With Finland signaling a likely bid for fast-track NATO membership, Nordic neighbor Sweden is under pressure to drop its long-standing opposition to becoming part of the alliance.
In a nutshell
- Finland and Sweden, alarmed by Russia, eye possible NATO bids
- Like Ukraine today, Finland stood alone in war with Russia
- Finland is firmer on joining than undecided Sweden
Moments of extreme political stress tend to be deeply revealing. When politicians are not given enough time to consult their spin doctors, they will act instinctively on deeply held beliefs. Statements made under such circumstances can shed unforgiving light on what really goes on in hearts and minds.
When Russia launched its war against Ukraine, the gut reaction from the political leadership in Finland was to place NATO membership on the front burner, a decision supported by a massive swing in popular support. Votes in favor had reached 53 percent, up from 19 percent in 2017. In sharp contrast, the gut reaction from the Swedish political leadership was to reject any form of change, even though Swedish public opinion was also moving strongly in favor of membership.
Given Finland’s long tradition of being short on words and long on action, the adjustment in Helsinki has been mainly below the radar. True to its own tradition of public posturing, Stockholm in contrast immediately revealed its cards. In the heat of the moment, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson made a set of important statements that reflect deeply rooted values and priorities.
The first was that Sweden would not accept any refugees from Ukraine because the country had already absorbed an enormous inflow in 2015. The second was that Sweden would not provide weapons for Ukraine because of its legal prohibitions against exporting weapons to countries in conflict. And the third was that Sweden would not consider joining NATO because its long-standing policy on nonalignment had served it well.
On the first two counts, the roof quickly caved in. As masses of women and children began an exodus from Ukraine, no civilized government could survive turning a blind eye. The question of exporting weapons met the same fate. When the political opposition noted that Swedish law did offer possibilities to make exceptions, Prime Minister Andersson made a feeble attempt to argue that it would still be against the ingrained practice. But once the German government had made an about-face, Sweden was forced to do the same.
The true reason why Stockholm persists in refusing is that joining NATO would challenge pacifist and anti-American sentiments within Swedish social democracy.
The question of NATO membership is a different matter altogether. Stockholm’s openly cold shoulder reveals fundamental beliefs in Swedish left-wing political culture. Despite the swing in public opinion, and despite pointed criticism from the political opposition, the government decided to ride it out. Cynical voices might argue that the Swedish position was little more than a manifestation of sheer cowardice, citing Winston Churchill’s memorable portrayal of Sweden as “that small, coward country.” Although one may easily imagine that this was a gut reaction in some neighboring countries, that would be too easy.
Change, however, is in the air. The prominent Swedish newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, reported on April 13 that its sources in the governing Social Democratic Party say that Ms. Andersson’s goal is to make a NATO membership bid by June if the party agrees.
The true reason why Sweden persists in refusing is that joining NATO would be a tremendous challenge to pacifist and fundamentally anti-American sentiments within Swedish social democracy. Viewed from this perspective, when Prime Minister Andersson claims that nonalignment has served the country well, what she is really saying is that nonalignment has served the Social Democratic Party well. The difference is significant.
Although the party leadership must now fear that resistance to NATO may cause it to lose the upcoming national election in September, it obviously considers the danger of internal upheavals within the party to be more threatening. And it knows it may count on left-leaning public service media to provide ample support in shifting the issue out of the limelight.
This is where it becomes essential to understand that although Sweden and Finland have a long common history, dating back to times before organized states emerged, the two have over time developed political cultures that in matters of national security are worlds apart.
During the Cold War, Finland was constrained by its friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance. Although it did allow ample room for domestic institution building, which would transform Finland into a modern high-performance welfare state, it placed bounds on security and foreign policy.
Sweden, in contrast, was at liberty to chart its own course. This entailed making two fundamental decisions. One was to continue its policy of neutrality and the other to abstain from developing its own nuclear weapons. To make these choices viable, it decided to invest heavily in building conventional forces for territorial defense and to embark on clandestine defense cooperation with the United States.
Having escaped the destruction of World War II, Sweden had ample resources to invest in building a conventional military. It developed military industries that would become global leaders, like Saab and Bofors. In the 1960s, it had the fourth-largest air force in the world. The island of Gotland, known as Aircraft Carrier Gotland, was heavily fortified and in firm control of the Baltic Sea. Conscription ensured it could field large forces for territorial defense.
The second leg was no less important. The price for ensuring protection by the American “nuclear umbrella” was a commitment to support a U.S. intervention, in case of a need to shore up the northern flank of NATO. This ranged from preparing airfields to receive NATO aviation to sharing signals intelligence gathered by Swedish listening operations in the Baltic Sea. The name of the game was hypocrisy. While both Russia and NATO knew quite well that Swedish neutrality was a sham, the Swedish population was kept in the dark, allowing politicians to grandstand about neutrality.
After the end of the Cold War, Sweden and Finland again diverged fundamentally. While Finland opted to take a solitary course in Europe, retaining conscription and the ability to field large conventional defense forces, including large artillery, Sweden charted a diametrically opposed course.
Sweden joined the United Nations in 1946. The nation staked out “moral superpower” positions for peacekeeping and mediation, nuclear disarmament and for a radical downsizing of conventional forces at home. It was a continuation of the policy of a “third way” that had seen Sweden support Soviet demands for a nuclear-free zone, and it was guided by people whose friends were men like Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chavez.
Swedish foreign relations would feature intimate links with the Muslim Brotherhood, with the Turkish Grey Wolves and with the Palestinians. In 2014, Sweden was the first and only country in the European Union to recognize Palestine, a move that resulted in Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom being rendered persona non grata in Israel. In 2019, she campaigned for and was narrowly prevented from signing the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a move that would have broken off security links with the U.S.
When the UN General Assembly voted on the resolution to condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine, it was significant that many of those who failed to cast their ballots for the resolution were countries long pampered with Swedish foreign aid and assistance: Cuba, Nicaragua, Eritrea, South Africa.
Finland moves fast
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Finland immediately approached the U.S. On March 4, President Sauli Niinisto met President Joe Biden in the White House. During the meeting, Mr. Biden made an unprecedented call to Prime Minister Andersson, presumably to seek out the Swedish position on a swift joint application for membership in NATO. The answer, presumably, was dismissive.
On the following day, Ms. Andersson met her Finnish counterpart Ms. Sanna Marin in Helsinki. The meeting did not result in any news, and one could sense Finnish concern. On March 7, Ms. Marin met Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who was enthusiastic about the prospect of Finland joining NATO. She vowed that Estonian approval of a membership application would follow “with lightning speed.”
If the war in Ukraine should end with a deal between Russia and NATO, promising there will be no further expansion, then both Sweden and Finland risk being hung out to dry.
The rather strange outcome of deliberations between Sweden and Finland was a common letter, calling on all European Union member states to observe the clause on security guarantees that was written into the Lisbon Treaty. Stockholm preferred the EU to NATO.
Following an evening meeting with the executive board of the Social Democratic Party, on March 7, Ms. Andersson announced that there would be no talk about joining NATO because this would destabilize the security situation in the Nordic region. The hollow nature of this argument may be brought home by asking which other country in the region – except Russia – would be against Sweden joining NATO.
The proclamation was met with strong condemnations from the political opposition. Conservative Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson noted that it was “deeply unfortunate” and cautioned that the statement was causing unwanted international attention, not only for Sweden but also for Finland: “If a Swedish reappraisal of NATO entails destabilizing Europe, what would a Finnish reappraisal mean? We must walk hand in hand with Finland, not dismiss that both countries must now reassess the situation.”
The statement also met with substantial international attention. The Financial Times set the tone by noting that “Sweden’s PM rules out NATO bid, saying it would ‘destabilize’ Nordic region.” It was remarkable language to use while Russia is waging war in Europe.
Although Finland was true to form in offering no official comment, the Swedish positioning was badly received by experts and in the media. In the words of Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a senior scholar at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki, “If an application for NATO membership is viewed as too risky for Sweden, one may presume that according to the same logic it would be even worse to come to the aid of Finland in case of war.”
There is much at stake. The Swedish government is now stirring up memories of how it failed to come to the rescue of its neighbor when Finland was attacked by Joseph Stalin. The current heroism of Ukrainians fighting off the onslaught of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine recalls the heroism of the Finnish defenders who were forced to fight its bloody Winter War. In both cases, the heroic defenders stood and stand alone.
As former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb has repeatedly noted, Finland is on track to join NATO, and soon: “That train has already left the station.” If Sweden persists in its refusal, it will not only expose Finland to take the inevitable Russian punishment alone. It will also place itself in a position where it is extremely vulnerable to Russian pressure and may have to forget about other nations being willing to come to its rescue, should that need arise.
Most ominously, if the war in Ukraine should end with a deal between Russia and NATO, promising there will be no further expansion, then both Sweden and Finland risk being hung out to dry. If Finland opts to preempt this possibility by joining quickly, as is likely, Sweden will risk being shunted into the Russian sphere of interest, where it will lead a very lonely existence. Spreading apprehension about this potential outcome is causing rapid erosion of the resistance to NATO within the Social Democratic Party. But opposition remains strong, and a no vote remains possible.