Sweden Hasn't Gone to War Since Napoleon Was Alive, But Russia Has it Preparing for Another One

A Swedish Marine posts security during Exercise Archipelago Endeavor 19 in Sweden.
A Swedish Marine posts security during an amphibious assault rehearsal during Exercise Archipelago Endeavor 19 near Berga Naval Base, Sweden, Aug. 21, 2019. (Joseph Atiyeh/U.S. Marine Corps)

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Russia's aggression against its neighbors has prompted European countries to rethink how they defend themselves, perhaps none more so than Sweden, which over the past decade has rapidly increased its military spending and is now reevaluating its relationship with NATO.

Sweden's ambassador to the US, Karin Olofsdotter, told Insider that European security has been deteriorating for some time, pointing to Russia's war with Georgia in 2008 and seizure of Crimea in 2014, considered "a game-changer."

"Of course, we all reacted to that, but maybe we didn't react strongly enough, and that maybe paved the way for Putin thinking that this was something he could do," Olofsdotter said at the Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C., referring to the renewed Russian attack on Ukraine.

Sweden has not formally declared war since 1814, though Swedes have volunteered in other conflicts and its military has participated in other operations. Sweden shed its longstanding neutrality when it joined the EU in 1995, but it remains militarily non-aligned, working closely with NATO but never joining.

Sweden and its neighbors have watched Russian military activity warily in recent years, particularly in the Arctic, where Moscow has added forces, tested new weapons, and opened or refurbished bases.

In an interview last year, Olofsdotter told Insider that Russian President Vladimir Putin had shown a willingness to use a military he has rebuilt from its post-Soviet nadir, prompting Sweden to reevaluate its preparedness to face old and new threats.

Since 2014, Stockholm has increased investment in its own military, purchasing new aircraft and ships and other weapons, like U.S.-made Patriot air-defense missiles, as well as expanding conscription and emphasizing cyber and psychological warfare.

Those planned investments have only grown following Russia's renewed attack on Ukraine. "We had a plan to increase our defense spending by 85% from 2014 to 2025, and now we have just taken a decision" to increase annual defense spending to 2% of GDP, Olofsdotter said.

Stockholm announced the 2% target in March and is now debating how quickly it can be reached, Olofsdotter said. Sweden's military said in April that spending could reach that level in 2028, with "significant increases in capacity" each year.

"Security is really looked upon very differently today than just a couple of months ago," Olofsdotter said. "That's how quickly it has gone."

'Trust is definitely gone'

Russia's attack has also increased Swedish support for NATO membership. Roughly one-third of Swedes supported it in recent years, but Moscow's actions have pushed that to over half, according to recent polls, which show support is even higher if Finland were to apply.

Sweden's foreign minister is now leading discussion with the defense minister and the eight parties represented in its parliament, among others, about what NATO membership would entail, said Olofsdotter, who presented an analysis of the U.S.'s view of transatlantic security as part of those talks.

EU membership comes with a security guarantee, but it is not like NATO's "ultimate defense security guarantee" Olofsdotter said. "That's why we are having that discussion, I think, because we see that the European security order that we really believed in is maybe not there."

A report on the discussion will be presented on May 13, two weeks earlier than planned. It won't make a recommendation, but based on it, "a decision will be taken — you know, should we join it or should we not," Olofsdotter said.

Following an application, NATO would have to agree to formally invite the applicant to begin accession talks, after which the alliance's 30 members have to agree on admission.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that if Stockholm and Helsinki apply, the alliance would make the process "as quick as is feasible." NATO has handled multiple applications simultaneously before — it took 12 months for Croatia and Albania to go from invitation to full membership in 2009.

A Swedish or Finnish application is expected to move quickly, given both countries' ties to NATO, political and economic stability, and robust defense capabilities. Olofsdotter said that she hoped if an application was made in the coming weeks then U.S. approval could be secured before the Senate's August recess.

Some divides have emerged in Sweden, including among the ruling Social Democratic Party. Some have cautioned against further NATO expansion, but numerous alliance members have said they would welcome Swedish and Finnish bids.

There are concerns that members with closer ties to Moscow could thwart such an application. Because NATO is consensus-based, "there's always that possibility," said Jim Townsend, an expert at the Center for a New American Security and former U.S. defense official, "but I think in this case they're going to work it so that there shouldn't be a problem."

Sweden's security in the time between an application and the ratification of its membership, when it would receive NATO's mutual-defense guarantee, is also a concern. "That's when we are most vulnerable," Olofsdotter said.

Swedish air defense regiment members participated in a hand-over ceremony in Halmstad, Sweden.
Members from the Swedish air defense regiment participated in a hand-over ceremony in Halmstad, Sweden, on Nov. 18, 2021. Sweden is the first non-NATO partner to receive the Patriot air defense missile system. (Terrance D. Rhodes/U.S. Army)

Moscow has threatened retaliation should Sweden or Finland apply. While Stockholm and Helsinki say they haven't seen a direct threat from Russia since it attacked Ukraine in February, Moscow has made other aggressive moves, including military flights into the airspace of Sweden and its neighbors.

Sweden is particularly concerned about cyber or hybrid threats, Olofsdotter said, pointing to posters that have appeared in Moscow labeling famous Swedes as Nazis.

A European official told reporters in early April that NATO would be "very live" to potential Russian action while an application is considered. "I think we are already thinking about the kind of guarantees and protections they might get to cover them through the transition period," the official said.

In recent days, Britain's defense minister said it was "inconceivable" that the UK wouldn't defend Sweden or Finland if they were attacked. and Sweden's foreign minister said there was "an American assurance" of support during that transition. Stoltenberg has said NATO would increase its presence around Sweden if it applies to join the alliance.

Sweden focused more attention and resources on its security amid Russia's military buildup around Ukraine in fall 2021, including through contingency planning between military and civil authorities, Olofsdotter said, adding to years-long efforts to prepare for a potential conflict. The Cold War-era "total defense concept" that Sweden reinvigorated in the late 2010s was augmented this year by the creation of the Psychological Defense Agency.

Other trends point to greater public awareness of the threat. During the Cold War, those who built home bunkers were offered tax deductions. Many were later converted into garages and "party rooms," but Swedes are now reconsidering them for their original purpose, Olofsdotter said.

Like Sweden's NATO membership, what Europe's security order will look like after the war in Ukraine remains to be determined, but the often tense relationship with Russia appears irrevocably altered.

"I think that's something that we have to see what happens when the war is over and how it ends for President Putin and what the world looks like then," Olofsdotter said, "but trust is definitely gone."

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