On 07 March 2024, Sweden became the 32nd member of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), marking end of 200 years of Swedish non-alignment policy. Historically, Finland and Sweden have maintained non-alignment to avoid hostilities with Russia. However, Russian invasion of Ukraine compelled both nations to reconsider their policy and seek security under NATO’s umbrella. Article V of treaty constitutes the foundation of alliance and act as enduring commitment by each member to ensure collective defense whenever national security of any member state is threatened. Primary rational of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was to deny NATO’s eastward expansion. However, Moscow’s policy has backfired and instead has catalyzed expansion of NATO’s northern flank. Recent membership of Finland and Sweden has overwhelmingly tipped the balance of power against Russia in the Nordic region, particularly in Baltic Sea.

For joining NATO, unanimous support from all member-states is crucial. Unlike Finland, which acquired NATO’s membership on 04 April 2023, Sweden’s bid to join NATO was a turbulent process. The unwillingness from two NATO members; Turkey and Hungary, essentially brought the Swedish membership process to a standstill. Turkey and Sweden share strain relations as Ankara blames Stockholm for harboring Kurdish militia leadership. Kurdish militant groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates, are labeled as terrorist outfits by Ankara. In contrast, Sweden has maintained a sympathetic approach regarding Kurdish communities and has often sidelined Ankara’s concerns. Similarly, Hungary has repeatedly expressed discomfort regarding Stockholm’s criticism on nationalist policies of Orban’s ruling Fidesz party in Budapest. These differences have often created challenges in maintaining a constructive diplomatic relationship between both nations.

After 18 months of foot dragging, Turkey and Hungary’s concerns were eventually rectified. Turkey agreed to support Sweden’s bid after close-door negotiations involving two key settlements. First, Stockholm agreed to co-ordinate with Ankara to address later concerns regarding Kurdish terror outfits. And second, United States approved previously blocked sale of 40 new F-16 Block 70 fighter aircrafts to Turkish Air Force (TAF) in a deal worth USD 23 billion. Later, Hungary also approved Sweden’s application when Orban’s government was persuaded by European allies, and an agreement was reached to supply four new JAS-39 Gripen aircrafts to Hungary and extend service support of existing fleet of 14 aircrafts. The agreement cleared the final obstacle from Swedish entry into NATO.

Sweden’s membership will significantly contribute in enhancing military capabilities of NATO’s northern flank. Despite being a small nation of 10 million, Sweden has well-trained and well-equipped armed forces and a well-developed defense industry, which produces several indigenous military systems in land, air, and naval domain. While Sweden’s armed forces lacks manpower, it more than makes up with cutting edge military technology. Sweden is gradually increasing its defense spending and has earmarked 11.83 billion USD for defense budget in year 2024. With this 28% increment in comparison with past year, the net-spending of Sweden will exceed NATO’s pledged threshold of 2% of GDP.

According to SIPRI fact-sheet 2024, Sweden is 13th largest exporter of arms, and its equipment is known for reliability and high quality standards. In 2023, 18% increment has been observed in foreign sales of Swedish origin weapons. Brazil, United States, and Pakistan were top three importers of Swedish arms in 2019-2023. After becoming a part of NATO, Sweden now has increased accessibility to advanced military technologies which will further improve the capability of its armed forces and diversify the productivity of its domestic defense industries.

Saab is the most prominent defense company in Sweden and is known for its wide range of military equipment. Land based systems include small arms, man-portable guided weapons like NLAW, anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) and RBS-70 air-defense missile, CV-90 armored vehicle, 155mm Archer self-propelled wheeled artillery system, and variety of surveillance and electronic warfare (EW) systems. In aerial domain, Saab is globally famous for JAS-39 Gripen multi-role fighter aircraft known for its versatility, advanced avionics, and diverse weapon package. Saab’s Erieye Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) is also highly adaptive and a capable force-multiplier. It is operated by Swedish as well as several foreign air forces. Its version, called Saab-2000 Erieye, has been used with remarkable success by Pakistan Air Force (PAF) during operation Swift Retort (2019) against Indian Air Force (IAF). In naval domain, multi-mission Visby class corvettes, which feature stealth hull-design and low acoustic and thermal signature, provide flexible operational capability in littorals. Swedish Gotland class diesel-electric submarines, equipped with Stirling Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) system, are also testament of Swedish engineering potential. HMSM Gotland submarine earned fame in 2005 when it “sank” USS Ronald Regan aircraft carrier during war-game after successfully breaching US-Navy anti-submarine defenses. The combination of Visby corvettes and Gotland class submarines, equipped with modern weapon systems and sensor-suite, grants Swedish navy highly capable sea-denial prowess in the Baltic Sea.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Sweden is its strategic location. The heartland of Sweden is surrounded by sea, therefore, maritime domain plays crucial role in shaping country’s geopolitical and geostrategic environment. Sweden shares longest coast with Baltic Sea which accounts for 15% of global maritime trade. One-third of Russia’s maritime trade passes through Baltic Sea. The Island of Gotland, located approximately 170 km south of Stockholm, is bastion of Sweden in Baltic Sea. The island sits in the middle of Baltic Sea, mere 250 km away from Russian enclave, Kaliningrad, which headquarters Russian Navy Baltic Fleet. From strategic perceptive, Gotland can serve as military node point to support NATO military action in Baltic States. Even before joining NATO, Sweden has been gradually militarizing Gotland amid Russia invasion on Ukraine, and has invested approximately 160 million USD to strengthen military infrastructure on island.

The Suwalki corridor, a 70 km long narrow gap between Kaliningrad and Belarus, represents major geographical vulnerability of NATO. In case of conflict, Russia forces can overrun this corridor and block land connectivity of NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with rest of alliance. Control over Baltic Sea and military presence at Gotland will allow NATO to establish and sustain naval connectivity to actively support and replenish NATO forces in Baltic States.

Moscow has called joining of Finland and Sweden in NATO a meaningless step. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia will deploy troops and systems of destruction to the Finnish border. Russia has lost significant portion of its conventional military capability in war against Ukraine. Russian forces currently lack the capacity to rebuild their military capacity to overcome growing NATO’s presence in North. This suggests that Russia’s dependency on nuclear weapons as battlefield deterrent will deepen further. To deter NATO, Russia would deploy, as also hinted by Putin, non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNWs) in the bordering region. The militarization of Nordic region will now potentially include a nuclear dimension which will enhance the volatility of regional strategic stability and increase risks of inadvertent escalation of any crisis.

Sweden’s decision to join NATO marks a significant shift in its strategic posture and has wide-ranging implications for regional stability. The membership of Sweden in alliance has granted NATO the strategic depth in an area once dominated by Russia and will be instrumental in safeguarding alliance northern flank against Russia. On one side, the expansion of NATO will provide security umbrella to newly joined nations against potential military aggression by Moscow. But on flip side, it will re-ignite tensions with Kremlin and will lead to counter-developments including regional nuclearization by Russia. This action-reaction dilemma can undermine strategic stability and can have far-reaching consequences for entire world. As long as hostilities persist between NATO and Russia, and both factions continue to exercise assertive options instead of seeking collaborative solutions through dialogue and confidence building measures (CBMs), the fate of secure and progressive Europe and eventually entire world will remain at stake.


About Ahmad Ibrahim 10 Articles
The author has an M.Phil in Strategic Studies from National Defence University Islamabad.

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