Sweden’s NATO Skepticism Endures as Russia Flexes Muscles
(Bloomberg) -- Sweden’s top defense official said staying out of NATO remains the best security option for the country, even with an increasingly assertive Russia.
A Swedish application for NATO membership would “affect the entire security policy architecture in our part of Europe,” Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said in an interview in Stockholm on Thursday. “Above all, it puts very strong pressure on Finland, which has a long border with Russia.”
The two Nordic nations outside of the alliance have increased joint exercises with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backed a war on the two former allies’ border.
While Swedish lawmakers last month approved the largest increase in military spending in 70 years, the outlay as a percentage of gross domestic product still falls short of NATO’s 2% target. Still, a majority in parliament is now voicing support for having the option to join the alliance and Swedes are now evenly split in their stance.
A 40% increase in defense spending through 2025 is a response to the worsening security situation and “isn’t provocative for anyone,” Hultqvist said. He added Russia has shown “they are prepared to use military force to achieve political goals,” citing events in Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia.
Sweden’s spending move “cannot but cause concern,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said last October when the plan was unveiled. “These invented anti-Russia phobias are due in no small measure to deliberate external pressure on Stockholm, primarily from the North Atlantic alliance.”
Pressure to Join
Public opposition to joining NATO declined by 3 percentage points to 35%, the lowest level since at least December 2014, according to a poll conducted last month by Ipsos for the Dagens Nyheter newspaper and published on Monday. The number of proponents rose by the same margin to 33%, while the share of those undecided remained at 32%.
The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats joined the other opposition parties last month to back the option of joining NATO quickly if necessary, though they’re still not ready to back actual membership. Finland has already adopted the so-called NATO option. Sweden’s minority government will respond to the announcement “in due course,” according to Hultqvist.
“What we strive for are stability and predictability,” Hultqvist said. “That’s why we believe the fundamental security policy doctrines should not be changed. And that’s why we have chosen to build national military capability, based on non-alignment in cooperation with other countries.”
Sweden’s defense collaboration with the U.S. during the last six years has been “very fruitful” and been “delivered with stability,” Hultqvist said. Sweden signed a deal with the U.S. government in 2018 for Patriot air-defense missiles.
Moreover, the change in U.S. administration is a “stabilizing” factor, Hultqvist said, describing President-Elect Joe Biden as “a friend of Sweden.”
“I see what’s happening now -- that U.S. democratic institutions are functioning and that Biden is becoming president -- as a stabilizing factor. And a stable U.S. is essential to continue the cooperation we’ve developed so successfully over the years.”
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