The Cable

Swedes Lean Toward NATO, Await Moscow’s Response

Moscow has warned Stockholm, but Russian aggression is pushing Swedes westward.

Swedish soldiers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are seen with their tanks in the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif on November 3, 2010. Sweden aims to pull its combat troops out of Afghanistan between 2012 and 2014 and will maintain a largely civilian support presence after that, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said November 1. AFP PHOTO/Kazim Ebrahimkhil (Photo credit should read KAZIM EBRAHIMKHIL/AFP/Getty Images)
Swedish soldiers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are seen with their tanks in the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif on November 3, 2010. Sweden aims to pull its combat troops out of Afghanistan between 2012 and 2014 and will maintain a largely civilian support presence after that, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said November 1. AFP PHOTO/Kazim Ebrahimkhil (Photo credit should read KAZIM EBRAHIMKHIL/AFP/Getty Images)

A powerful voice in Swedish politics has for the first time come out strongly in favor of joining the NATO alliance, a move that Russian officials have already warned against in no uncertain terms.

The leadership of Sweden’s Centre Party said Tuesday the time had come for a more serious consideration of joining the military alliance in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine and increasing fears in the Baltic States about Moscow’s intentions.

In an opinion article in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, a group of party leaders wrote, “We lack the ability to defend ourselves” if Russian forces attacked. Additionally, they wrote, “NATO is very clear about the fact that Sweden cannot expect military support if we are not full members of the organization. We can no longer close our eyes to that.”

The NATO alliance has taken on a renewed importance for Washington since Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014. The Defense Department has sent small numbers of American troops, along with fighter planes and Predator drones, to Eastern Europe and the Baltic states this year to deter further Russian aggression.

While never a member of the alliance, Sweden has taken part in two of the largest NATO missions in recent years, deploying troops to Afghanistan and fighter planes to assist in the bombing campaign in Libya. And polls show the Swedish public is increasingly on board with exploring NATO membership, with one in three Swedes supporting joining the alliance.

But it may come at a price. In June, Russia’s ambassador to Sweden Viktor Tatarintsev threatened “countermeasures” if Sweden joins NATO. He warned, “Putin pointed out that there will be consequences, that Russia will have to resort to a response of the military kind and re-orientate our troops and missiles.”

“The country that joins NATO needs to be aware of the risks it is exposing itself to,” Tatarintsev said.

The presence of Russian bombers skirting Swedish airspace and Russian submarines allegedly stalking its waterways has rattled the Swedish public in recent months, likely pushing some of the change of heart.

“The more Putin has tried to coerce Sweden to not join NATO, the more popular support for NATO membership has risen in Swedish opinion polls,” Jorge Benitez, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council told Foreign Policy. “The decision by the Centre Party shows that Swedish leaders are joining this growing popular desire to reject Russia’s threats and join their fellow democracies in NATO.”

Sweden hasn’t exactly been sitting on its hands. In April, Sweden joined with Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland to kick off plans to expand military cooperation in the face of the growing Russian threat.

The Centre Party occupies 22 seats in Sweden’s 349-seat parliament, and is part of a four-party opposition group that has traditionally been opposed to joining NATO. The party has mostly aligned with the Social Democrats on foreign policy issues, but now, joining with the Christian Democrats’ embrace of NATO membership, there is broad unity along the right-wing of Swedish politics in favor of NATO membership.

Photo credit: KAZIM EBRAHIMKHIL/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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