Sweden’s NATO Membership: Implications And Strategic Dynamics In European Security – Analysis


On March 7, 2024, Sweden officially joined NATO by submitting its instrument of accession to the North Atlantic Treaty to the United States government in Washington DC. This action expands NATO’s membership to 32 countries. A ceremony to raise Sweden’s flag alongside those of the other 31 Allies is scheduled to take place at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Monday, March 11, 2024, as well as simultaneously at NATO commands throughout Europe and North America.

Following the commencement of the Ukraine war in 2022, Sweden sought membership in the defense alliance. However, its application faced obstacles from two member states. Initially, Turkey withheld approval due to a dispute over what it perceived as Sweden’s backing of Kurdish separatists. Turkey eventually withdrew its objection in January of 2024. Additionally, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban accused Sweden of displaying hostility towards Hungary, resulting in a delay in Hungary’s approval. Finally, last week, the Hungarian parliament voted to ratify Sweden’s bid for NATO membership.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson emphasized the importance of unity and solidarity as guiding principles for Sweden’s approach to its NATO membership. US Secretary of State Blinken expressed satisfaction with Sweden’s accession, noting that NATO’s defensive alliance has significantly strengthened and expanded as a result. He thanked Sweden for its resilience throughout the membership process and acknowledged the challenges encountered along the way. Secretary Blinken emphasized that Sweden’s decision to join NATO was not predetermined and underscored the significance of its shift from a longstanding policy of non-alignment, particularly in light of the Ukraine war.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg praised Sweden’s entry into the alliance, highlighting the country’s capable armed forces and advanced defense industry, which enhance NATO’s overall strength and security. Stoltenberg reaffirmed NATO’s commitment to collective defense, emphasizing that all members are expected to support an ally under attack. Prime Minister Kristersson expressed both humility and pride regarding Sweden’s NATO membership, affirming the country’s willingness to fulfill its responsibilities and obligations within the alliance. He emphasized the seriousness of the security situation in the region, comparing it to the period of World War Two, and reiterated Sweden’s commitment to contributing to and benefiting from NATO’s collective security framework.

In the remote Finnish town of Ivalo, nestled deep within the Arctic Circle, the Lapland Border Guard base stands as a vigilant sentinel against potential threats emanating from Russia, located just 20 miles away. With Finland’s accession to NATO in April of 2023 and subsequent efforts to bolster defense ties with Washington, a significant incident happened in December when Finland and the United States inked a defense cooperation agreement. This agreement grants the United States official authorization to deploy troops and equipment at the Ivalo base, marking a notable enhancement in military collaboration between the two nations.

Similar defense cooperation agreements have been established between the United States and other NATO members bordering mainland Russia, including Norway, Estonia, and Latvia. These agreements delineate the specific bases within the host countries where U.S. forces can be stationed. With the recent agreement between Finland and the United States, the Ivalo base emerges as the closest facility to mainland Russia that is readily accessible to American troops. Ville Ahtiainen, the deputy commander of the Lapland Border Guard, acknowledges that while it is premature to speculate on the extent of investments that may be made in Ivalo, the overall outcome promises to be beneficial. Ahtiainen emphasizes that the collaboration between Finland and the United States will be strengthened as a result, contributing to enhanced security and defense capabilities.

As NATO continues to fortify its eastern flank with military assets and strategic partnerships, the risk of escalating tensions with Russia looms large. The positioning of U.S. troops and equipment in close proximity to Russia’s borders serves as a tangible manifestation of the evolving security landscape in the region. In light of these developments, observers speculate that the United States may seek similar arrangements with Sweden, further intensifying the military presence along Russia’s periphery. This will escalate the situation to unprecedented levels, marked by a surge in defense budgets across the involved parties. And this is the tip of the ice only.

Last year, the Swedish government announced its intention to boost its defense budget by 28%, aligning with the military spending target of 2% of gross domestic product mandated by the NATO alliance, of which Sweden was poised to become a member. Now it became a member. Highlighting the gravity of the current security landscape, Defense Minister Pål Jonson emphasized the necessity for Sweden to maintain a robust defense posture capable of safeguarding its territorial integrity.

The introduction of the defense bill for 2024 by Sweden’s center-right coalition government outlines a substantial increase in military expenditure amounting to 27 billion kronor ($2.4 billion), with approximately 700 million kronor ($63 million) earmarked for Sweden’s prospective NATO membership. Jonson underscored the imperative for Sweden to enhance its readiness, advocating for military drills geared towards NATO integration while reaffirming the country’s support for Ukraine. The recent accession of Sweden to NATO is expected to facilitate the augmentation of defense capabilities and armaments, ensuring alignment with the alliance’s collective defense objectives.

The move will likely be perceived as a direct challenge to Russia’s influence in the region, prompting a strategic recalibration from Moscow. Russia may respond with increased military presence along its western borders, including the deployment of troops and advanced weaponry, as a deterrent against NATO forces. In a report released in December 2023, it was revealed that Russia is poised to dispatch its cutting-edge howitzers to the Northern Military District, a region bordering Finland and Norway.

This significant development was disclosed by Sergei Chemezov, the head of Rostec, the state defense conglomerate, during an interview with the state RIA news agency. Chemezov highlighted the completion of testing for the new Coalition-SV self-propelled artillery units, affirming that large-scale production has already commenced. Anticipated to be operational by the year’s end, the initial batch delivery signals Russia’s strategic move to fortify its military capabilities in the Northern Military District, aimed at outmatching Western artillery models in firing range.

The decision to deploy these advanced howitzers comes in the wake of President Vladimir Putin’s pivotal decision in 2021 to reclassify the Russian Northern Fleet as the Northern Military District, extending its territorial jurisdiction to encompass the Murmansk region, adjacent to Finland and Norway. This restructuring underscores Russia’s proactive stance amidst escalating tensions with the West, exacerbated by Finland’s alignment with NATO. Moscow has accused the Western bloc of engaging in a proxy war and issued warnings of heightened military buildup along its western borders.

Recent reports from Russia’s TASS state news agency have indicated the deployment of individual Coalition-SV howitzers to the frontline in Ukraine. Renowned for their formidable capabilities, these howitzers boast an impressive firing range of up to 70 kilometers and are outfitted with a state-of-the-art 152 mm caliber cannon, capable of firing over 10 rounds per minute. Moreover, they feature cutting-edge automation systems designed to streamline gun pointing, target selection, and navigation processes, as corroborated by TASS sources. It will be continued with more initiatives like this since a new member has been added in the NATO alliance.

Russia may conduct military exercises near Baltic states and other NATO members to showcase its capabilities and test NATO’s response, potentially escalating tensions in the region. In August 2023, Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced the commencement of live-fire naval exercises in the Baltic Sea, heightening tensions with neighboring European nations amid ongoing concerns over NATO and Ukraine. This marks Russia’s return to large-scale military drills in the Baltic region following Finland’s recent accession to NATO. The exercises, dubbed Ocean Shield-2023, would involve a larger deployment of personnel, aircraft, and live weaponry compared to previous drills, aimed at testing the navy’s preparedness to safeguard Russian interests in strategically vital areas. With over 6,000 personnel, 30 warships and boats, and 30 aircraft participating, the maneuvers would focus on protecting sea routes, troop transportation, and coastal defense.

President Vladimir Putin’s opposition to NATO expansion, particularly in former Soviet states, underscores the geopolitical tensions underlying Russia’s military activities in the Baltic Sea, amplified by Finland’s NATO membership. Sweden’s membership will escalate it.

More Actions from NATO

NATO has unveiled plans for its forthcoming military exercise, STEADFAST DEFENDER 2024, which is set to be the largest of its kind in Europe since the Cold War era. This ambitious endeavor, spearheaded by U.S. Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Operations and head of U.S. European Command, will see the participation of approximately 90,000 troops from all 31 NATO Allies, alongside partner Sweden. Aimed at refining NATO’s defence strategies and bolstering European defences against potential near-peer adversaries, the exercise will serve as a comprehensive test of the Alliance’s capabilities.

Scheduled to take place from the end of January to May 31, 2024, STEADFAST DEFENDER 2024 will unfold across various key European nations, including Finland, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Divided into two phases, the exercise will focus initially on maritime reinforcement in the Atlantic and the Arctic, before transitioning to the deployment of reinforcements across all domains, spanning from the Arctic to the Eastern Flank. As a multi-domain exercise encompassing land, air, sea, cyber, and space operations, STEADFAST DEFENDER 2024 underscores NATO’s commitment to collective defense and readiness to confront emerging threats. Through complex, months-long operations, the exercise seeks to enhance civil-military cooperation, national resilience, and deterrence against potential aggression.

Sweden’s NATO membership undoubtedly introduced a new dimension of strategic dynamics in Northern Europe. The prospect of Sweden aligning with NATO could lead to a further consolidation of Western influence in the region, but it would also provoke a robust response from Russia. The strategic maneuvers and diplomatic pressure from Moscow could heighten tensions and create challenges for Swedish policymakers. The world anticipates increased activity from both entities as they guide evolving security challenges and assert their respective interests on the international stage.

Syed Raiyan Amir

Syed Raiyan Amir is a Senior Research Associate at The KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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