Coping with Sweden’s neutrality dilemma after Russian mock attack

A while ago the Swedish Commander in Chief Sverker Göransson made a blooper on a conference saying that Sweden would not manage an attack from Russia, which is indeed worrisome for the perception of Sweden’s military capabilities. The blooper quickly became international headlines when the Russian TV-programme ‘Yesterday live’ published a satirical music video called ‘Russia attacks Sweden’

The subtext of the video is how NATO support is indispensable for Sweden military capabilities.

What happened during Easter is much more interesting. On 29 March Russian long-range bombers and fighter jets carried out mock attacks against targets on Swedish territory. Sweden failed to respond as there was not any aircraft on alert, due to Easter holiday. Instead NATO responded with Danish aircraft stationed in Latvia.

This has brought the debate about membership to NATO back on the headlines in Sweden.

The NATO-rescue clearly showed that Sweden is not able to counter an immediate attack on its territory. Membership to NATO would protect Swedish territorial integrity due to NATO’s collective security clause. But it would compromise Sweden’s neutrality.

Neutrality is the holy cow in Sweden and cannot be touched in the debate and NATO membership has therefore never been on the negotiation table. Nonetheless, Sweden is already flirting with NATO as being member in Partnership for Peace, contributing with troops to ISAF, conducting military exercises under NATO-flag etc. Sweden’s neutrality is no longer the sacred and has moved to being ‘non-allied’ – whatever that really means. This makes sense as neutrality has lost its importance after the cold war and we no longer live in a two-polar world with Russia on one side and US on the other. Yet, Swedish membership to NATO will never find support with the population even if neutrality has lost its meaning.

How can Sweden cope with its neutrality dilemma?

The failure of Sweden’s military capacity has nothing to do with it being Easter and many were on holiday, rather with the fact that Sweden is not preparing for an immediate attack on its territory.

The security challenges are no longer fought on European territory and the need to counter such attacks has faded. Conventional forces are not useful when warfare is based on technology and drones, and the war itself is being fought far away from the country itself. Warfare is less about war and more about guerilla operations and interstate conflicts outside your territory. This makes military operations much more political since it requires choosing a side. The question of whether or not one should provide armory to the opposition is a question of warfare, but it is nonetheless a political one. Ultimately war will be fought depending on which normative principles you are willing to fight for and get involved in.

The defence narrative and what we define as being ‘safe’ is not about having stable national borders and fighting an immediate threat to your nation. Rather it is about keeping the momentum of stability in your neighborhood and beyond to make sure that the transnational security risks, such as terrorism and migration flows are not spread to your territory. One country cannot achieve that by itself.

As such, the Swedish defence minister Karin Enström supports further EU military integration and the setting up of a single military operations centre to increase coordination and coherence. This also is the only way out from Sweden’s neutrality, to create parallel structures to, not duplication of, NATO.

Even though the idea of a common defence in the EU is on a standstill and moving on this point will be difficult in the coming years due to EU-internal turmoil. However, the Sweden-Russia mock battle represents an important challenge for all EU countries today; how to cope with lack of consensus and the need of greater transnational cooperation?

To fight security challenges you need transnational cooperation which minimize the costs and increase effectiveness through targeted and coordinated operations. To take the decision of when to operationalize your forces is a political one. Thus, in order to have a coordinated defence system you must also have a consensus about how to use your forces, i.e. it requires common security norms and principles. EU is the best forum to foster such socialization since EU is built upon greater values than NATO. EU is not only a military alliance but a political one which fits the context modern warfare better and enables for greater defence integration.

EU defence integration the only way out from Sweden’s neutrality dilemma.


4 thoughts on “Coping with Sweden’s neutrality dilemma after Russian mock attack

  1. Pingback: First post in Pleven Community. | weinann

  2. your description of the security environment is excellent and clearly rebuffs the idea that Sweden needs no defense because “who would attack Sweden?”. However – I would quibble a bit with your ideas about EU transnational defense. The EU is ill prepared not just because of the current internal issues but also because basic military capabilities are no longer present in EU militaries. Consider that the alleged best military power on the continent – France – cannot invade a thrid world country without all of its mid air refueling being done by the US, all of its reconaissance being done by the US and heavy airlift being done by UK, Denmark, Canada and yes – Sweden. Hardly makes one feel secure about EU capabilities. NATO also has a very considerable amount of expertise and experience that is beneficial. I would suggest a collaboration – NATO’s Centers of Excellence,its rather considerable expertise in training and standards setting should be preserved while the EU should get its act together. For an example of what a successful collaboration looks like – perhaps you could check out the Heavy Airlift Wing (stationed in Papa Hungary) as a prime example- this is a NATO operation that serves also the EU and the UN.

    • I agree of finding synergies between NATO and EU, duplicate any structure is a waste resources and expertise. I am not sure if I agree that EUs expectations-capabilities gap is still evident, or at least is has shifted. However; collaboration with NATO is a way out of it. Nonetheless, any further official EU-NATO cooperation and building common security structures besides on a strictly case-to-case basis will be difficult to justify for i.e. Sweden and other non-NATO members.
      However, the easiest way out would be to re-frame the discourse in Sweden and simply agree to NATO-membership. This would solve Sweden’s apparently ineffective defence system, if attacked by Russia. NATO comes to rescue when needed, why not make it official..

  3. Pingback: New report on European military capabilities | Bruce K. Anderson

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