Swedish Defense Minister: ‘In Our Part of Europe, NATO Will Be Much Stronger’

Peter Hultqvist talks about Sweden’s bid for NATO, the Turkish roadblock, and what to do in the meantime.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stands with Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stands with Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (right) stands with Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist during an honor cordon at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on May 18. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Sweden and Finland formally submitted their applications to join NATO at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, ending their long-standing policies of military nonalignment as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a cascade of strategic shifts across Europe. 

Both countries have cooperated closely with the alliance in recent years, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said he expects the accession process to be “quick and swift,” but it may not all be plain sailing as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to block the membership bids, accusing Finland and Sweden of accommodating Kurdish militants. (Croatia is also now throwing a wrench in the works.)

Foreign Policy sat down with Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist on Wednesday to discuss Stockholm’s change of heart, the accession process, and how the country was preparing to fend off efforts by Moscow to sow chaos. 

On Wednesday, Sweden and Finland formally submitted their applications to join NATO at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, ending their long-standing policies of military nonalignment as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a cascade of strategic shifts across Europe. 

Both countries have cooperated closely with the alliance in recent years, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said he expects the accession process to be “quick and swift,” but it may not all be plain sailing as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to block the membership bids, accusing Finland and Sweden of accommodating Kurdish militants. (Croatia is also now throwing a wrench in the works.)

Foreign Policy sat down with Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist on Wednesday to discuss Stockholm’s change of heart, the accession process, and how the country was preparing to fend off efforts by Moscow to sow chaos. 

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Foreign Policy: To start with the most obvious question, why now, after decades of military nonalignment, has the Swedish government decided to join NATO?

Peter Hultqvist: Because of the war in Ukraine that started [on the] 24th of February, [it] created a new situation. It’s the first big war since the Second World War. And Russia broke international law very deeply. And they do not respect democratic countries’ right to sovereignty, and they also delivered the message to the European countries that they want some sort of new security order, that they want to have some sort of influence over the security decisions in the countries in their so-called neighborhood. And all this is totally unacceptable. And for us, it’s now important to build a higher level of threshold against Russia because they have no respect for other states. They only see it through their own demands. 

FP: To what extent did the war in Ukraine underscore the vulnerability of countries that are partners but not members of NATO? Did that drive some of the considerations on this?

PH: I think that we tried during more than seven years, nearly eight years, Finland and Sweden. We built a security network at the same time as we were non-allied. We tried to reduce tension. We tried to reduce the risk for conflict together. And at the same time, we upgraded our national military capability and also deepened cooperation with other countries. [Sweden has] signed 20 defense agreements, and we have in exercises developed interoperability. All this changed when the Russians started the war in February because then it started a process in Finland to join NATO. The result of our security analysis is that we cannot, as the Swedish state, be alone. We must be in the group of countries we normally cooperate with. And if we are alone, we will have a weaker position also in all of our cooperation with others. We will not have the highest level of priority.

FP: What is your estimated timeline of how long the NATO accession process will take?

PH: We want to do it as fast as possible. How long it will take I cannot say because it’s 30 parliaments involved, so I cannot say. And when I met people from the United States in the House of Representatives and the Senate, all of them have told me that they want to do it as fast as possible. 

FP: I think Montenegro’s accession took around 18 months; presumably things will be a little bit quicker for Sweden and Finland. But do you have a ballpark that you’re working to in your own defense planning?

PH: We want to do it as soon as possible; that’s the only thing that I can say. Some people say it will take months. Others say one year. Others say more than one year. We will see in the future how long it will take, but we want it as soon as possible. 

FP: Do you expect that Russia will try and destabilize Sweden during that accession period, and how are you preparing for any actions by Russia?

PH: I talked today with [U.S. Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin about these questions, and we have talked about naval presence, air presence with [the U.S.] Air Force, [U.S.] Army, how to handle cyberattacks together. So we have talked about the broad scenario of activities, and we have already planned to have exercises, to have a naval presence. So there is a schedule for that, that we are upgrading day by day. 

FP: What about protecting against gray zone, hybrid attacks, be it cyber or disinformation?

PH: It is these sort of activities that I talked about from the last question that if you have a naval presence very close to Swedish territory, that is one way to show that we are here and we also—

FP: An American naval presence?

PH: Yes. And we have a lot of power here. And if [the United States flies] with strategic flights, that’s also a way to show something. And if we have exercises together, that shows also capability together. And we also planned to do things together with other countries, so it’s not just the United States. But I am very grateful to have positive messages from the American side on this today. 

FP: How concerned are you about remarks from the Turkish president that he may not approve Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO?

PH: I think we will have to solve this in a dialogue with other countries, and that is our ambition: to solve it in a dialogue with Turkey but also with other partners. 

FP: Is the Swedish government talking with the Turks on a bilateral level?

PH: I think it is a combination. We are very interested to talk with the Turks about this. 

FP: But how do you think that Finland and Sweden’s accession will change the alliance more broadly? One of the things that comes to my mind is that you’re both Arctic nations. That’s an area where Russia is building up very heavily right now. How does this change the defense posture of NATO? 

PH: It will raise the threshold for conflicts in the Nordic environment, in Scandinavia. We get the strategic depth—Finland, Sweden, Norway—it’s a huge area, and we can make a combination, complementary, between these defense forces. We can also build planning together and use the military resources in a more effective way all over this area. So I think that in our part of Europe, NATO will be much stronger. 

FP: Nonmilitary alignment is something that has run very deep in Sweden as part of its national identity for a very long time. How do you think that joining NATO is going to change that?

PH: We have had broad support for nonmilitary alignment. Now we see in the polls that we have around 60 percent support for joining NATO. And I think that this war in Ukraine had a great impact on public opinion. 

FP: Do you think that will last? Public opinion is fickle. 

PH: I think it will. I think when we become a real member of NATO, then it will be very broadly accepted.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.