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As Russia threatens, Sweden ponders joining NATO

SWEDEN’S Aurora-17 drill, which continues until the end of September, is the biggest war game that the supposedly neutral country has carried out for 23 years. Not only does it involve 19,000 of Sweden’s armed forces (about half of them), including its Home Guard, but also more than 1,500 troops from Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, France, Norway and America. All except Finland are members of NATO, the big western alliance.

The size of the exercise and its main focus, the defence of Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea some 350km (220 miles) from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, is a reflection of how insecure Sweden feels. Vladimir Putin, having gobbled up Crimea and attacked Ukraine, is flexing his muscles near the Baltics and Scandinavia. Russia’s massive Zapad-17 military exercise, which finished this week, involved sending 100,000 troops to Belarus and the Baltic to practise repelling the “Western Coalition”. Foreign observers were banned, as they never are from NATO exercises. (Perhaps luckily: a Russian helicopter reportedly fired missiles at spectators by mistake, though the government denies this.)

There have been plenty of other causes for disquiet. In March 2013 Russia sent two Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers, escorted by four Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters, across the Gulf of Finland to within 40km of Gotland. The planes only veered off after carrying out what NATO analysts believed was a dummy nuclear attack on targets in Sweden. After many years of static or declining defence spending, Sweden had to rely on Danish F-16s, part of NATO’s Baltic air-policing operation, to respond. In 2014 a Russian submarine penetrated the Stockholm archipelago, departing without being found. Since then Russia has stepped up the frequency of menacing, no-notice military drills in the region.

Small wonder many Swedes think they should end 200 years of neutrality by joining NATO. If they did, any Russian attack on Sweden would be treated as an attack on America and its 28 NATO allies. All the main Swedish opposition parties want to join, apart from the ultra-nationalist Sweden Democrats, who like many European populists have a curious fondness for Mr Putin. Polls suggest that a plurality of Swedes favour NATO membership. A Pew survey earlier this year found 47% in support of membership and 39% against. But for now the Social Democratic-Green coalition government, in office since 2014, wants to get as close as possible to NATO without actually joining it.

Latest updates Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund passes the $1trn mark Graphic detail an hour ago A an hour ago Retail 9 9 11 21 hours ago See all updates Peter Hultqvist, Sweden’s defence minister, is the author of a policy that tries to square the contradictions in the country’s security policy. Part of the “Hultqvist doctrine”, as it is known, is to improve Sweden’s neglected capacity for self-defence. Military spending is rising—by about 5% annually in real terms over the next three years—and conscription is being reintroduced next year. The other part is building closer defence co-operation with its non-NATO neighbour, Finland, as well as with America and Baltic littoral states in NATO. All of which Aurora-17 is meant to demonstrate. Both Sweden and Finland also entered into a “host country support agreement” with NATO, which allows alliance forces to move through their territory and pre-position kit by invitation.

Mr Hultqvist himself is suspected of hankering after NATO membership. But for now the government has ruled it out. There is still a good deal of anti-Americanism on the Swedish left (which Donald Trump does little to dispel). There is also a fear, expressed by the foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, of provoking Mr Putin (who has promised to “eliminate the threat” were Sweden to join NATO). Many observers doubt that Finland, where popular support for NATO is lower, would be ready to make a joint decision in favour of membership—something Swedish NATO boosters see as crucial.

There are good reasons why NATO itself might be keen for Sweden (and Finland) to join its fold. Defence of its Baltic members would be much harder without guaranteed access to Swedish ground and airspace. As a member, Sweden would be far more integrated with NATO’s command-and-control systems. Interoperability of its forces with those of the alliance would improve, making them more effective in a fight.

Sweden’s NATO question is being fudged for now, but it will loom large in next year’s general election. If the Swedes do eventually make the jump, Mr Putin will have only himself to blame.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "A funny kind of neutrality"