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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Should Sweden Forget About Joining NATO?

Sweden's JAS-39 Gripen. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Sweden's JAS-39 Gripen. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Sweden No Longer Deserves NATO: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an interjection of reality for European leaders accustomed to believe trade or agile diplomacy could protect them from conflict. Europe, they believed, had evolved past war. Russian troops pouring across Ukraine’s frontier and missiles raining down on hospitals, schools, and civilian shelters was a wake-up call.

It was against this backdrop that Finland and Sweden, both Western-learning Scandinavian powers neutral in their diplomatic orientation, decided to join NATO. Russia was the most significant military power in the neighborhood. Finland had a long and bloody experience with its eastern neighbor. The 1939-40 “Winter War” between the Soviet Union and Finland paralleled the Russian invasion of Ukraine more than 80 years later. The Red Army invaded Finland after a false flag border incident and Finland’s rejection of extortionate terms demanded by Moscow. The Soviet leadership was arrogant but its military poorly equipped and its soldiers’ morale low. The Finns, in contrast, were highly motivated. They lost territory, but held the Soviets at bay and eventually forced them to settle. Finns have never forgotten To this day, Russia occupies Finnish territory.

Finland, which has an 830-mile border with Russia, could bring a great deal to the NATO alliance. As John Deni, a professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, explains, the country has a professional army of 23,000 men and women, but can field more than ten times that number when fully mobilized.  Finland’s air force and navy are small, but also capable. Sweden’s population is almost twice that of Finland, but its military is significantly smaller. Its core strengths are its defense industry and its intelligence service. Accessing either of these does not require NATO membership, however. While Sweden’s accession to NATO would benefit the alliance, its government’s recent behavior raises questions about both whether Sweden deserves NATO and whether the alliance membership would be good for Sweden and its democracy.

The problem has been Sweden’s behavior during the accession process. As soon as Finland and Sweden signaled a desire to join NATO, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leveraged NATO’s consensus-driven decision-making to put demands and conditions to win Turkey’s support. A wiser NATO Secretary-General than Jens Stoltenberg would have stood up to Turkey immediately and, knowing Erdogan’s character and psychology, would have rallied NATO members to coerce Turkey rather than create a dynamic in which Erdogan could believe that extortion paid dividends. Unfortunately, Stoltenberg’s instinct was to praise Turkey and appease Erdogan. This only encouraged the Turkish dictator. 

The Swedish political elite, however, embarrassed Sweden with their betrayal of its core principles. The problem is not political. Incumbent Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson’s Moderate Party may have an anti-immigration pedigree, but his predecessor Social Democratic leader Magdalena Andersson, who served as Sweden’s prime minister until October 2022, was just as willing to subordinate Sweden’s principles to Erdogan’s whims.

Sweden has five official national minorities, but decades of liberal immigration policies have also made the country a refuge for Kurds from Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, as well as Iranians. Intra-communal relations have not always been smooth. Kurds long complain that Swedes treat them as second-class citizens. Swedish police initially suspected the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to be responsible for the 1986 assassination of Prime Minister Olaf Palme, allegedly in revenge for his designation of the group as a terrorist organization. The terror, however, was homegrown. In 2020, prosecutors named Stig Engström, a Swede who was allegedly mentally unstable, as the main suspect; Engström had committed suicide 20 years previously and the police effectively closed the case without trial.  Swedish Kurds, however, are still wary. To give telephone directions to any Swedish Kurd in relation to the spot of Palme’s assassination would lead the Kurd to hang up immediately in the belief that Swedish security was monitoring his phone and would punish acknowledgment of knowing anything about how and where Palme died.

Sweden’s ethnic Kurds are right to be worried. In recent days, Sweden has extradited Mahmut Tat, a Kurdish bus driver, to Turkey. Tat had sought asylum in Sweden after fleeing Turkey. A Turkish court convicted him in absentia of being a PKK member. In reality, his crime was to attend two peaceful protests sponsored by Turkey’s legal, pro-Kurdish opposition party (HDP). That Swedish security would accept Turkish intelligence on face value should raise questions about its tradecraft given the overt politicization and outright falsification of the dossiers Turkey now provides Interpol and other countries’ judiciaries.

Nor is Tat alone. Even prior to the Kristersson government, Sweden regularly deported Kurds back to face torture or worse, in Turkey. NATO accession simply helps Swedes justify their action. For me, this is personal given how Turkish authorities have accused me of terrorism for the crime of getting think tank analysis right. If Sweden essentially outsources its judicial and human rights standards to Turkey, it becomes no better than Turkey.

Sweden has signaled to Erdogan that it is weak and decadent. The Turkish dictator will now never compromise but demand further subordination of Swedish principles to Turkey’s whims. Swedes must now decide whether they are a country like Turkey that applies different standards of law based on ethnicity and whether they will allow their descent to the lowest common legal denominator that Turkey today represents.

Perhaps the best thing Swedes can do both for the health of their own society and for NATO is to abandon their effort to join the defense alliance. To do so would show the fortitude Stoltenberg lacks and signal to both Erdogan and future extortionists that blackmail will not work.

NATO will be fine without Sweden. Sweden, however, will not be fine with NATO.

Expert Author Biography: A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.

Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Dr. Rubin has a PhD and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).