The Impact of Sweden’s NATO Membership on European Security
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 28 Mar , 2024

The continued expansion of NATO has led to the alliance reaching almost thrice of its original self. Sweden as the latest member to add to the tally, is being seen as a prize catch by Brussels. The military industries and geographical relevance of Sweden are indeed impressive. However, how much will it translate into the ability of NATO’s collective response will remain a growing concern given the increasing divergence of opinion on political issues within the grouping
, which can derail NATO’s single most important raison d’être of imposing its Article 5 when it would need.

Security Guarantees

NATO’s inception post World War II in April 1949 was purely designed as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. It was supposed to provide a security guarantee to its original 12 member states who feared reprisal from the giant next door. The inclusion of the United States was as much a necessity, without which the structure would not have appeared credible enough, even if NATO were to comprise the whole of Europe. The Soviet Union’s size and military power presented an overbearing security concern for the NATO members, they were suspect of its inroads and influences in Eastern Europe. NATO knew the balance of power within Europe was still tilted towards the Soviet Union as it remained suspicious of its transatlantic partner’s commitment.

The initial expansion of NATO by the inclusion of Greece and Turkey in 1952 was a very cautious move to contain Turkey’s aggressive behaviour and their desire for a security guarantee against the Soviets. This expansion gave NATO a feeling of new strength and a sense that it could internally augment its capability within Europe to confidently stand up against the Soviet Union. The era of industrialisation and some poor steps by the Soviets who got dragged into a competing race led to the erosion of Soviet economic power. Soviet Union had thentried to match up with its own security and trade guarantees to countries of the Warsaw Pact, supposedly a counter to NATO. Soviets were under pressure for the first time as they struggled to match a dollar for dollar, to leverage its influence on Eastern Europe. By the time, a unified Germany joined in 1990, NATO had amalgamated the military muscles of 16countries while the Soviets stretched too far to retain the loyalties of Warsaw members.

Power Equilibrium

The perception of power balance and the history of conflicts have proven, over and over again that a war is most likely to break out or disproportionately aggravated among estranged adversaries the moment one feels military superiority over the other. This also qualitatively reduces the room for dialogue and diplomacy as the window of action remains narrow. Urgency of action thus becomes essential for the military commanders who must prove readiness to their leadership.Classic examples have been the German attack on the Soviet Union, the US exploding nuclear bomb over Japan, the 1965 Indo-Pak war, and the second Nagorno Karabakh war of 2020. In each of the cases aggressor had new weapons systems giving them confidence of clear domination and winning the war.

The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 also led to the end of the Cold War, leaving a stark sense of military superiority with NATO and a feeling of being the world’s sole superpower with the US. The outbreak of the Gulf Wars, the Syrian conflict, and Iranian suppression in the magnitude it unfolded have one common string attached to them. It was the realisation that a ‘weak Russia’ was in no position to come to the aid of its historical friends in a war with the West. That also proved true to a large extent, as the power balance this time has tilted in favour of the West already. Russia apart from extending moral and diplomatic support to its friends could do very little militarily. A spectre like this was almost unbelievable for the West a few decades back, and the least it did was embolden NATO for more such audacious steps in the future. The steps ahead were charted with full confidence in Russia’s perceived reluctance to expose itself militarily in the face of the ever-powerful NATO. There’s no stopping NATO then, more proposals were explored towards further expansion, and the speed with which Eastern European countries were being encouraged for NATO membership was unbelievable. Within two decades of the Soviet Union’s break-up 14 new countries were taken into the folds of NATO,almost doubling the membership!

The Russian Federation was left stunned, it saw one provocation after the other as NATO let forgo its post-Sovietcommitments to Russia, on no further expansion. The European obligation had then appeared sane and highly statesmanlike. The prime adversary for NATO as it was defined during its inception four decades back has just disintegrated into 15 sovereign countries creating better buffer zones with Russia. The Russian Federation was left just a shadow of its pristine Soviet aura. However, what unfolded was baffling for everyone, NATO undertook even more expansion and kept adding military muscles. Since 1991, there have been five NATO expansions and promises left toUkraine and other Russian neighbours preferential inclusion in NATO along with a ‘new European identity’.

Forgoing Treaties

There was a deep underplay from the US with NATO as its front. Since the Balkanisation of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation become dependent upon its erstwhile territories for key strategic activities like Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and radar stations in erstwhile Soviet territory, it still operates early warning radars from Belarus. Russia has set in place formal agreements with these governments to continue offering their facilities for Russian activities. This dependency was viewed by the West as Russia’s weak link. At the height of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union have undertaken certain key agreements as part of mutual confidence-building measures like Arms Control Pacts, or the New START treaty. These treaties were carried on by the Russian Federation post-1991 also. Though dynamics have changed, there was still a good need to continue with them.

As the World’s sole superpower, the US did not much appreciate Russia’s tough negotiations over these treaties. The US’s declining interest in continuing with some of these mutual confidence-building measures resulted in the non-renewal of treaties after treaties. It only has a singularundertone in the US about the Russian inability to go beyond the rhetoric. What was missed by NATO and its guardian partner the US, was the geopolitical churning and discomfort it is generating in the world capitals. As much the US has maintained hyphenated relationships among states for the sake of its perceived balance, the other world capitals were expecting the same to continue in the context of the US and Russia. Factually, a unipolar world appeared worse than a bipolar world to everyone.

By inviting Ukraine, NATO would have reached knocking at the Russian doorstep. It’s always a sound military strategy to maintain a buffer between estranged neighbours, whereas, NATO was working on a strange philosophy of squeezing the same. The balance has already been disturbed that’s the reason why the war in Ukraine broke out in the first place. NATO believed it could have its way at the expense of Russia, so ignorance and avoidance of Russian red flags became the preferred approach. The balance of power ensures peace between the powerful. The onus this time was on Russia to demonstrate the attempt to ignore the power balance would have a cost to bear.

Hanging Fear

Shedding its 200-year traditional neutrality Sweden along with Finland applied for NATO’s membership on 18 May 2022, soon after the Russian special operation began in Ukraine. This presented a historical shift in Swedish national outlook which has long maintained a balanced approach towards Russia. Sweden felt, the benefits a direct NATO membership accrues get far outwitted by the anger it would generate in Moscow and subsequent Russian threats to its sovereignty. The individual security outlook for Sweden was also worrying as it formed the Eastern fringe of Europe where the presence of NATO was very thin and the threat from Russia a much closer reality.

The question of why Sweden is now joining NATO, has two distinctly related causes behind it. Firstly, it was only in the aftermath of the Russian invasion and Finland coming on board did Sweden mustered the wits to formally propose its intent of joining NATO. Sweden knew an armed conflict with Russia for whatsoever reason would be devastating for it. Secondly, this was the time when the Russian Federation appeared wholly committed in Ukraine and would not be able to impose any real-time cost on Sweden till it formally became a NATO member. The hanging fear among most who wished to join NATO was that Russia would undertake unacceptable measures between the period of expressing intent and formally becoming a part of NATO as amply seen in Ukraine. Till such time the country is not a NATO member Russia held the upper hand in conflict, telling NATO not to meddle. On the other hand, the same applies to Russia if it thought to intervene with a NATO member. So, the timing was most opportune for these two new members, despiteMoscow’s visible anger at the proposal it was unable to inflict any immediate cost on them.

Enhanced Capabilities

Sweden has largely been a prosperous nation with a booming economy it has had defence spending hovering at about 2.6% in 1990 much above NATO’s benchmark of 2%. Though it fluctuated downwards later, in the interim Sweden announced it would again push its annual military spending above 2% in 2024. Sweden’s economic, geographical, and defencemachinery undoubtedly makes it a strong partner of the alliance unlike some of the other members. The Wilson Centre, an independent think tank, assessed that Swedish military exports in 2022 to be at around $3 billion. Sweden’s defense manufacturing sector is highly renowned and produces some of the world’s finest weapon platforms like JAS 19 Gripen fighter aircrafts, Gotland Class Air Independent Propulsion enabled submarines, STRV 122 Tanksclosely comparable to the famed German Leopards, BAE Bofors Artillery guns, and other critical weapons technology meant mostly for exports. The joining of Sweden as NATO’s 32nd member also added more than 50,000 well-trained troops enhancing NATO’s overall capability.

The geographical dividends that Sweden has brought in for NATO are immensly valuable, it has offered a land corridor connecting Norway and Finland allowing substantial improvement in NATO’s Eastern security posture. Sweden is one of the nine countries surrounding the strategic Baltic Sea, it has more than 1,000km of coastline, 12 nm of territorial waters, and approximately 70,000 square km of the territorial sea. Together with other existing NATO members Sweden’s accession has turned the Baltic Sea into a sort of “NATO Lake, leaving Russia as the only other country apart from NATO which operates in this sea. It invariably allows NATO a reliable sea route for reinforcements to its Eastern regions which till now was possible through a dubious land corridor of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia all across the Russian border regions. The strategically located 3,100 square km of Swedish territory of Gotland Island in the middle of the Baltic Sea with an approximate population of 60,000 could eventually provideNATO a prized observation post monitoring the entire movement of Russian fleets.

New Dilemma

The World Economic Forum’s “Global Risks Report 2024” noted- “interstate armed conflict” as among the most severe risks currently faced by the world. The war in Ukraine and Gaza is only a testimony of it. This has led to several countries working overtime to secure their vulnerabilities even looking for new solutions and shedding historical baggage if any. Feeling threatened by Chinese aggressive behaviour, Australia and Japan recently adopted a more proactive defence plan. Both substantially increased their annual defence spending and realigned their national priorities pushing sovereignty matters several notches up.

Similar actions by some European nations only reinforce these new considerations. Sweden’s bid to join NATO was fulfilled on 7th March 2024, when its Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson presented its Instruments of Accession to the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Swedish flags were finally raised on 11th March 2024 at the NATO HQ in Brussels and all other NATO Commands. Welcoming Sweden into NATO, Jens Stoltenberg said “NATO’s door remains open and that every nation has the right to choose its own path, further indicating NATO’s willingness to expand. This is probably a strategic signaling and sending encouragement to NATO’s would-be members. It’s worth noting that there are countries like Bosnia & Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine still waiting to gain full-fledged NATO membership.

However, the arrival of Sweden also brings in new challenges and dilemmas within NATO. Sweeden’s bid remained by far the most controversial decision wherein multiple objections were raised by existing NATO members. Turkey was unimpressed with the political space given to PKK in Sweden,whom Ankara has declared a Kurdish terrorist organisation. Turkey wanted Sweden should ban the outfit and take legal action against them. A similar case was with Hungary which was viewing new entrants as a situation where not all is well. Sweden relented and by NATO’s Vilnius summit last July it has amended its constitution, agreed to resume arms export to Turkey, and expanded counter-terrorism cooperation against PKK.

While speaking to Radio Kossuth, Hungary’s public broadcaster on 24th February last year, Mr. Orbán had commented that Sweden and Finland “were spreading ‘outright lies’ about his country’s rule of law record”. It was an indicative of ocean of differences among would-be NATO members. Even though it now appears that most of them have been brushed off to make way, the trouble is, that historical differences among nations don’t die so soon. Turkey and Hungry both NATO members located at the extremes of the European continent offer valuable geographical dividends but present challenging difficulties to the alliance’s cohesive approach. Turkey’s views on the Syrian war are mostly at odds with NATO, neither does it views Russia as the most concerning threat NATO needs to prioritise every time. Hungary on the other hand remains sympathetic to several Russian concerns and it is believed that President Putin has ears for the Hungarian Prime Minister!

Increasing Divergence

NATO’s charter dictates its functions on the consensually agreed agenda among member states. However, big the numbers may appear for NATO today, the implementation of its action plan will remain challenged by the increasing divergence of internal perception. Increased voting strength will also add to greater disagreements in opinion and vulnerabilities. The famed Article 5 of NATO’s charter lays down collective security for all the member states – “it considers an attack on one is an attack on all”. Interestingly in NATO’s history only once has Article 5 been invoked and that was not to protect any European country, NATO’s supposed raison d’être, but to fight along with the US in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

The bottom line is, that countries that have rushed for NATO’s security umbrella has been primarily due to its seeming availability through transactional routes in Europe. This becomes the major flaw of NATO as an alliance, whose newer members have adopted it through business-like negotiations, where give and take has been at play. It was further facilitated by complicated assurances like the ‘Trilateral Memorandum’ seen among Turkey, Finland, and Sweden. It could be anybody’s guess that when the question of invoking Article 5 comes, especially against a major World Power, internal ‘differences’ won’t erupt and prevent ‘consensus’ from emerging. Undoubtedly, Russia would be very interested in such a development even at the cost of being blamed for engineering an ‘internal sabotage’.

Warfighting is a very serious business, troops with ideological and cultural differences standing side by side to kill probably those whom they don’t recognize as enemy may not just work as swiftly as NATO’s ‘membership for grab offer’. Two different nations going to war together against a common enemy need a very strong ideological alignment whether mutual agreements exist or not. But it may not hold true, the other way around. The world has noticed such unflinching ideological alignments already, something like Belarus standing with Russia or China for North Korea. It is now for NATO to reflect, is the more always better?

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Ravi Srivastava

experienced in security and geopolitics, contributes to national publications and newspapers. His articles can be accessed on the popular blog site, focusing on geo-strategic affairs.

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