May 19, 2024

Sweden has officially joined the NATO military alliance, ending decades of neutrality amid soaring concerns about Russian aggression in Europe following the invasion of Ukraine.

“Unity and solidarity will be Sweden’s guiding lights as a NATO member,” Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said in a statement delivered in Washington after a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“We will share burdens, responsibilities and risks with our allies,” he said.

“Good things come to those who wait,” Blinken said as he received Sweden’s accession documents.

“This is a historic moment for Sweden, for our alliance and for the transatlantic relationship,” Blinken said.

At a press conference in Stockholm on Thursday, Sweden’s Minister for Employment and Integration, Johan Pehrson, labelled the accession “a new security policy era for Sweden,” adding that he had personally been waiting for such a decision for 20 years.

Fears of Russian military threat

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 2022, sparked Sweden and its neighbour Finland – which shares a 1,340 km border with Russia – to apply to join NATO.

“We have to face the world as it is not how we sometimes wish it were,” Kristersson said after Hungary became the last NATO member to ratify Sweden’s accession last week.

Sweden’s lack of military preparedness was revealed in 2013 when Russian bomber planes flew across the Gulf of Finland close to the Swedish island of Gotland in what was believed to be simulated nuclear attacks. Stockholm needed the support of NATO jets to ward the Russian planes away from their airspace.

The next year there were reports that a Russian submarine was operating in the Stockholm archipelago.

NATO
Seamstress Tove Lycke works on NATO flags, at the flag manufacturer Flagghuset, in Akersberga, outside Stockholm, Sweden, March 7, 2024 [TT News Agency/Anders Wiklund via Reuters]

Sweden’s shift away from a neutral stance

While Stockholm has been drawing ever closer to NATO over the last two decades, membership marks a clear break with the past, when for more than 200 years, Sweden avoided military alliances and adopted a neutral stance in times of war.

After World War Two, it built an international reputation as a champion of human rights, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, successive governments pared back military spending.

As recently as 2021, its defence minister had rejected NATO membership, only for the then-Social Democrat government to apply, alongside neighbour Finland, just a few months later.

While Finland joined last year, Sweden was kept waiting as Turkey and Hungary delayed ratifying Sweden’s accession.

Turkey approved Sweden’s application in January.

Hungary delayed its move until Kristersson made a visit to Budapest on February 23, during which the two countries agreed a fighter jet deal.

Sweden adds cutting-edge submarines and a sizeable fleet of domestically produced Gripen fighter jets to NATO forces and would be a crucial link between the Atlantic and Baltic.

Russia has threatened to take unspecified “political and military-technical counter-measures” in response to Sweden’s move.

Gripen
A Swedish Air Force Saab JAS 39 Gripen fighter jet, July 4, 2023 [File:Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters]

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