Sweden’s Changing Military Strategy In High North And Implications For Arctic Geopolitics – Analysis


Sweden, an Arctic State with significant stakes in the geopolitics of the region, is set to revamp its defence strategy in the wake of the Ukraine war and the changing landscape of the High North. The recent report submitted by the Swedish Defence Commission on the country’s security policy emphasized that the world stands at a critical juncture, with the established rules-based international order facing challenges from “autocratic nations like Russia and China.” It acknowledges the grim reality of a potential large-scale war in Europe, as Russia demonstrates a sustained intention for conflict with Western nations.

Given the aggressive stance of Russia, the report stated, it is imperative for Sweden to prioritize the long-term development of its comprehensive defense capabilities. This includes the ability to safeguard its territory against armed aggression, in alignment with NATO’s collective defense framework.  The committee warned that the conflict in Ukraine could escalate and potentially involve attacks on other countries or the use of nuclear or other mass-destruction weapons.  

Changing Security Perceptions 

Last year, the Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said that the country found itself “in the most serious security policy situation since WWII with a European great power waging war against a neighbouring country. The government’s focus is to stand up for democratic values and to protect Swedish interests.”  In the task description, the new government set up a four-part policy: 1) Sweden will join NATO and realize the agreement with Turkey and Finland, 2) the foreign policy must protect Swedish interests and promote democratic values, 3) the armed forces are to be strengthened with at least 2% of the gross national product (GNP) by 2026, and 4) the support for Ukraine is to be increased. 

Tobias Billström, the new foreign minister of Sweden, announced the end of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy, stating that the country’s foreign policy should prioritize Swedish interests and values, and it indicated a shift in the government’s approach. With the discontinuation of the feminist foreign policy, the new government is to emphasize a broader approach that encompasses a range of priorities aligned with Swedish interests and values. The specific foreign policy priorities of the new government would depend on the policies and agendas outlined by Tobias Billström and the government itself.

Sweden, like many Western nations, had reduced its defense after the end of the Cold War but has since increased military spending. The country aims to meet NATO’s requirement of allocating 2% of GDP to defense by 2026. Deliberations commenced to formulate long-term defense plans, including budget allocation, with a final report expected in April of next year. Joining NATO would mark a departure from Sweden’s longstanding formal neutrality, although the country has been engaged in training exercises with NATO forces.

Finland, Sweden’s neighbouring country to the east with a significant Russian border, was admitted to NATO in April after applying alongside Sweden in response to the conflict in Ukraine. In March Sweden’s lawmakers endorsed the country’s membership in NATO, approving the necessary legislation and officially paving the way for Sweden to join the Nordic security grouping.  This parliamentary authorization marked the final crucial step in Sweden’s path towards becoming a member of the Western military alliance, comprising 30 nations. A major hurdle is Turkey which is expected to take a positive stand with pressures being put on President Erdogan. Latest instance is the statement of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken who persuaded Ankara to support Sweden in its bid to join NATO. 

Sweden’s defense policy situation is indeed unique, similar to Finland. Unlike NATO members, both Sweden and Finland have traditionally pursued a policy of neutrality in their security and foreign affairs. However, both countries have been gradually deepening their cooperation with Western defense policies.  Recognizing the evolving security landscape, Sweden, Finland, and Norway signed an agreement indicating a closer military collaboration among them. This agreement reflects their shared interests and the need for enhanced cooperation in the face of evolving regional security challenges.

Sweden’s Arctic Strategy

Sweden’s Arctic strategy, initially introduced in 2011, downplayed the military aspects of defense and security politics in the region. However, the latest strategy says “the dramatic climate change in the past decade and the new geostrategic realities in the region mean greater challenges and changed circumstances for Swedish Arctic policy.”  While emphasizing the importance of peace and stability in the Arctic, the Swedish government acknowledges the potential for military conflicts in the High North, aligning with the perspectives of other Arctic states.  Sweden intends to address this through diplomatic efforts while also strengthening its military capabilities in northern Sweden. The rationale behind this approach includes heightened international tensions, increased military activities in the region, the possibility of an arms race, global unrest, and the risk of incidents escalating into military conflicts.  This aligns with the perspectives of other countries that recognize their self-interest in the Arctic. Sweden’s decision to prioritize these concerns underscores the seriousness of the situation.

The updated security policy direction of Sweden’s Arctic strategy is influenced by the recommendations put forth by the Swedish Defense Committee. This committee serves as a platform for representatives from all parliamentary parties, the government, and experts from various fields. In the previous year, this collaborative forum emphasized that Sweden’s security policy extends beyond the southern part of the country, encompassing areas in the High North, including the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea. This recognition underscores the importance of addressing security concerns in the Arctic region as part of Sweden’s overall security strategy. 

Sweden’s Arctic territory is primarily composed of the two northernmost counties, Västerbotten and Norrbotten. Although this region accounts for approximately one-third of Sweden’s total land area, it is home to just over half a million residents, making it significantly less densely populated than the southern regions of the country. The sparser population in the Arctic territory highlights the unique demographic and geographical characteristics of this northern region of Sweden.

The Swedish Armed Forces’ recent study on Sweden’s changing strategic role reflects the increasing emphasis on geopolitical considerations among the country’s elites and decision-makers. General Micael Bydén, Sweden’s Supreme Commander, has proposed the establishment of a new military unit in the Arctic city of Kiruna, driven by several factors.

One rationale behind General Bydén’s proposal is the altered geopolitical reality in the region, particularly due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Sweden’s decision to pursue NATO membership. Sweden’s limited combat readiness and the potential challenges in implementing its total defense strategy raise concerns about its ability to assist other NATO allies in the event of Russian aggression. 

Additionally, Sweden aims to highlight its value to the alliance in light of Turkey’s opposition to its NATO membership. Demonstrating Sweden’s Arctic resources and status as an Arctic nation could enhance NATO’s role in the region, which could be leveraged by Swedish diplomats and officials during membership negotiations with other alliance members.

While these reasons are valid, they present an incomplete picture of Sweden’s strategic thinking regarding the Arctic and its growing importance in transatlantic security.  General Bydén’s request for a military presence in the Arctic is driven not only by impending NATO membership and Russia’s actions but also by the emerging significance of Northern Sweden as a supplier of critical minerals, a space hub, and data centers.

The Arctic region has been vital to Europe’s industrial development and resource security, thanks to its substantial reserves of iron ore. The state-owned mining company, LKAB, is a major European producer, and its ReeMAP project aims to make it a significant supplier of rare earth elements and phosphorus in the EU. This project is strategically important as it could reduce the EU’s reliance on external sources of critical raw materials, enhance the defense industry, support the green transition, and improve the continent’s resilience to external supply disruptions.

In the context of Sweden’s potential NATO membership, the military strategic analysis highlights that Russia would likely have a higher threshold for launching a military attack on Sweden as a NATO member. However, Sweden would still face a different level of threat and an increased risk of non-armed attacks. The future is also uncertain due to the evolving dynamics of the great power competition between the United States and China. The assessment underscores that this competition will be a major factor in future geopolitics, and the priorities and direction of the United States will continue to be crucial for European security. 

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi, ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He was earlier Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences, MGU.

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