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Fearing Russian Bear, Sweden Inches Toward NATO

The deal, known as a host nation support agreement, will grant NATO more room to operate on Swedish territory for training exercises or in the event of a conflict in the region.

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Since the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, things have gotten tense between Russia and Sweden. Russian jets have repeatedly prodded Swedish airspace, a massive hunt was launched for a foreign submarine — suspected to be Russian — off the coast of Stockholm, and the closure of Swedish airspace last November may have been caused by a Russian cyber-attack. Adding to the tensions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter in April that Moscow will “take necessary measures” if militarily neutral Sweden decides to join NATO.

And so tensions may only grow after Wednesday’s vote by Swedish lawmakers to ratify an agreement that will allow NATO to more easily operate in the country.

The deal, known as a host nation support agreement, will grant NATO more room to operate on Swedish territory for training exercises or in the event of a conflict in the region. Russia’s role in the war in Ukraine and the changing security environment in the Baltic is forcing Stockholm to reconsider its 200-year-old policy of neutrality in armed conflicts, and the agreement brings Sweden closer to the alliance than ever before.

“It’s very significant in practical terms,” Magnus Nordenman, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told Foreign Policy. “It helps clear up uncertainties about Sweden’s potential role in a crisis or war in the region.”

The vote easily passed with a broad majority, but the debate in Swedish parliament highlighted the difficult tightrope that Stockholm must walk between Russia and the West.  Prior to the vote, there were rumblings that the opposition Left Party and far-right Sweden Democrats, both of which are against NATO membership, would combine their votes to send the legislation to review, where it could have been delayed for up to a year. But the Sweden Democrats at the last minute agreed to back the closer military cooperation, denying the Left Party the necessary support to table the vote.

“This was the next big step in terms of deepening Sweden’s cooperation with NATO,” said Nordenman. “But it’s not close enough yet for membership. Domestically, there is still tons of hesitation.”

Neither Sweden, nor its neighbor Finland, are currently members of NATO — a throwback to both countries’ histories of military neutrality and complex relations with Moscow. Since the end of the Cold War, Helsinki and Stockholm cooperated more closely with the military alliance and debated potential membership. In late April, the Finnish Foreign Ministry published an independent report exploring the consequences of NATO membership for Helsinki. The report’s central finding was that the Nordic duo should stay together: either by both joining the alliance or abstaining.

But taking the leap towards NATO has been difficult for Helsinki and Stockholm, which are increasingly under domestic pressure to respond to Russia without provoking a Kremlin backlash. Meanwhile, Moscow and NATO’s dueling rhetoric and actions have only further inflamed tensions in the Baltic. NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have sounded the alarm that their region could be the next flashpoint with Russia. In response to the growing number of airspace violations, Sweden remilitarized the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea in February for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

Violations and provocations near borders are part of a long pattern by the Kremlin to test its neighbors’ resolve, but it is one that is not always effective, Tomas Bertelman, a former Swedish ambassador to Russia, told FP.

“Some may actually see it as a reminder of the dangers we might face if we challenge the Russians by becoming members of NATO,” said Bertelman. “But the large majority in Sweden obviously perceive it the other way around: It reminds them that being non-aligned means being undefined.”

Public opinion towards NATO has risen over the last few years, but support remains jittery. A September 2015 poll conducted by the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet showed that 41 percent of Swedes were in favor of membership, with 39 percent against and 20 perecent undecided. Similarly, only about one-quarter of Finns are in favor of joining NATO.

But analysts contend that while support has not significantly increased for the military alliance since the Ukraine crisis, the number of those undecided has risen sharply. And that, says Robbie Gramer, associate director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, illustrates that the events of the last two years have shifted the NATO debate in both Finland and Sweden.

“It’s still very controversial in both countries, but the growing number of undecided people shows that a shift is taking place,” Gramer told FP. “It’s a prelude to a prelude of NATO membership.”

Photo credit: PONTUS LUNDAHL/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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