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26th Sep 2022

Sweden is arming Ukraine — and still fighting over Nato

  • A pro-Ukraine rally in Stockholm’s central Norrmalmstorg square, scene of anti-Soviet protests during the Cold War, held March 5 (Photo: Lisa Bjurwald)
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Sweden has based its defence and security policy on the notion that traditional warfare is firmly in Europe's past. The country itself hasn't been at war for more than 200 years.

Suddenly, the idea of military aggression from a foreign power is not as far-fetched as it would have seemed just a few weeks ago.

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  • A fundraiser for Ukraine, in neutral Sweden (Photo: Lisa Bjurwald)

For the first time since World War II, Sweden has sent weapons to a country at war: Ukraine. The shipments include 5,000 anti-tank weapons manufactured by Saab, plus 5,000 helmets, 5,000 body shields, and 135,000 field rations.

The Swedish press has been featuring pictures of Ukrainian soldiers equipped with Swedish-made AT4s, portable anti-tank weapons.

Town halls across the country fly the twin yellow-and-blue flags of Sweden and Ukraine, and every week sees rallies in support of the invaded country.

And Russia's invasion has also triggered a feverish Nato debate inside Sweden, where high levels of support for Ukraine are regarded by many as the nail in the coffin for the country's traditional non-alignment policy.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it happens this autumn," said Sofia Nerbrand, political editor of liberal newspaper Kristianstadsbladet, referring to Sweden applying for Nato membership.

Yet it may not be so straightforward.

Swedes are torn over whether to join the Atlantic alliance — sometimes to the bafflement of foreign observers.

Swedish leaders have repeated time and again how well neutrality during World War II served the country, which was never attacked by Nazi Germany. The price was Sweden's so-called appeasement policy, which included allowing German troops to use its railways.

Sweden was also cooperating in secret with the allies. But the sense of security many Swedes derive from the idea of neutrality remains.

Then, there's Sweden's image as a neutral force on the international stage, going back to the time of Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat and the secretary-general of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961.

For example, Sweden and Switzerland still jointly guard the border between North and South Korea as part of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC).

Swedes like Carl Bildt, former UN special envoy to the Balkans, and Hans Blix, former UN chief weapons inspector to Iraq, have been able to take on sensitive, high-profile missions because of their country's perceived neutrality.

"Ideally, Sweden should have joined in the 1990s, along with our membership in the EU," said Niklas Ekdal, a former political editor at the Swedish daily, Dagens Nyheter, and columnist.

"From a national security perspective, now is a hazardous time to change policy," said Ekdal. "The internal process – with a possible referendum – and the external diplomatic process would create a period of uncertainty, open for subversion and military blackmail."

Being a Nato member is not only about receiving military support, warned Anna Sundström, the secretary-general of the Olof Palme International Center. "Situations might arise where it would not be in the security interest of Sweden to give such support," she said.

"We mustn't forget that Nato is an alliance actively supporting the existence of nuclear weapons and the use of them as means of deterrence," she said. "Joining means endorsing its nuclear doctrine, which in war involves the risk of mutual annihilation."

During the 1990s, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the Swedish neutrality doctrine was replaced by a somewhat more flexible policy, specifying that Sweden is militarily non-aligned in peacetime and aims to remain neutral in case of war.

In sending weapons to one side in a European war, Ukraine, is widely considered a break with that position and now the Ukraine crisis has seen a majority of the population swing in favour of Nato membership – another historic first.

Over the course of one week, February 28 to March 7, those favouring "yes" to Nato shot up from 39 to 49 per cent.

Another survey, this month, saw another major change: three-quarters of Swedes now say "they fear" Russia as a superpower, an increase from 38 per cent in 2019.

"Prepping" for a conflict has become something of a national sport and all eyes are on Sweden's strategically located island of Gotland. Those who control it command the Baltic Sea and its airspace, with sea and air access to Finland and the three Baltic states.

A majority of Finns are also now in favour of membership, and Swedes have taken note — including the otherwise sceptical Ekdal.

Were Finland to join Nato , then "Sweden and Finland should coordinate," said Ekdal. "During the Cold War Sweden's policy of non-alignment was in large part designed to ease the pressure on Finland," he said, adding that "Putin's war has changed the equation."

And then, there's Vladimir Putin himself.

He's sent a not-so-subtle warning to Finland and Sweden: should the countries attempt to join the military alliance, they can expect "serious military-political consequences" from Moscow.

The threat to both countries was repeated on 12 March by the Russian foreign office.

There is a fundamental issue at stake: should sovereign countries bow to a foreign leader and let him or her influence their political decisions?

Many believe it would be a dangerous concession.

"Without an alliance, we are more exposed to the threats that Putin is projecting onto all the countries he thinks should be subordinated to a Russian sphere of influence," said Gunnar Hökmark, the chairman of the Stockholm Free World Forum.

"Being a Nato partner is not enough," he said, referring to Sweden's current status, which entitles it to participate in Nato activities but does not give protection under the alliance's mutual defence clause.

Others dismiss that stance as opportunistic alarmism.

"Sweden's hesitation to join has nothing to do with being afraid of going against Moscow," said Sundström of the Olof Palme International Center. "The primary objective of our security policy is to uphold peace and keep Sweden and its population safe and secure. Being a military non-aligned country has been – and still is – the best option."

"Sweden is not Ukraine," said the prominent leftwing intellectual and editor of the Dala-Demokraten newspaper, Göran Greider. "Not even Putin can concoct some imperial Russian myth that Sweden is within Russia's holy borders."

Author bio

Lisa Bjurwald is a journalist and author based in Stockholm.

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