Sweden and Finland Took Long Path to Embrace NATO

From a Wall Street Journal story by Sune Engel Rasmussen headlined “Sweden, Finland Took Long Path to Embrace NATO”:

Sweden and Finland stunned NATO members last year with their applications to join the bloc, but already they are slotting smoothly into the military alliance.

The Nordic duo spent decades insisting that membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would jeopardize their national security by antagonizing Moscow, before making an abrupt about-face last year following Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Behind that longstanding public reticence was a meticulous, decadeslong campaign of preparation by internationalist officials, who since the 1990s sought to move their countries as close to the alliance as domestic public opinion—dead set against full membership—allowed.

For Finland, which joined in April, and Sweden, which is still waiting to be ratified and whose foreign minister is due to meet NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday, those efforts are paying off with unusually fast and smooth integration to NATO operations.

For the alliance, which faces its biggest conflict with Moscow since the Cold War, the inclusion of two large Russian neighbors that invest heavily in defense means more muscle and political heft at a time the alliance needs it most.

By the time public and political opinion last year swung behind joining NATO, the Swedish and Finnish militaries had been streamlined to NATO standards through participating in joint missions for 30 years.

“Most of the security elite was in favor of Swedish NATO membership, with very few exceptions,” said Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister. Unlike Finland, where opposition to NATO membership was rooted in national-security concerns, the Swedish political establishment, dominated for decades by the center-left Social Democrats, opposed NATO membership on ideological, antiwar grounds.

“It was a question of gradually nudging the Social Democrats into a more reasonable position,” said Bildt, who belongs to the center-right Moderate Party. “It was a delicate exercise.”

Peter Hultqvist, a senior Social Democrat who was defense minister in the government that last year lodged Sweden’s NATO bid—five months after he insisted on national television that the country would never join NATO as long as he was minister—denied that his party had been nudged into joining NATO.

“When Russia started the war against Ukraine, we faced a new security environment, and we had to react,” Hultqvist said. “We make our own decisions.”

He added that Sweden had underestimated Russia’s potential for aggression in the region, but said that the naiveté had been shared by politicians across the political spectrum.

Stockholm’s NATO bid has been held up since last year by Turkey, which says it must do more to crack down on alleged Kurdish terrorists in the country. Finland entered NATO after decoupling its application from Sweden’s.

Swedish membership was a central topic of discussion during a summit of the 31 NATO foreign ministers in Oslo last week. NATO allies are pressuring Turkey to approve Sweden’s accession to the bloc before the alliance’s next summit, in Vilnius, Lithuania, which starts on July 11.

But while Sweden’s application process has lasted a little more than a year, the accession is only the final step in a path dating to the mid-1990s.

Along with Finland, Sweden in 1994 joined the Partnership for Peace, a program that allowed bilateral cooperation between NATO and nonmember states. While mostly focused on post-Soviet states, the program was a milestone in the two Nordic countries’ relations with NATO as well.

The following year, Sweden and Finland each sent a battalion of soldiers to assist NATO’s first major crisis-response operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both have since contributed to other NATO missions, including in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

As the Swedish security establishment grew closer to their NATO counterparts, public and political support at home was still firmly in favor of nonalignment.

“The view was that close cooperation would be enough of a deterrent [against Russia],” said Anna Wieslander, Stockholm-based director for Northern Europe with the Atlantic Council and former secretary of the Swedish Defense Commission.

As crises continued to flare up, that view slowly changed. After the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, the Swedish government reversed cuts to the military, ordered a few years before. In 2011, it sent jet fighters to assist the NATO mission in civil-war-torn Libya.

“There were huge problems to start with. We weren’t interoperable at all,” Wieslander said.

Sweden streamlined its air force, switching terminology from Swedish to English all the way through the ranks, and changing altitude measurements from metric to the imperial system.

By 2013, Sweden and Finland both had standing army, air force and naval units ready to deploy as part of the NATO Response Force, a multinational quick-reaction force fully compatible with troops, gear and maintenance personnel.

Retired Lt. Gen. Anders Silwer, a Swedish former chief of joint operations, said the Swedish public likely didn’t understand the full depth of the country’s relationship with NATO.

“It went against the Swedish thinking about neutrality,” he said. About half of the country’s officers and noncommissioned officers have served in NATO operations, he said.

Former Finnish officials said it was a deliberate plan by their country’s defense ministry to make their militaries as interoperable as possible with the U.S. and NATO systems, so they could easily integrate if membership one day became a reality.

“When the decision to apply for membership was made, I think the public, and also the political leadership, was surprised that Finland was so ready,” Jarmo Lindberg, a former Finnish chief of defense, said.

Yet, for decades, public proponents of Finnish NATO membership were derided for their stance.

“It was a long walk toward NATO membership, and at some stage during that long walk, people like myself who had been advocating NATO membership lost hope that it was going to happen,” said former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb.

As the international combat mission in Afghanistan wound down in 2014, Sweden and Finland entered new NATO partnerships. In 2014, they became so-called Enhanced Opportunities Partners, alongside Australia, Georgia and Jordan—Ukraine joined in 2020—meant to make their militaries interoperable with NATO systems.

In 2017, they joined the U.K.-led Joint Expeditionary Force, as the only two members of the 10-nation force that weren’t part of NATO.

“NATO became more open and inclusive toward troop contributing partners,” said Veronika Wand-Danielsson, who was Sweden’s NATO ambassador from 2007 to 2014. During her time, Sweden upgraded its presence in Brussels with a full-fledged NATO delegation, in 2008, “a clear signal from the conservative Swedish government that relations with NATO would be given a higher priority,” she said.

One of Sweden’s strongest proponents of NATO membership, Wand-Danielsson got so enthusiastic in her relationship with NATO that Bildt at one point jokingly told her: “Veronika, you are Sweden’s ambassador to NATO, not NATO’s ambassador to Sweden.”

However, Bildt, who was Swedish foreign minister from 2006 to 2014, had himself warmed to the idea of Swedish NATO membership. Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 hammered home the need to work closely with the alliance, but while Swedish soldiers served and died in war zones under NATO command, the country didn’t have a part in the bloc’s decision making.

“We had subcontracted our relationship with Russia to other capitals,” Wand-Danielsson said.

Gradually, Swedish NATO ambassadors in Brussels became more vocal, pointing out in public the potential benefits to Sweden of a membership. Sitting ambassadors weren’t allowed to outright advocate for NATO membership, but some of them did once they retired.

“It was part of the intellectual preparation” for joining the alliance, Bildt said.

In Finland, people moved quicker than politicians. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ignited Finnish public support from around 20% before the war to 82% when the country formally applied.

“It wasn’t the political elite that took Finland into NATO. It was the public that pushed the elite to change its opinion,” Stubb, the Finnish ex-prime minister, said.

In Sweden, support for joining NATO increased from 37% to 58% over the same period. But in parliament, 269 lawmakers signed off on the bill authorizing Swedish NATO membership, with only 37 voting against. Public support has since increased to 67%.

“The political leadership more or less dragged the population after it,” Silwer, the Swedish former chief of joint operations, said.

Sune Engel Rasmussen is a correspondent who covers Afghanistan, Iran and North European affairs for The Wall Street Journal. His reporting often focuses on how people’s lives and livelihoods are affected by violent conflict and economic inequality. Currently based in London, Sune lived for nearly a decade in Afghanistan, Iran and Lebanon covering the Afghan war and the return of the Taliban, public upheaval in Iran, conflicts in Syria and Yemen and the economic collapse in Lebanon.

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