After Crimea, Sweden Flirts With Joining NATO

Officials worry that the Swedish military is woefully unprepared for a Russian attack.
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A warship of the Royal Swedish Navy on patrol in 2002. (Claus Gertsen/Reuters)

It's a good time to have friends in Eastern Europe.

Leaders in the region, who have reacted to Russia's occupation of Crimea by expressing fears that they could be next, are now taking solace in their alliances. "Thanks be to God, we are NATO members," exclaimed Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite last week. This month, Norway is hosting 16,000 NATO soldiers for previously planned cold-weather training exercises on the Russian border, much to the Russians' displeasure. Among those participating in Operation Cold Response are 1,400 Swedish troops under the Nordic nation's limited partnership with the alliance.

Non-aligned since the early 19th century, Sweden's "splendid isolation" has endured two world wars and even the five-decade superpower slugfest that dominated the late 20th century. That could change, however, in the wake of Russia's intervention in Ukraine. Last week, Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg indicated that the defense budget, to which he had recently announced cuts, would be increased as a result of the crisis. Deputy Prime Minister Jan Björklund also publicly floated the idea of Swedish membership in NATO, warning that Russia could attempt to seize Gotland, a strategically located Swedish island province in the Baltic Sea, if it chose to attack the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Sverker Göransson, the supreme commander of Sweden's military, has rejected Björklund's call for a change to the country's defense doctrine.

Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea, is roughly 56 miles off the Swedish coast and only 155 miles from Kaliningrad, a major Russian exclave in Europe with a large military base. The island's position in the south Baltic gives it immense strategic value if a conflict were to break out in the Baltic Sea. "Today's modern air missiles and anti-ship missiles can hit targets in the order of 300-400 kilometers," wrote Karlis Neretnieks, a retired Swedish major general, for the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences last week. "Anyone who can group such systems on Gotland will be able to make it very difficult for an opponent to operate on and in the Baltic Sea. From Bornholm in the south to the Åland Islands in the north, from the Swedish mainland in the west to the Baltic states to the east."

Russia briefly seized Gotland from Sweden in 1808 during the Napoleonic Wars, but Swedish forces expelled them one year later and have controlled it ever since. Unlike Crimea, there are no ethnic Russians on Gotland, but the island is still closely tied to Moscow's interests. Russia's Gazprom conglomerate owns Nord Stream, an $11-billion pipeline running along the Swedish island that pumps 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year to Western Europe. Russian President Putin vowed to defend the strategically vital pipeline with the Russian Navy in 2006, and in one March 2013 incident reminiscent of the Cold War, two Russian heavy bombers and their fighter escorts skirted Swedish airspace and simulated a bombing run against the island. NATO's Baltic air patrol responded. Sweden's did not.

The Crimean crisis has renewed the ongoing debate in Swedish political circles about the country's dilapidated military defenses. Military budget cuts by successive post-Cold War Swedish governments grew so severe that Göransson, the country's supreme commander, publicly estimated in January 2013 that Sweden could only hold out for a week if it were attacked. A Swedish military college later confirmed Göransson's analysis in a report titled "Can We Defend Ourselves For A Week?" and said that international help would be required because "the military does not have a credible ability to defend all of Sweden." (NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen later remarked that Sweden cannot count on military support from NATO unless it becomes a member state.)

In response, a Russian TV program broadcast a parody music video in which a Göransson impersonator bemoans, to the tune of ABBA's "Mamma Mia!", Sweden's military weakness. "It's very scary! Really! Let us join NATO already," the impersonator sings at one point, "Otherwise Russia will conquer us all right the next week!" (Watch the full skit below with English subtitles.)

Sweden's military isn't necessarily idle. Two hundred and seventy Swedish soldiers are currently deployed in Afghanistan alongside NATO, and the country's air force helped enforce the UN-authorized no-fly zone over Libya in 2011. Swedish soldiers have also joined UN peacekeeping missions in Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But its home defenses are what causes the most concern among some Swedish officials, leading Sweden to increase its defense-cooperation efforts with non-aligned Finland shortly before the Crimean crisis erupted.

The idea of joining NATO has also gained traction among Swedes in recent years. A 2013 poll found that popular support for becoming a member had jumped 9 percent in two years, even though it still falls short of a plurality. "Sweden must realize that we can no longer defend ourselves alone. NATO membership must be debated seriously. It is the best long-term option for our defense and security," said Christian Democratic spokesman Mikael Oscarsson last January after the coalition government to which his party belongs announced a formal review of Swedish military capabilities. "With significantly higher spending on defense and material acquisitions, we will see better equipped and trained Russian troops in this region. This strengthening requires a credible response by Sweden," Oscarsson added.

Swedish membership in NATO would leave Finland as the last non-aligned Scandinavian state, but the Finnish people are warier about picking sides. A February 24 Helsinki News poll, conducted prior to Russia's occupation of Crimea, found that 64 percent of Finns oppose NATO membership, 60 percent oppose forming an EU common-defense policy, and 60 percent oppose a proposed defense alliance between Finland and Sweden. Given Finland's proximity to the Russian border, one can hardly blame them for embracing non-alignment. Henry Kissinger opined in The Washington Post that the new Ukrainian government should follow Finland's example. "That nation leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia," he wrote approvingly.

A Russian threat to either country isn't immediate, and so far, talk of joining NATO remains just talk. Last year, after Göransson's claim that the military could only defend the country for a week, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt stated that, despite their build-up, Russian armed forces have "neither the will nor the capacity to attack Swedish territory."

But Crimea's example might force some in the Swedish government to reassess the threat's likeliness. "You have to build up your fire brigade to the same dimension as the risk of a fire," Björklund told reporters last week. "How many people thought that Russia would go into Crimea? The same argument could hold true for the Baltic states."

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