Escaping the Perils of a Conflict: How Russia Pushes Sweden to NATO?


Huseyin Oylupinar (PhD)

Foreign Policy Institute

On December 17, 2021, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued two draft texts titled “Treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees”[i] and “Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and the Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization”[ii]. The Russia’s aim was to gain legal security guarantees from the United States and NATO.

How recent tensions around Ukraine and threat of reinvasion and the above mentioned texts, if agreed, may reflect on the Swedish foreign policy, security and defence planning remains as a question to be addressed.

Since Swedish-Norwegian War of 1814, the last of wars in which Sweden participated, Swedish Foreign Policy has been characterized as free from alliances in peace and neutrality in wars. This policy basis has been defended on the grounds that Sweden remaining outside of alliances and wars would contribute to decreasing tensions between competing or warring parties.

Indeed, Sweden has historical record of peaceful relations avoiding costly power politics, wars, and alliances. This has been achieved by strongly formed doctrine of isolation from power politics and successful communication of the doctrine to other countries to form the opinion of others about Sweden. According to the Government Message to Parliament (February 9, 1949), “Swedish territory has to be kept pacified in the sense that it is not put at the disposal of any other power for military preparations, not should Sweden make agreements with one power group which the other power group could interpret as Swedish territory being at the disposal of the opposite party for advanced bases.”

Enjoying cushioning of Scandinavian neighbors and fostering strong discourse of non-alignment and policy of isolation Sweden set itself to become a leading small state. Yet, this policy was challenged at times. For example, during the World War II, Sweden helped Nordic neighbors by supporting Finnish war efforts against the Soviets with volunteers joining the ranks of the Finnish army and “volunteer” Swedish military pilots flying in the Finnish air forces while allowing German troops through its territory. This was done when Sweden was sticking to its declared policy of staying out of the war with armed neutrality. With such a flexibility, Sweden could came out of the war with an intact industrial substructure and a strong defence force, and therefore, become a strong actor in the Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea.

During the Cold War the non-aligned status of Sweden was challenged at times. One may note here two events. First one is the Catalina event of 1952 when Soviet air forces shot down two unarmed aircraft of the Swedish Air Forces over the international waters of the Baltic Sea. The second one is when the Soviet nuclear-armed Whiskey Class submarine, S-363, running aground on a Swedish coast in 1981. Thus, tensions increased with continued intrusions and distrust prevailed. The Swedish idealized perception of self as peacemakers and seeing the Baltic Sea as a sea of peace was heavily tainted.

Swedish policy-makers, as much as they wanted to escape from realpolitik, had a good sense of the Soviets and the security challenges it posed. This forced them to pursue a double-decker approach to foreign and security policies during the Cold War: an official neutrality of Swedish politics and non-alignment along with unofficial and top-secret military cooperation with NATO.[iii] The latter involved intelligence-sharing, training military officers in the US and NATO, and providing landing strips to the US which came to the USSR attention in 1960s with the espionage activities of the Swedish col. Stig Wennerström.

The top-secret policy was kept successfully away from the public attention to protect the dogma of Swedish neutrality which has then long become the most essential tenet of the national identity. With such a basis in the society, questioning the main security strategy would be impossible for political leaders and  only a minority group in the Swedish parliament could express sympathy to NATO membership in 2010s.[iv]

The turning point in Sweden’s perception of its security came with the Russia’s landgrapping of Crimea and parts of Ukraine’s Donbas. The sovereignty of Ukraine was recognized by Russia in 1997 with an internationally legitimate agreement. Russia’s unprovoked use of military forces in capturing its neighbor’s sovereign territories brought Russia’s non-NATO neighbors in the Baltics, Finland and Sweden, to the understanding that their lands could also be captured.

While I reserve another article to address the Russian foreign policy motivations since 2010, I will suffice to mention that Russia security perception suffers lack of a security buffer zone, which securely existed to a large extent in the Cold War period, around its borders on the line that extends from the Black Sea up to the Baltic Sea. The fall of the Soviet Union and loss of domination over large European territories has been a trauma for the Russian imperialists and nationalists. This triggered historical sense of insecurity that is inherited from the Russian imperial times. The very fact that the the once dominated lands have joined the adversary of the Soviet Union deepened the Russian perception of insecurity.

The post-Crimea and Donbas occupations draw attention to the Baltic region. NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence that covers Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland led to Russian propaganda and manipulation to provoke ethnic and social tension that would eventually undermine NATO’s standing in the Baltic Sea region.

Sweden has taken its own share out of this period of increased propaganda and manipulation thanks to its support to Ukraine and sharp criticism of Russian invasion of Ukraine. In return, Russia started to interfere in Swedish domestic affairs with direct involvement of Russian politicians and diplomats. As it is observed in other Russia targeted countries, numerous news outlets, public figures, NGOs and far right and formerly racist and pro-Nazi but currently “reformed” populist right parties were accessed and activated in favor of Russia. They explain and justify Russian actions, disinform and influence the Swedish decision-makers and public opinion in order to cause deception and confusion in Swedish domestic matters. In the final analysis, such activated resources for Russian interests aim to paralyze Swedish public support for the Swedish government’s policies favorable to Ukraine.

In the meanwhile, Swedish perception of threat from Russia has increased to historical high in the post-2014 period causing a dramatic change in Swedish public and political perception of NATO membership. In present day, Riksdag, the Swedish Parliament, passing recently a motion that considers NATO membership a possibility, is favorable to NATO membership. According recent research the Swedish public opinion has become more favorable to NATO thanks to Russia’s aggressive foreign and security policies employed since 2014 and Russian propaganda incursions into Sweden.

In such a circumstance, the Russian so-called agreement templates of December 17 involving the US and NATO brought Sweden (as well as Finland) to an irreversible point. The text proposed to the US envisages that the US cannot cooperate and act in military alliance with countries (read Sweden in this case here) in ways Russia may see such cooperation as a threat to its core security interests (Article 3 and 5). The text proposed to NATO, in Article 1, stipulates “restraint in military planning and conducting exercises … including those set out in intergovernmental agreements on the prevention of incidents at sea outside territorial waters and in the airspace above, as well as in intergovernmental agreements on the prevention of dangerous military activities” directly has repercussions on Swedish-NATO cooperation schemes. The Article 4 which rules turning the NATO military deployments back to levels and positions of 27 May 1997, resulting in changing the power balances favorably to Russia in the Baltic Sea and therefore, impacting Swedish security perceptions. Moreover, the article Article 6 stipulating NATO not to take new members ensures Sweden staying out of the alliance.

In the face of increased military built up of Russian military around the Ukrainian borders and threats of reinvasion of Ukraine are tailored to force NATO and the US to agree for the new security deal which the Russian government communicated with the December 17 draft agreements. Nevertheless, while how much NATO and the US will accommodate Russian demands remain as a question, the amount of pressure Russia exerted on Ukraine and its western partners forces Sweden and Finland to opt for NATO membership, which would anchor Russia deeper in its perceptions of insecurity. Therefore, like a snake that eats its own tail, Russia remains in the infinite circulatory cycle of insecurity due to its trials to break through the cycle.

Uppsala January 6, 2022

[i] Договор между Российской Федерацией и Соединенными Штатами Америки о гарантиях безопасности
[ii] Соглашение о мерах обеспечения безопасности Российской Федерации и государств-членов Организации Североатлантического договора

[iii] No doubt, Sweden caught in between the USSR, which saw the Baltic Sea as a closed sea where it could dominate, and NATO, which wanted to establish the Baltic Sea as an open sea.

[iv] Notwithstanding, in 1994 started to take part in the NATO Partnership for Peace program and from 1995 in the NATO Planning and Review Process, and from 1997 the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. Moreover, Swedish Troops served under NATO in Bosnia, and Kosovo, Afganistan and Libya, and Swedish government gave a political support to NATO strikes on Serbia.