March 14, 2024

IntelBrief: A Welcome Swedish Addition: NATO’s Posture in the Baltics

AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Following a period of contentious negotiations involving Sweden and NATO members Hungary and Türkiye, Sweden’s blue and gold Nordic cross flag was raised at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels this past Monday.
  • Sweden’s integration into the alliance is pivotal in safeguarding the Baltic region through both deterrent measures and direct military engagement, resolving NATO’s overreliance on the Suwalki Gap to protect the Baltics.
  • Sweden and Finland, as NATO’s newest members, hosted their first joint military exercises earlier this month, including in the Arctic Circle, underscoring the growing strategic importance of the region amid climate change and geopolitical competition over military dominance and resource extraction.
  • Sweden’s entry into NATO holds myriad implications, with Russia issuing threats of countermeasures, and the EU expected to revisit discussions on its Common Security and Defence Policy, potentially sparking renewed debates about European Strategic Autonomy.

Following months of diplomatic negotiations between Sweden and NATO members Hungary and Türkiye, exacerbated by Kremlin-orchestrated disinformation campaigns, Sweden's blue and gold Nordic cross flag was finally raised at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Monday. The more than 18-month delay in Hungary's ratification of Sweden’s NATO accession was resolved on February 26, overcoming significant pushback from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who expressed concerns about Sweden's comments on Hungary's democratic backsliding. Similarly, on January 25, after months of deadlock, Türkiye formally ratified Sweden’s NATO membership, setting aside concerns over purported Kurdish militant activity in Sweden. Sweden's accession to the defense alliance amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not only represents a significant and self-inflicted strategic setback for Putin, but also marks a dramatic shift in NATO's geopolitical posture in the Baltic region. Departing from its tradition of armed neutrality, Sweden has taken a clear stance against Russia and is poised to play a frontline role in countering any Russian aggression in the region.

Sweden's integration into NATO heralds a profound shift in regional security dynamics. With all Nordic countries now  NATO members, the alliance gains critical strategic depth in countering potential Russian aggression along its northeastern boundaries. Should NATO invoke Article 5, which calls on NATO members to assist an alliance member in the event it is attacked, Sweden's role would be pivotal in safeguarding the Baltic region through deterrence and direct military engagement. The inclusion of Sweden and Finland extends NATO's domain across the entire perimeter of the Baltic Sea, complicating Russia's military planning and operations, particularly for its Baltic Fleet. While Sweden may not host permanent NATO garrisons, its strategic importance lies in facilitating the reception, staging, onward movement, and integration of alliance forces in response to Russian threats against Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania. Gotland's strategic position, as an island under Swedish jurisdiction in the heart of the Baltic Sea, further bolsters NATO's capability to deter Russian naval activities and gather critical intelligence on Moscow’s military posture. Additionally, with Finland and Sweden as members, Russia now faces a formidable and cohesive military presence along its entire western frontier, notably impacting the Suwalki Gap, a critical corridor for NATO bridging Poland and Lithuania. Sweden's accession to NATO reduces the alliance's dependence on this narrow land route for Baltic defense, crucial in a potential conflict. However, given NATO's nuclear capabilities, Sweden, with its longstanding neutrality, may seek to balance the alliance's reliance on nuclear deterrence with its advocacy for disarmament to reduce tensions and stabilize international relations. Meanwhile, Sweden's defense industry prowess, epitomized by Saab Group's development of the JAS 39 Gripen fighter aircraft, underscores the nation's capability in advanced military technology, which will provide a major boost to the alliance. The Gripen's global success underscores Sweden's competitiveness in the defense sector, further enhancing its strategic position within NATO.

NATO's newest members, Sweden and Finland, alongside Norway, orchestrated their inaugural NATO military exercises earlier this month, dubbed the “Nordic Response.” Covering air, land, and sea domains, Swedish and Finnish troops collaborated with fellow NATO allies in a series of exercises, including a significant one in the Arctic Circle. The choice of location is particularly significant, given the Arctic's growing importance in great power competition. As climate change accelerates the melting of ice in the region, the Arctic emerges as a pivotal arena for both military maneuvering and economic exploitation, notably for the extraction of vital natural resources like gas and critical minerals. While economic discussions will revolve around the delineation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the Arctic, the strategic implications are unmistakable, especially with Sweden and Finland's accession to NATO. Their membership augments NATO's capability to compete with Russia and China in the Arctic, setting the stage for intensified geostrategic competition in this crucial region.

Despite Russia's initial threats of military-technical countermeasures in response to Sweden’s NATO accession, the Kremlin’s actual response has been somewhat muted. While Sweden and Finland's decision to join NATO was a direct reaction to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, purportedly aimed at countering NATO's influence, it has unmistakably backfired, representing a significant strategic miscalculation on Putin's part. The inclusion of Sweden and Finland into NATO is likely to reignite discussions on the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), designed to bolster the EU's capabilities in peacekeeping, conflict prevention, collective defense, and international security through both civilian and military means. However, this renewed focus may once again highlight the discord among European states regarding the conceding of sovereignty in security and defense matters. Fault lines exist between countries like Germany, which prefers relying on NATO for collective defense, and France, which advocates for greater European strategic autonomy in defense and security affairs. Sweden's accession to NATO offers numerous benefits to the alliance, particularly in safeguarding the Baltics against any resurgence of Russian aggression or revanchist ambitions.