkiye and Hungary to conclude their ratification processes without further delay. The expectation is that Ankara will ratify after the presidential elections are concluded at the end of May. Hungary will then follow.
But what if this does not happen?
However, formal decisions rest with Ankara and Budapest and they may be less willing to let Sweden in than is generally assumed. The objections are not about the abilities of the Swedish military or the value of Sweden as a NATO ally. Instead, the reluctance comes from domestic policy habits, where Sweden-bashing is seen as an effective way of mobilising support for both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces a difficult run-off election on 28 May, and Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán. Ankara claims that Sweden has not done enough to counter support in Sweden for Kurdish terrorist groups – an accusation that Stockholm denies – and demands the extradition of more than 100 “terrorists” – which the independent Swedish judiciary cannot do. Budapest, in turn, holds that Stockholm must change its “hostile attitude” and cease its criticism against the perceived erosion of the rule of law and LGBTQ+ rights in Hungary, although such criticism is widely shared by the European Commission, the European Parliament and most other EU Member States, including Finland.
Despite this standstill, the assumption is that once the elections are over, Ankara will swiftly ratify, and Budapest will follow suit. Perhaps they will, but if Erdogan is returned to the presidency which seems likely, there may be continued domestic and international political incentives to delay. Likewise, Hungary may also continue to drag its feet. Budapest is still looking to unblock billions of euros in funding from the EU that were frozen due to concerns in Brussels over judicial independence and corruption in Hungary. Holding up NATO expansion is a trump card that may be too good to give away for free, especially at a time when Sweden holds the rotating EU presidency.
Indeed, this standstill is more than a little ironic, given that Sweden was for years among the strongest proponents for expanding the EU to Türkiye at a time when many were against it. I had myself the opportunity to moderate a discussion on “The European Union and Turkey” in 2008 with then Prime Minister Erdogan at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs during one of his visits to Stockholm ahead of the Swedish EU presidency in 2009. And in 2013, a Sweden-Turkey Strategic Partnership Agreement was signed, with then Foreign Minister Carl Bildt stating that “Sweden clearly supports Turkey’s EU membership ambition”. Also in the case of Hungary, Sweden was a very strong supporter of EU enlargement and of Hungarian EU-membership. And for twenty years, the Hungarian Air Force has flown Swedish-made Gripen fighter jets, also in NATO air-policing missions over the Baltics, while Sweden is the second largest contributor to the multinational Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) based in Hungary.
No Plan B
Unfortunately, even in the best-case scenario in which Sweden is admitted in time for the NATO summit in July, damage has already been done. That two NATO allies have been able to block NATO expansion at a time of major war in Europe for completely unrelated political issues is deeply troubling.
Understandably enough, no one wants to talk about a plan B for Sweden. Indeed, it would be most ironic if Sweden abandons two hundred years of military neutrality in a historic decision to apply to NATO, only to be denied admission because of its support for an independent judiciary and insistence on the rule of law in Europe! Still, should Sweden be denied membership for a longer period, NATO’s open-door policy would not only be questioned, but it would also create significant problems for the defence of the alliance. A major challenge of expanding NATO to the Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – in the early 2000s was how to defend them given their borders with Russia and their geographical isolation from the rest of the alliance. Adding Finland and Sweden would not only strengthen the alliance but also allow NATO to plan for the entire Arctic-Nordic-Baltic region as one, integrated military-strategic area. Without Sweden, however, NATO will have added Finland’s 1340 km of border with Russia without the strategic depth necessary for defence and logistics.
While there is no immediate threat in the North since almost all Russian ground forces previously based there have been destroyed in Ukraine – and the US, the UK and many other NATO allies have provided Sweden bilateral security assurances – a delay beyond 2023 will surely lead to greater concern in NATO headquarters and allied capitals. There is still time to avoid a plan B, and NATO allies should therefore step up their efforts to ensure swift Swedish membership in the alliance, since the only true winner of further delays is Russia.
 Biographical note: https://www.iss.europa.eu/author/jan-joel-andersson
 Jan Joel Andersson, “Nordic NATO. Why It’s Time For Finland and Sweden to Join the Alliance”, Foreign Affairs, April 30, 2014 (https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/finland/2014-04-30/nordic-nato).
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