Sweden’s flag was hoisted at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels today as the Nordic country became the 32nd member of the transatlantic military alliance. Sweden’s membership, which follows that of neighboring Finland, is a consequence of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Sweden’s flag is installed at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels on March 11. (NATO)
Sweden’s flag is installed at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels on March 11. (NATO)

USIP’s Mary Glantz and Mirna Galic discuss the importance of Sweden’s NATO membership and what it means for European security, Russia and NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners. Galic is the chair of a USIP expert study group that has recently produced a report on NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners.

What is the significance of NATO membership for Sweden?

Galic: Swedish officials have been pretty clear on why their government is now joining NATO, a decision reached shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Russia’s actions changed Sweden’s estimation of Russia and what Russia might be willing to do to its neighbors, making Sweden feel more vulnerable than in the past. Like Finland, which joined NATO last year, Sweden is a near neighbor of Russia and feels it will be safer from Russian incursion or meddling inside the NATO alliance, which provides for collective defense of member states. Russia is likely not interested in taking on the whole of the NATO alliance militarily.

It is also worth noting that Sweden has been a partner country of NATO since the 1990s, which means it was already able to coordinate and cooperate with NATO and achieve some level of interoperability with the alliance and familiarity with NATO standards and practices. Collective defense, however, applies only to NATO members, not partners.

Sweden’s NATO membership turns the Baltic Sea into what some have described as a “NATO lake.” What the implications of Sweden’s NATO membership for Russian interests in the Baltic Sea?

Glantz: The Baltic region is certainly strategically important to Russia for both military and economic reasons. Russia exports a significant amount of oil from ports on the Baltic Sea. Militarily, the Russian Baltic Fleet is based in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave that contains nuclear-capable Iskander missiles and may also house Russian sub-strategic nuclear weapons.

In the event of war with NATO, Russian naval forces in the region would essentially be penned in. Kaliningrad and the forces there would be surrounded on land by NATO states (Poland and Lithuania) and now risk being cut off by sea as well.

Thus, Sweden’s accession to NATO could present a significant strategic risk to Russia. However, in reality, unless NATO moves more of its military infrastructure into that country, it changes little from the Russian perspective. Sweden has been closely cooperating with the alliance for years and its membership in NATO really just formalizes a relationship Russia already assumed.

The Russian reaction to Sweden’s decision to join NATO has really focused more on its implications for the Arctic region. The Arctic north is an area of deep strategic concern for Russia as it is where the Russian nuclear-armed submarine fleet is based. While Sweden and Finland do not directly touch the Arctic Ocean, their membership in NATO does potentially significantly strengthen the military power of the alliance in that vital region.

How have Russia and China responded to Sweden’s NATO membership?

Glantz: As with its reaction to Finland’s accession, Russia is focusing on the concrete changes that NATO membership might mean for Sweden. The foreign ministry put out a statement that criticized Sweden’s accession as harmful to Baltic regional security and warned Russia would have to take “military-technical” responses to counteract its threat to Russian national security. They added, however, that “In this respect, much will depend on the specific conditions of Sweden’s integration into the North Atlantic Alliance, including the potential deployment of strike systems of this military bloc on its territory.” In other words, Russia will respond to concrete military changes, not the mere fact of Sweden’s joining NATO.

Galic: Beijing’s reaction to Sweden’s ascension to NATO will likely be much the same as its reaction to Finland’s. In the latter case, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson deflected answering directly but referenced China’s position on NATO, summarized previously as “NATO was born out of the Cold War and should have long become a past tense. We advise relevant countries to exercise prudence in developing relations with NATO.” References to Cold War mentality, “bloc confrontation” and regional instability in Europe are part of China’s usual refrains on NATO, but China’s general dislike of U.S. alliances and NATO’s growing awareness in recent years of security challenges posed by Beijing play into this.

Sweden’s joining of NATO certainly won’t help Sweden-China relations, which have not been great in recent years, but is unlikely to be a key issue in their bilateral relationship. Sweden is already a European Union (EU) member, and the EU, like NATO, has cautious views of China, especially since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine and China’s response to it.

What does Sweden’s membership mean for U.S. and NATO partners in the Indo-Pacific, given the alliance’s ties there?

Galic: Sweden already has embassies in NATO’s Indo-Pacific partner countries — Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand (technically, Sweden’s embassy in Canberra also covers Wellington) — so it is able now to cooperate with these U.S. allies and partners. That said, NATO has emphasized cooperation with its Indo-Pacific partners, and as a NATO member, Sweden will be able to participate in meetings of the North Atlantic Council on China or the Indo-Pacific and hear directly from these partners on the security situation in the region on a regular basis, so there may be more opportunity for engagement in this regard.

As a NATO member, Sweden will also likely have a more robust mission to NATO in Brussels, which could help facilitate contacts with NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners there.


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