As It Happens·Q&A

Why Sweden is moving away from its 'non-aligned' status and towards NATO

Sweden’s rapid move towards NATO membership shows just how much the country’s ideology has changed, says analyst Bjorn Fagersten.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has Sweden and ally Finland eyeing membership in the military alliance

Sweden's Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist and Foreign Minister Ann Linde present a security policy analysis during a news conference in Stockholm on Friday, outlining the benefits of NATO membership. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/Reuters)

Sweden's rapid move towards NATO membership shows just how much the country's ideology has changed, says analyst Bjorn Fagersten.

On Friday, the country's foreign minister released an all-party report outlining the benefits of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a 30-country military alliance of which Canada is a founding member.

Sweden will debate the proposal on Monday and likely submit its application soon after, reports local newspaper Expressen.a

It's a dramatic shift for a country that has long maintained its status as militarily non-aligned. But Russia's invasion of Ukraine has forced Sweden — and its closest military partner Finland — to publicly pick sides.

Fagersten is a senior research fellow and director of the Europe program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

Sweden has been a neutral country through many past conflicts. What is different this time?

Already in early February this year, the ruling Social Democrats said that non-alignment was still contributing to stability and serving Swedish interests.

And then with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine later that month — and also the war crimes that [have] been documented — that has changed. And they have now started an analytical work to prepare Sweden for entry into NATO.

Do you know anything about the arguments made in the report?

It argues ... that Sweden's current policy of military non-alignment and close bilateral agreements — which doesn't really offer security guarantees, but some level of security co-operation with the U.S., the UK, with the EU, of course, but also with Finland — isn't really enough when we're facing this threat from Russia.

For ordinary Swedes, how much of a pressing issue has this NATO's question become?

We have elections coming up in September, and it's a pretty odd situation that ... it won't really be a debate for the election, because everything will be settled, at least from a Swedish perspective, by then.

So there's a few people who feel that this has been going way too fast, while others would argue that, no, we've been having this discussion actually for years, but the Social Democrats never wanted, really, to move.

Sweden is known for pushing for nuclear disarmament, for example, in recent years. And, certainly, the left-wing parties, and the Greens in particular, are saying that they don't agree with this idea of joining NATO. Is there opposition? Is it significant?

It is those parties that you listed. And then, of course, there are members of other parties that are [skeptical] as well.

But it was actually raised in the report that Sweden would most likely be able to continue to, for example, work for nuclear disarmament also from within NATO. 

And one issue that's been coming up is whether Sweden could continue to [have] such an active ... mediating role in international conflicts. And there are references often made to Norway that manages to have such a role, also within NATO.

Watch: Ex-NATO ambassador on possibility of Finnish and Swedish membership:

Finland, Sweden moving closer to NATO, says ex-NATO ambassador

14 days ago
Duration 3:53
The former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, expects Finland and Sweden to formally request an invitation to join NATO within the week, in what he describes as a 'massive' blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia is prepared to cut its electricity exports to Finland, which Russia says is about payment issues. How might that play into the decision Sweden will make? 

We knew this wouldn't be appreciated by Russia, so the report also lists that there would be, most likely, some kind of countermeasures. And that could be cyber. It could be hybrid attacks, like electricity, or other kind of measures.

So how seriously is the Swedish government taking those concerns?

I hope they are taking it seriously. And that was also the aim of writing such a report. It was to try to outline some of the risks. 

And of course, both the Swedish government — and I would say, in particular, the Finnish government — [have] been very … active in preparing the grounds for NATO membership and having talks with almost all the current NATO members to really shore up political support.

From a Swedish perspective, it's also been important to see if there's any kind of, if not guarantee, then at least security assurance that we can gain in the interim period between an application and a full membership.

And that's because membership might take some months, is that right?

Exactly. And there's a worry that this phase between application and full ratification and Article 5 protection would be a risk for Sweden and Finland.

You could really question to what extent we've even been militarily non-aligned up until today.

You mentioned threats of retaliation by Russia. One thing they have said is that they might deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles to the Baltic region. How much does that weigh on people?

It is a factor. But then if you look at the opinion polls [the Swedish support for] NATO membership has really increased over the months. So clearly, people worry more about Russia in the sense of being outside of NATO's than the consequences of joining NATO.

This is especially true when it comes to Finland. So if Finland joins, then the Swedes are much more in favour of also joining. 

We see today that Turkey is stating it will oppose any effort by your country to join NATO. Of course, Turkey is a NATO member and it's threatening to use its veto power. What do you make of that threat?

It's hard to read. As far as I understand it, Sweden got some sort of green light from the foreign minister of Turkey earlier, and now they give some kind of yellow light ... [with] the president saying they wouldn't prefer this ... so it could be an opening for some kind of a negotiation.

[Robert Dalsjo, director of studies] of the Swedish Defense Research Agency was recently quoted in [the New York Times] saying that Sweden had its dream and now it is time to wake up. What do you think he means by that?

I think the policy of, first, neutrality — and then since we joined the European Union, we use the term "military non-alignment" — for some people has been very ideological and perhaps even nostalgic about more the '50s and the '60s and kind of activist policies in the foreign policy domain that we pursued then, rather than to really be a correct description of the current policy.

Because in reality, Sweden has been extremely close to NATO, extremely close to the United States [and] participated in all military activities of the European Union. So you could really question to what extent we've even been militarily non-aligned up until today. 

But it's been a popular concept, and clearly it's a concept that we now will have to leave.

While it has a peacenik image, I suppose, internationally, Sweden is also a major exporter of arms. I know there have been limits, in terms of policy, on where those arms would go. For example, no active war zones. I suppose that might have to change as well alongside this NATO membership?

That changed actually already with the massive transfer of arms to Ukraine, which is, of course, a war zone. And that was the first real change before this NATO discussion that Sweden went from saying that, no, it was totally against our policy to send weapons, and then just weeks later we started sending weapons.

So it's definitely springing up some radical changes in Swedish security policy. 


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Paul MacInnis. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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