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What can Sweden contribute to NATO?

July 12, 2023

Now that Turkey has dropped its opposition, the path is clear for Sweden to join NATO. What are the expectations on both sides regarding Swedish membership of the Western military alliance?

The top of a submarine with a Swedish flag flying from it, alongside a dock with masts of sailing ships in the background. A man and a woman in dark blue uniform stand with their backs to the camera.
The Swedish submarine HMS Gotland, named after an island of crucial importance, in the harbor of the Karlskrona naval base in Sweden.Image: TOM LITTLE/REUTERS

Both Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO last year in response to Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine. Finland has already become a member of the Western defense alliance. However, Turkey, along with Hungary, used its power of veto to reject Sweden's application, blocking the Scandinavian country from joining.

However, earlier this week, after months of resistance, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dropped his opposition. Hungary followed suit, and now, for the first time, it seems possible that Sweden will accede to NATO in the near future. What do the two sides expect to gain from this?

What would NATO gain from Swedish accession in geographical terms?

Sweden's membership would make the entire Baltic coastline NATO territory — with the exception of the Russian coast and that of its exclave Kaliningrad. This would, for example, make the Baltic states easier to defend in the event of a Russian attack. Troops and equipment could be transported much more easily by ship via Sweden to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The island of Gotland is also geographically significant.

"This large island in the middle of the Baltic Sea is an extremely favorable strategic base for Sweden," said Simon Koschut, professor of international security policy at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany."

He posits that Sweden's geographical location is the crucial factor that makes its membership so attractive to NATO

What about the Swedish military?

Sweden's armed forces and their military equipment would also be a valuable addition to NATO. It is, admittedly, a small country, meaning that, numerically speaking, its military is also rather small. According to the Global Firepower Index, it has a troop strength of around 38,000.

However, as Koschut pointed out: "The Swedes have a very modern army. In particular, they have a modern air force of their own manufacture."

He also points out that Sweden is a maritime power in possession of submarines, and its military is experienced in battle. It has already participated in various NATO missions, for example in Afghanistan.

Two men in dark suits and glasses, in profile, shake hands and smile against a blue background with posters reading 'NATO' and 'Vilnius'.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (left) and Sweden's Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson are looking forward to cooperatingImage: Susan Walsh/REUTERS

Sweden spends about 1.3% of its gross domestic product on defense. This share is significantly greater than just a few years ago, and is expected to increase in the coming years.

Like many Western countries, after the end of the Cold War, Sweden made significant cuts in defense spending. However, the war in Georgia in 2008 and Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 had already prompted a rethink, which was further consolidated when Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine.

What would be the biggest benefits of NATO membership for Sweden?

Sweden and NATO already collaborate closely in many ways. NATO membership would bring one crucial change for Sweden, as set out in Article 5 of the Alliance's treaty. This states that an armed attack against one or more NATO members shall be considered an attack against them all. In such an event, the military alliance is duty-bound to come to the aid of the member under attack.

"This protection is of course the crucial aspect for Sweden," said Koschut.

Furthermore, membership will give the Swedes equal rights in the NATO Council, the main decision-making body of the defense alliance, including the power of veto. It was this right that Turkey had made use of to block the Scandinavian country's accession — until now.

This article has been translated from German.