NATO’s Scandinavian Klondike: Implications for the Swedes and the Rest of the World


Photo: USA today

In the footsteps of accession to NATO, Sweden is armed with around a hundred Gripen fighters, transport aircraft, helicopters, battle tanks, artillery, several submarines and is currently updating its submarine fleet, also possessing significant cyber-defense capabilities. The country is sharply increasing its defense spending, it is expected to be equivalent to 2.1% of Swedish GDP this year. For the Western allies, access to Sweden’s defense industry is a lifeline in a situation of being almost exhausted to replenish limping stockpiles in Ukraine. It seems to be Scandinavian Klondike for NATO running into harsh geopolitical realities.

If we take into account the priorities that played a dominant role in the design of the system and the strategies envisaged in Sweden, they can be counted on the fingers of one hand: a welfare state, Swedish social democrats, the independent Baltic Sea power, and two-century adherence to neutrality policy. Little remains in its original form following Sweden's bid to NATO.

The Swedish neutrality policy dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, when, immediately after the successful war with Norway in 1814, when Swedish crown prince and founder of the Bernadotte dynasty, Charles XIV, claimed that Sweden would prefer remain neutral and non-belligerent in wars. This choice was determined by the desire of the ruling elite to consolidate society, thus creating conditions for further social, economic and political development of the state.

A lot of scientific papers are devoted to Swedish neutrality. It is important to understand that the interpretation of the neutrality policy has undergone changes over two centuries - from the position of the Swedish peace and arbitration society to “armed neutrality” in wartime (during the World War II) and the policy of non-alignment with military blocs (after the end of the Cold War). It is often compared with Finnish neutrality - neutral Finland and neutral Sweden.. It is surprising how this terminology is often used by armchair critics, contrasting the centuries-old traditions in Swedish foreign policy with the neutrality status of Finland, a relatively young nation, quite deftly and consistently changing courses of cooperation in foreign policy with neighbouring Sweden, then with Estonia and the Baltic states as a whole, thereafter with Germany, with the Soviet Union after 1944, and finally with Russia, the European Union and NATO.

It was emphasized in a recent interview with Kjell Engelbrekt, a Professor at Swedish Defence University, also affiliated with Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences, that Sweden will have a harder time adapting to NATO than Finland for historical reasons. However, the emphasis is on the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between the Soviet Union and Finland (1948), which almost “led the country to a military alliance with the USSR,” while Sweden, meanwhile, chose a course towards military non-alignment and this choice is considered the country’s independent choice. In contrast, we shall note that the Agreement did not any military alliance and there was no talk of it at all, otherwise, somehow, standard agreements with the PRC in 2001, Armenia in 1997, and, ultimately, with Ukraine in 1997, etc. should have been identified in approximately the same vein. On the other hand, Professor implicitly shows how different foreign policy courses were followed by the two neighbouring countries, despite their neutral status. Still, Sweden's imperial past and Finland's foreign policy dependence on stronger states and empires form a knot of contradictions between the two nations.

Moving to a practical level, it is worth mentioning that there is a risk that Sweden may lose its national industry, paying tribute to the trend towards participation in the military-political integration with NATO. Just like how Sweden once almost lost its own school for designing underwater technology immediately following its accession to the European Union.

The situation was as follows. In the early 2000s, the Swedish government has decided to transfer the its prominent Kockums Shipyard to the German industrial giant Thyssen Krupp. It was believed that in this way Sweden would be able to deepen and broaden its participation in the European Union integration. However, the expectations of the Germans and Swedes differed: the Germans did not intend to develop Kockums and work in the interests of Swedish profitable exports. Awareness of the possibility of losing national competencies did not come immediately. Stockholm regained control of Kockums only in 2014.

Interestingly, the first-born of Swedish submarine shipbuilding, the Hajen-class (in Swedish, the shark) torpedo submarine, was built in 1904 through the American Holland-VII project. Since then, the development of this type of naval equipment in the country further developed, although with some interruptions.

Furthermore, facing the critical minerals challenge, the NATO allies feel need in  Swedish mineral resources. To begin with, the US began getting closer to Sweden under the Minerals Security Partnership in 2022 to pave the way for Europeans to reduce their dependence on China. Later, the discovery of a large (by some estimates - the largest in Europe) deposit of rare earth metals near Kiruna, Sweden, could play a significant role in the production of materials that might ensure the green energy transition. We should not forget about the military use of rare earth metals, which are necessary in the production of lasers, precision-guided ammunition, night vision devices, etc. Today, the extraction of rare earth metals in Europe is hardly carried out.

Additionally, thanks to Sweden, the Nordic-Baltic configuration has become politically tangible rather than a theoretical breakthrough. To make the point stronger, let us remind a clear, unambiguous message about the alleged vulnerabilities of the Baltic region without Sweden (and, to some extent, Finland) as NATO member state.

Back in 2011, it was stated that allies and non-allied partners should have focused on piecemeal practical progress, widening and deepening the existing cooperation wherever possible, starting with the least controversial elements and saving the difficult ones for later, when they may seem less threatening. It was suggested that Sweden would be better join the American-led NATO exercises in the Baltic and take a more active role to fill a crucial gap in NATO’s capabilities in the region. Thirteen years on, a pair of B-1 Lancers joined up with Swedish Gripen fighters in the Arctic and Baltic Sea regions for training for surface attack, air interdiction, and close air support scenarios. Seems like a game played well.

Ekaterina Serova