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NATO on Northern Track

With Damian Szacawa about Sweden’s long way to NATO, and the benefits of its membership for the Alliance and… the Polish Navy talks Łukasz Zalesiński.

Sweden, after 200 years, ceased to be neutral and became 32nd member of NATO. Stalin didn’t make Sweden to join NATO, nor did Khrushchev or Brezhnev, it was only Putin. Does it mean that Russian threat is today more serious than it used to be during the Cold War?

It’s hard to find a clear answer to this question. In my opinion, a key question is not about a scale of threat, but rather about the attitude of neighboring Finland. Finland for decades would remain a country not military engaged, but at some point came to the conclusion that in the face of increasingly aggressive attitude of Russia, it needs hard security guarantees. The Article 5 of Washington Treaty offers that. NATO membership is recognized by Finland as more reliable that all allied agreements within the frames of the Nordic Council, European Union or the British initiative of the Joint Expeditionary Force. It was then that Sweden realized that if Finland joined NATO, they would in a way remain alone in the region, and that wouldn’t pay off in a long run. Although Sweden doesn’t border directly with Russia, it still senses this growing pressure from the Kremlin, and cannot be sure of Russian intentions. It’s enough to mention an intensive presence of the Baltic Fleet ships nearby Swedish coasts or jamming GPS signal. When Finland finally decided to file accession application to NATO, Sweden decided to do the same.


Commentators considered it a revolution, but were they right? The Swedish had been closely cooperating with the Alliance for decades. They participated in joint exercises on the Baltic Sea, they sent a contingent within the frames of ISAF to Afghanistan. Is it not rather a crowning of a long process?

It depends on how we look at it. At the tactical and operational level, the Swedish in recent years have been close with NATO, that’s a fact. Sweden has also gained a close-partnership status. Even this, however, did not allow for a full integration of military structures and their inclusion in the system of collective defense. It will be possible only now, after Sweden became a NATO member. The change is significant. At the political level, in my opinion, we can talk about a serious revolution, sort of like Copernican Revolution. So far, the Swedish elites were consistent in their neutrality, and specifically – in keeping away from any military alliances. A full-scale Russian invasion in Ukraine led to a change, although not so radical one, as in the case of neighboring Finland. Obviously, politicians agreed that Russia was a threat, but not all of them thought that NATO membership was a necessity. Sweden was preparing the accession application, but until the middle of May 2022, when it was ultimately filed, it was Finland, which was pro-NATO in a debate, and Sweden was one step behind its ‘younger sibling.’ Among the Nordic states, where Sweden had so far been perceived as a leader, it was a kind of novelty.

Political consensus was reached in Sweden, anyway.

Yes, and a breaking point – similarly to when Sweden joined the European Union in 1995 – was a change in a standpoint of the Swedish Social Democratic Labor Party, that is the largest political group at that time. On May 15, 2022, the party unanimously voted for the membership of Sweden in NATO. Most of the Swedish people felt that, too. Finally Riksdag, Swedish parliament, approved the change in foreign and defense politics. Today, none of any significant Swedish parties opposes to NATO membership, although the enthusiasm of the Left Party or the Green Party is rather moderate. In the future, we can expect debates on a potential deployment of NATO forces or nuclear weapons in Sweden.

Is it a probable perspective?

I don’t think it will happen in the upcoming future, but we should keep in mind that at the end of 2023, Stockholm signed with the United States an agreement, which gives the US army access to 17 Swedish bases. Apart from that, the Swedish are perfectly aware of Gotland’s strategic significance. Presence on the island allows for controlling the key maritime routes on the Baltic Sea. For that reason, during Exercise Aurora 2023, the Swedish army and NATO forces trained how to defend the island. Sweden has been increasing the number of forces stationed in Gotland, but for the time being, it doesn’t consider it necessary to strengthen them with NATO forces, though it may change in the future…

Speaking of geostrategy – what have NATO gained after the access of Sweden?

Most of all, Sweden will be engaged in defense planning. Its territory will be included in regional plans, which were approved during the last NATO summit in Vilnius. This way, the Alliance will fill a significant gap, and its strategy will be more cohesive. Sweden is a northern flank state, and reaches as far out as to Arctica. On the other hand, Sweden’s location near the Baltic Sea is a link with Central Europe. In case of a conflict, Sweden can play a role of a logistic backup for frontline states. A Swedish territory provides NATO with operational depth.

Sweden itself doesn’t own too large an army.

That’s true. After the end of the Cold War, Swedish army was significantly reduced. This applied mainly to the land forces, which today are being rebuilt. At present, two existing mechanized brigades are modernized. Meanwhile, the army is creating two more brigades, and expanding a combat team, stationed in Gotland. Soldiers are getting new equipment: 155-mm Archer self-propelled howitzers, and Patria AMVs. The Stridsvagn tanks, which are a Swedish configuration of German Leopard 2, are being modernized. The Swedish also own advanced Visby corvettes and four submarines, and are building new vessels. In the upcoming years, two submarines of A26 class will enter service. SAAB is building aircraft of E/F version, and this will be the third generation of Gripens. The Swedish will introduce to NATO an army that perhaps is not the large one, but is certainly very advanced. With that, Sweden offers a very prosperous defense industry and a highly resistant society, engaged in a quite effective system of civil defense. Sweden from the very first moment wants to accentuate its presence in NATO. Several months ago, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson announced that Swedish army was ready to send to Latvia its contingent to support the eFP battalion combat group there.

What’s the reaction of Russia to that? Will the presence of Sweden and Finland in NATO verify in any way Russian war doctrine or their plans for the use of forces in Europe?

Russia sure does have quite a problem here. Obviously, the official speakers for the Kremlin would say that the Nordic states decided to take a risky and ill-considered step, because they will now have Russian forces at their borders. Vladimir Putin himself have said recently that the “systems of destruction” will be in the proximity of Finland. But rhetoric is one thing, and the other is actual deeds. Russian army incurs heavy losses in Ukraine, and this relates to smaller military resources also in other regions of the Russian Federation. Let’s look at Kaliningrad Oblast, for instance, to see that in the first months of fights on the territory of Ukraine, the 11th Army Corps and 336th Naval Infantry Brigade incurred serious losses, which are now being rebuilt. Restoring this potential requires time and money, and in the face of a prolonging war, it is extremely difficult. I doubt that Russia sends to the North any significant forces now, or to its border with Finland, which is over 1,300 km long. We can also assume that the Russians will attempt to intensify its hybrid activities, such as directing another waves of illegal migrant towards Finland, attacking critical infrastructure on the Baltic Sea, or – what have recently happened at least several times – jam the GPS signal used by civil aircraft (among others). At this moment, the Kremlin cannot do much more, it however counts on some cracks in NATO structure and weakening the relations between the member states. In other words, Russia hopes for disintegration of the Alliance. For that reason, Russian propaganda so happily have seized on the issues of prolonging accession negotiations and the opposition of Turkey and Hungary to Sweden’s membership in NATO.

Exactly – Swedish way to NATO was longer than politics and experts initially expected. Is the attitude of Turkey and Hungary the sign of tensions that can expect in the future? In other words: will Sweden’s access to NATO become a trouble spot?

We can expect some tensions, particularly in the light of the last declaration of Prime Minister Kristersson. In an interview, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Sweden will defend the primary values of the Alliance. This means that the attitude of Hungary and Turkey, accused of violating law and order and pro-Russian activity, can be criticized. I don’t think however that in a long run this will break the unity of NATO. Already at the stage of accession negotiations, Sweden and Turkey proved that they can think pragmatically. The Swedish at some point ceased to publicly criticize Ankara and Budapest. Turkey eased its opposition after Americans agreed to sell F-16 aircraft to them. Less rational in this context seems the attitude of Hungary, which has never clearly articulated its doubts or even suggested what they would like to gain in exchange for giving the green light to Sweden. Ultimately, they didn’t gain a lot, but it was hard to recognize the end of negotiations as successful in the case of purchasing by Hungary four JAS-39 Gripen fighters. This way or other, I think that the most serious problems in the context of Sweden’s membership are over.

How the expansion of NATO with two more Nordic states can affect Poland – Polish security, army, directions for foreign policy?

This influence is already visible. Until now, Poland have been running foreign policy based on the East-West axis, where northern direction was barely accentuated. Now, its significance has risen. Prime Minister Donald Tusk intended to pay his first foreign visit to one of the Baltic states. Ultimately, the meeting with Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas was cancelled due to her infection, but the very step was symbolic. What’s more, in his first months as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Radosław Sikorski, and then Marshal of the Seym Szymon Hołownia, paid a visit to Lithuania. Finally, after the last visit of President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Washington, not only the convening of Weimer Triangle was announced, but also a proper information sent to the leaders of the group of northern states.

The expansion of NATO to Sweden and Finland makes our obligations about defending allied territory move further to the north. It was visible during the above-mentioned Exercise Aurora 2023, during which Polish paratroopers landed in Gotland, and onboard the ship straight from Gdynia, the combat module of Maritime Missile Unit [MJR] was deployed. In my opinion, such a shift in policy may be most beneficial for the Polish Navy, which for years have been the most neglected branch of our armed forces. Now, its potential must be significantly strengthened. An important step is the continuation of building modern frigates within the Miecznik program. Soon, Orka program should also be launched, which is to provide submarines to the Polish Navy.

Sweden’s accession to NATO will provide the Central-European countries with easier access to the offer of the Swedish defense industry, which they already gladly take an opportunity of. Czechia and Slovakia, for instance, have recently ordered Combat Vehicles 90 [CV90], Poland ordered Saab reconnaissance aircraft and Carl Gustaf rocket-propelled grenades. Sweden and Finland give us certain model, if it comes to civil defense organization, which Poland must in a short time rebuild. New NATO members may provide us with their allied assistance.

To summarize, I would like to ask what can we expect if its comes to further expansion of NATO? Is accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO a sign that a time of neutrality in Europe has definitely passed, and soon Austria and Switzerland will follow their steps?

It’s hard to say. We should however keep in mind that Sweden and Finland abandoned their neutrality much earlier, the moment they joined the European Union, which, nota bene, at some pointed started to develop their own military capabilities. By joining NATO, these states simply took one step further. Their accession to the Alliance increases security of Europe. Obviously, it doesn’t eliminate a threat of a full-scale invasion from Russia, but it leaves Putin with less options than before.

Talks Łukasz Zalesiński

autor zdjęć: Felix Sundbäck / Försvarsmakten, Svenska Marinen, Saab

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