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Sweden Is Doing Fine in NATO’s Waiting Room

Turkey’s latest extortion attempt won’t dissuade Swedes.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Norwegian F-35 fighter jets fly during the Arctic Challenge Exercise near Orland Main Air Station, Norway.
Norwegian F-35 fighter jets fly during the Arctic Challenge Exercise near Orland Main Air Station, Norway.
Norwegian F-35 fighter jets fly during the Arctic Challenge Exercise, held with Finland and Sweden, near Orland Main Air Station, Norway, on June 1. Cornelius Poppe/NTB/AFP via Getty Images

The first-ever landing of a U.S. bomber on Swedish soil, participation in NATO’s largest-ever air deployment exercise, constant strategic communications from NATO affirming the alliance’s solidarity with Sweden—life on the doorstep of NATO accession has turned out to be surprisingly livable for Sweden. That matters because a new Quran burning (this time by an Iraqi refugee) now seems likely to further extend Sweden’s wait as Turkey throws another tantrum—and because it signals to prospective spoilsports that trying to thwart accession isn’t worth the effort.

The first-ever landing of a U.S. bomber on Swedish soil, participation in NATO’s largest-ever air deployment exercise, constant strategic communications from NATO affirming the alliance’s solidarity with Sweden—life on the doorstep of NATO accession has turned out to be surprisingly livable for Sweden. That matters because a new Quran burning (this time by an Iraqi refugee) now seems likely to further extend Sweden’s wait as Turkey throws another tantrum—and because it signals to prospective spoilsports that trying to thwart accession isn’t worth the effort.

NATO and its members are taking pains to celebrate Sweden while the country waits for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to change his mind regarding its membership.

But on June 28, with less than a month to go before NATO’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, that wait risked becoming longer still. On that day, the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, Iraqi refugee Salwan Momika burned a Quran in front of a Stockholm mosque to “express my opinion about the Quran,” as he’d explained in his protest permit application. (While the police had rejected two previous protest permit applications of a similar nature, a court later ruled against that decision.)

Although Momika told Sweden’s Aftonbladet newspaper in April that he would consider waiting until Sweden was in NATO, he proceeded with the burning anyway. The Turkish government reacted swiftly, with Communications Director Fahrettin Altun describing the burning as “yet another provocative terrorist act targeting our religion on this sacred day” and calling on Sweden to “take a clear stance against terrorism in all of its forms.” Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, in turn, condemned “the vile protest in Sweden against our holy book on the first day of the blessed Eid al-Adha.”

Mikail Yuksel, a Swede of Turkish origins who leads the small Muslim-focused Nyans Party, swiftly followed up by promising to “do everything in my power to draw attention to [the Quran burning] on the international stage. We’ll see how it affects Sweden’s NATO application.” In 2018, Yuksel was expelled from Sweden’s liberal Center Party, which found that he’d hidden his links to the Grey Wolves, a far-right Turkish organization.

Even as Sweden’s accession is likely to be further delayed, NATO is keen to advertise its commitment. On June 19, two mighty eagles landed in Sweden: B-1B Lancers from the U.S. Bomber Task Force. The supersonic Lancer—whose power and sleek design have given it the nickname “Swan of Death”—is part of the U.S. military’s most formidable kit. It can carry eight air-launched cruise missiles and 24 nuclear warheads or 84 massive conventional bombs, and it can fly 4,600 miles without refueling. The B-1B is the kind of weapon that strikes fear into the heart of U.S. adversaries.

During World War II, there were cases of U.S. emergency landings in Sweden, but the arrival of the two Lancers at the Swedish Air Force’s far-north airfield outside the city of Lulea (and the subsequent joint exercise with Swedish aircraft) was a carefully planned event. It was an unmissable signal by the United States to Russia that despite being kept in the ante room (sorry to sound posh), Sweden already enjoys the full protection of the U.S. military. “This is a historic event. In these troubled times and while waiting for NATO membership, it is important to have strong partners. We have regularly conducted exercises with the Bomber Task Force … and now we’re taking the next step in our cooperation by basing the B1-B Lancer on Swedish soil,” Brig. Gen. Tommy Petersson, Sweden’s deputy Air Force chief, said in a press release.

The historic landing came in the middle of another event: NATO’s largest-ever air deployment exercise, which also included Sweden. Between June 12 and 23, 250 aircraft and 10,000 personnel from NATO member states and Sweden and Japan practiced air deployment across the alliance’s northern territory—and Sweden. The exercise had been planned long ago. Its timing, though, turned out to be fortuitous, since it has allowed NATO and its member states to demonstrate that Sweden is very much part of the gang.

In Brussels, meanwhile, NATO headquarters has been dispatching a steady stream of solidarity-laden messages, always stressing Sweden’s participation in its various undertakings (including a North Atlantic Council meeting this month). U.S. and other officials, for their part, haven’t tired of mentioning Sweden in every discussion with Turkey and other NATO member states. Sweden is playing a starring role in the alliance: No country bar Ukraine is mentioned more frequently and with more expression of loyalty.

It’s annoying that the country can’t fully participate in NATO intelligence-sharing but not intolerable, said retired Maj. Gen. Gunnar Karlson, Sweden’s chief of military intelligence until 2019. “The intelligence aspect of NATO membership is less important than one might think,” he told Foreign Policy. “All sensitive intelligence cooperation is by definition bilateral, and multilateral organizations—including NATO—are not of decisive importance for what sort of intelligence a country can access. The information that is shared within NATO obviously depends on each member state’s trust in the ally they trust the least.”

The most painful disadvantage for Sweden as it continues its wait on NATO’s doorstep may instead be its exclusion from the alliance’s operational planning—and that’s why NATO and some of its members are taking such pains to communicate how closely Sweden is already working with them.

It’s a signal to Turkey and to any other NATO member state that may be inclined to try to squeeze concessions out of future accessions that such attempts might be frustrating but they’re not fatal. If Sweden can enjoy a highly tolerable existence on NATO’s doorstep, denying it membership won’t force it to make concessions.

But comfort on NATO’s doorstep could bring a completely different complication: Swedish voters could conclude that life is good the way it is and that the country should just stop pushing for membership. So far, that doesn’t seem to have happened. In January, months after Turkey had placed its roadblock on Sweden’s NATO path, a record 63 percent of Swedes supported NATO membership, compared with only 22 percent who opposed it. And there was no desire to placate Ankara: 42 percent thought the government had done too much to appease Turkey, while only 6 percent thought the government hadn’t done enough. Yet the risk persists that voters might conclude that almost-membership, especially with the perks Sweden has been getting, is a good deal.

How many more U.S. bombers will land in Sweden before Erdogan decides he’ll grant his fiat lux? How much NATO stratcom will feature Sweden as its protagonist? How many exercises will demonstrate Sweden’s crucial role within the alliance’s wider family? The goodwill will keep flowing—because it has to. It’s like parents who lovingly spend months decorating their baby’s nursery. Half the joy of welcoming the baby into the world is being able to present it with the most perfect accommodation possible. Quite without anyone having planned it, Sweden is getting favorite child treatment.

And when it finally becomes a member, it won’t be under the yoke of concessions to Turkey but against the backdrop of months of additional love by all the other members. Most of the world, meanwhile, will have been educated about Sweden’s value for the alliance. It may not look like it at the moment, but Sweden has won the NATO lottery.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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