swedish soldier in afghanistan

Sweden, long the major neutral power in northern Europe, has climbed quietly and elegantly out of its cozy perch to great effect since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, with Russia’s Vladimir Putin bearing his chest and threatening his neighbors with threats that sound awfully familiar to a lot of older Europeans, some commentators have claimed they see evidence of a move by Sweden to consider embracing NATO membership. The answer is a maybe, we hear from Annelie Gregor, a policy officer at the Swedish Armed Forces Headquarters. She offers this nuanced explanation of her country’s position. The Editor.

Are Swedish policymakers rethinking the nation’s defense doctrine, even pushing for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership during the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for mid-September? In a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Sweden Mulls ‘Doctrine Shift’ in Defense After Russian Incursion in Ukraine“, Niclas Rolander claims the crisis in Ukraine has triggered just such a shift.

But the Ukrainian crisis by itself will not compel a transformational shift in Sweden’s defense policies. The truth of where Sweden’s defense policy is heading is more nuanced and informed by events over the past 20 years, not the past 20 days. The crisis in Ukraine does not create a new defense doctrine for Sweden; it merely confirms the current path Sweden is on.

Sweden’s shift to becoming more militarily engaged abroad evolved in the 1990’s and the 2000’s, with small forces deployed as a means to give meaning to Sweden’s goal of becoming “a humanitarian superpower,” as Foreign Minister Carl Bildt once put it. The Swedish Armed Forces has delivered peacekeepers to places such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Chad, Lebanon, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia, Georgia, Libya and Mali. Sweden has earned a positive international reputation as a result, and policymakers have been upbeat about the satisfactory return on their investment in the armed forces. However, over the last five years the consequence of this trade-off has emerged, even inside the premises of the Rose Bath building (the seat of the government). To outside observers, it may look like the Ukrainian crisis and Russian aggression triggered this discussion.

Rolander claims that the “hint” by Anders Borg to boost Sweden’s defense budget is a “dramatic U-turn”. The “hint” is not spectacular. Borg is the last one to fall in line with this view. Also, Borg has been notorious with his zero-sum game policy with the defense budget. The last two times the defense budget was slightly increased in order to cover costs for training and exercises, Borg was quick to tighten the rope on other defense related areas.

Even parties on the left hinted last year that a continued increase in defense spending would be necessary  to meet the government’s mandate to transform the armed forces to a smaller and more mobile force. The all-party defense commission agreed in 2012 that a budget boost would be mandatory since new equipment was needed. After the Russian Air Force seemed to have done a practice run targeting Sweden in 2013, now known as the “Easter-incident”, most political parties hinted they would favor an increase in defense funding. A small symbolic sum was added to boost the Swedish Armed Forces ability to train and exercise. The parliamentary defense committee recommended a course of action of increasing the budget yet again in mid-2013. Thus, “hints” of budget increases is as common as news about the Swedish Royal family. A concrete budget proposal would be an eyebrow raiser.

Rolander makes much of the fact that Jan Björklund, who heads the center-right Liberal Party, commented on a “shift in doctrine,” one that would find the main task of Sweden’s defense force would once again be defending Swedish territory. The Social Democratic leader on the parliamentary defense committee, Peter Hultqvist, has been consistent in his statements for years about the need to boost national defense and to tackle existing capability gaps. The so-called shift in focus has actually been common political commentary over the past three years, and is not an “alarmist claim” sparked by the Ukrainian crisis.

Rolander points to the fact that the all-party defense committee has changed when it will submit its recommendations. They were due March 15th but are now due by May 15th. The stated reason for the prolonged submission date is due to the Ukrainian crisis. However, the defense commission was also granted a later submission date in 2008 after the Georgia crisis, so this did not come as a surprise. Also, the defense commission in 2013 tasked itself to provide a complete analysis of how to solve the budget plan for the transformation and procurement of defense-equipment — not an easy beast to tackle. Since Sweden has a consensus-driven platform when it comes to foreign policy, where eight parties has to agree, the new date did not take anyone aback.

Christian Democrat leader Göran Hägglund argued for NATO-membership recently as a result of the current crisis, Roladner noted. But NATO-membership is not a new issue to Hägglund or his party. He has supported a thorough investigation of the benefits and drawbacks of a potential Swedish NATO-membership for years and presented his party’s NATO standpoint in June of 2013. Furthermore, considering Sweden’s shared values and recently close cooperation with the Atlantic alliance it is not surprising  that most party leaders are highlighting the need for full membership. Sweden is a valuable contributing partner in Brussels, with expert personnel in Brussels who have been accused by alliance partners of “getting things done”. The Swedish Armed Forces has a high degree of interoperability with NATO. Sweden has contributed top-notch soldiers to the war Afghanistan and aerial support in Libya under the NATO flag. Most recently, Sweden contributed a squadron of Gripen fighter jets as well as a mine-sweeping ship to the Nato Response Force (NRF).

Notwithstanding those contributions, Sweden has the lowest defense budget per GDP of the Nordic countries, spending 1.12% of its GDP on defense. Swedish policymakers have been blamed of becoming a “free rider” and a “net consumer of security”. Adding the cost increases in material procurement (with real decreases in defense spending) and the planned budget for the full transformation, it has become clear as the Northern Lights for Swedish policymakers that not hinting at an increased defense budget is close to political suicide.

So, while it is tempting to draw the Ukrainian crisis and Russian aggression to the proposed changes, Sweden’s policymakers have been considering a shift in defense policy for a long time. What remains to be seen is whether the Ukrainian crisis will compel our country to fill budget gaps, and to make formal application to join NATO in the run-up to national elections in September.

Annelie Gregor is a civilian policy officer at the Swedish Armed Forces’ Headquarters (not the Defense Ministry) and is a Ph. D. candidate at the City University of New York. The opinions are the authors’ own and do not represent her employer.



  • Carter Lee

    Sweden very well may continue to become more internationally engaged using its high quality military forces. And this may continue irrespective of Russia’s recent moves.

    But what possible advantage would accrue from formerly joining NATO? Would NATO sit passively by while Russia invaded Sweden? I think not.

    And why would they want to put Swedish forces under the control of an American NATO commander? By doing so they gain nothing and lose the operating freedom they currently enjoy.

    The smart move for Sweden would be to have an informal relationship with the American run NATO but keep control over their own foreign policy and military forces.

    • Don Bacon

      Actually that reasoning applies to almost any country, but the US favors a closer (controlling) relationship which Gregor (current resident of New York) is promoting.

  • Verowerd

    Like most of the rest of Europe, Sweden’s military power has been allowed to deteriorate. At one time, Sweden was considered to be a relatively powerful neutral state. Today? Not really at all. The very slight upward tick in their defense spending this year is not even a footnote in their continued slide. Sweden has virtually no ability to protect its borders. By most accounts, they’d have trouble carrying on against virtually any military challenge after just a few weeks…. unless they could call upon outside help.

    And herein lies the rationale to join NATO. They know they will need help from the U.S.A.; not “NATO”. The defense forces of the other NATO states are almost as sclerotic as their own. It’s U.S. intervention that they’re hoping for.

    Sweden’s talk about joining NATO has nothing to do with assisting in the common defense of Europe, nothing to do with building its own capabilities. Its all about resting effortlessly on the back of the United States; and joining the other welfare case European countries who are already doing the same.

    • Gary Church

      A small country can only afford so much for defense and a squadron of submarines and small fleet of modern fighters is no small expense. Should they bankrupt themselves like the U.S. building junk strike fighters and aircraft carriers? As long as they have enough missiles- anti-air and anti-ship- then anybody attacking them is going to pay a tremendous price.

      • Verowerd

        Sweden spends only slightly above one percent of her GDP on defense. One freaking percent. That one fact really answers a lot of questions. It tells you what a risk they’re willing to run with their very national survival. It answers your question about whether they would “bankrupt themselves” by developing some concept of real national defense. It also tells you something about what their miserable contribution would to NATO. Whether you want to stand alone in the world, or join a club like NATO, 1.1 or 1.3 percent on defense is not going to cut it.

        • Gary Church

          I don’t know V, 5 submarines and 70 fighters is nothing to sneeze at and if they are doing it on a little over one percent they are doing pretty good. Like I said, it is the number of missiles they have that is the real survival asset. If 4 Mirages and 5 Exocets almost chased a British battle group away in the Falklands- and the only reason the one Argy sub in the battle did not sink even more ships was dud torpedoes…….

          If even half of their fighters get off the ground with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles and even one of those subs gets close enough with a load of anti-ship missiles or torpedoes- that should scare the hell out of anybody thinking about invading. Not to mention they manufacture this baby;

          I think their stockpile of laser guided MANPADS will make a big difference. Oh yes.

          • Verowerd

            I hope you’re right. Frankly, I don’t think the Russian Federation has any designs on Sweden. Russia’s concerns are: (a) developing and maintaining a sphere of influence, primarily in its ‘near-abroad’; (b) keeping NATO away from its frontiers; and (c) keeping China friendly and non-threatening to Russia or her friends.

            Other than strengthening its defenses in Gotland, Sweden is probably in good shape.

    • ycplum

      One of the problems is that it is sparsely populated. Their population is just a bit bigger than NYC (way less if you include the metro area). But, it has a land mass bigger than California.
      Sweden’s key contribution would likely be its strategic geography and how it wil allow NAto forces to blanket the Baltic Sea. Yes, Estonia and Lithuania can cover the sea also, but there is a posibility they can get over run. Russia will need to fight through Finland first to get to Sweden, allow more response time.

      • Verowerd

        You’re right. And I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the Swedish armed forces. They have to play the hand they’re dealt. I picked up from somewhere that, man for man, Swedish soldiers are viewed favorably compared to a number of other European land armies. I am more critical of the political class, which has starved them of funding.

        Any land attack on Sweden-proper, as you mentioned, would also involve an invasion of northern Finland. Such a development would be a geopolitical earthquake, and would create the most dangerous moment for the world since the Soviets tried to deploy nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962. I don’t see this happening at all. In spite of the media demonization of President Putin, he is not a madman. He is a careful poker or chess player.

        The Swedes are more concerned about a sudden landing on Gotland, which has a good harbor, and a fully-constructed, though mostly inactive, naval base. The island could be taken in a day by well-rehearsed paratroopers. Control of Gotland would give the Russian Federation, in combination with Kaliningrad, an almost insurmountable position over the Baltic Sea.

        And such a seizure would present the world with a fait accompli. Who in NATO, including the United States, would be in favor of risking thermonuclear war over an island most people could not locate on a map… an island owned by a country which has for generations explicitly declined to sign onto the North Atlantic mutual defense pact, and which no country has a treaty obligation to defend?

        I personally think Russia has no designs on Swedish territory. But I understand the Swedes are apprehensive, especially concerning the scenario I just outlined.

        • ycplum

          Man for man, they are very well trained. For one thing, they (and their reserves) are definately more fit and hardy than the typical American. Trust me. I was in the active Army and later the NG. However, with the recent conflict, I suspect that the average is way better than when I was in.
          Russia may be able to launch an airborne attack, but I suspect they would be shut out by air and sea shortly afterward. Their airborne units will be trapped and airborne units in general have little sustaininability. I don’t mean that in a derogoratory way. Being airborne, they can’t carry that much food and ammo. They are dependent on follow on forces to consolidate their temporary gains.
          I do not support Putin, but a person would be a fool to not recognize the strengths of their opponent. I respect Putin’s ability. He wouldn’t make a move on Sweden because he probably coldly calculated that it is beyond his reach.
          However, I would be worried if I were Ukraine or Georgia or one of the “Stans”.

          • Verowerd

            I agree entirely. I also feel that it is very unlikely that the Baltic states would come under threat, mainly because they are actual NATO members. I wonder if Kazakhstan could at some point be a target. They have a very large Russian population, and few major friends. however the Kazakh government has wisely chosen to be friendly toward the Russians

          • ycplum

            I was wondering what former Soviet country might want to join NATO after this, and looked at the “Stans”. They all have pretty good relationships with Russia with one or two closer to the old Soviet government than not. I think Putin is not going to rock a boat that is sailing smooth.

  • Gary Church

    Three of these and 70 fighters. Actually a pretty powerful force for such a tiny country.

  • Gary Church


    Sweden has enough of these ship killers they don’t have to worry about anyone invading them. These things are awesome.